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Randy Stapilus: Majority Democrats harboring big ambitions

One decade ago, following the 2008 general election, something unusual happened with the Oregon Legislative Assembly — one party gained control of both chambers with supermajority numbers.

Democrats held 18 of the 30 seats in the Senate and 36 of the 60 seats in the House of Representatives.

Those figures are significant, because since 1996, the Oregon Legislature has been required by the state constitution to obtain three-fifths support in each chamber on “bills for passing revenue.” And previously, neither party had controlled enough seats to meet the requirement.

The 2009 session was an ambitious one for Democrats. Its results included the Healthy Kids Act (for children’s health care), major transportation projects (including the Newberg-Dundee bypass) and significant tax increases to pay for it all.

In the 2010 election, Democrats lost their supermajority control. In the House, they lost enough seats to result in an even split, consigning them to joint control with Republicans.

Guest Writer

Randy Stapilus is a former newspaper reporter and editor who has turned to writing and publishing books from a home base in Carlton. He has devoted his career to covering politics and government in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In addition to publishing books for himself and others through the Ridenbaugh Press, he maintains a blog at www.ridenbaugh.com featuring regional political commentary. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

Now, a decade afterward, Democrats have again attained supermajorities in both chambers, although just barely. They control 18 of the 30 Senate seats and 38 of the 60 House seats. But one Democratic senator has been known to split from the caucus on certain votes from time to time.

A question for legislators this session is: How cautious might they be, considering recent history? Early indicators suggest: Not very.

Gov. Kate Brown, fresh off a campaign in which her opponent argued schools have been underfunded, has proposed a $2 billion tax increase, intended mainly to boost public school funding.

One critical question surrounding that calls for quick consideration: Exactly where should expanded funding go?

Brown’s proposal is aimed primarily at public schools. But higher education advocates point to persistent underfunding of the state’s colleges and universities. Several organizations — including the Oregon Student Association, representing both college and university students — are pushing for as much as $2 billion more just for higher education.

School funding may be getting a brighter spotlight this session than usual, but it is a perennial issue. And other perennials will surely arise as well.

The high cost of the Public Employee Retirement System will be subjected to another examination, as in many past sessions.

The scaling down of costs urged by its critics won’t necessarily get a lot further than it usually does, which is to say not very, but some new ideas are being broached. Among them, coming from at least one Democrat, is developing a 401(k)-style retirement system for new public employees.

Greenhouse gas control, which was a hot topic the last couple of sessions, but did not get far, will be back. A planned “cap and invest” bill has been in development for weeks, and may spark one of the most contentious early-session debates.

Brown’s proposed budget could provide some added impetus this year on the subject, as she is proposing creation of a new Oregon Climate Authority to help govern a state carbon marketplace.

The coming months will also see a large collection of new, or at least newer, legislative proposals emerge.

Affordable housing, the subject of the only constitutional amendment approved by voters in last year’s general election, will be the focus of several bills. What form the proposals may take is not yet clear, but an evident voter concern about the issue is likely to result in a strong push.

One option mentioned by many legislators — and promoted by a group called the Community Alliance of Tenants — is a statewide system for setting limits on rents.

Other hot-button topics may generate bills facing a rougher ride.

Guns will be back for discussion, one proposal calling for tougher penalties for owners who fail to secure their weapons. A bill summary suggests the new law could impose fines of $500 for a simple offense and up to four times that much if a child gains improper access.

Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem is proposing Oregon toughen its driving under the influence blood-alcohol limit, dropping it from .08 to .05. Only Utah currently has a limit that low.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, who proposed a measure in 2017 that could foster interstate commerce in cannabis, may return with a similar idea this session. A business group called the Craft Cannabis Alliance is proposing something similar as well.

Trade would be allowed, of course, only to states that, like Oregon, have legalized marijuana.

How to pay for all the many ideas circulating? That’s where much of the heat — and the critical nature of Democratic supermajorities — comes into play.
Plenty of tax proposals have surfaced, ranging from increases in minimum business taxes to changes in the kicker rebate law and the way property assessments are calculated.

In most recent years, passing these tax plans has been, if not impossible, very difficult. It might be easier with supermajority Democratic control.
At least up to a point.

Some Democrats may hit the caution button along the line, recognizing that Oregonian tolerance for tax increases, especially very many at any one time, is distinctly limited. The latter weeks and months of this year’s session may hinge on that calculus — the desire to make improvements and advance services around the state against the cost of paying for them.

The formal session will begin Jan. 22 and run to mid-summer.

A short organizational session will run Jan. 14-17. It will feature formal swearing-in ceremonies, bill introductions and committee organizational work.

Comments

Rotwang

It's about more than enforced "gun safety." SB 501, as filed, is a terrible danger to any normal Oregonian who wants to be able to defend himself and his family. It will either criminalize or neuter most modern firearms. This authoritarian screed is too long to copy here, but is available on the state's website under "bills." And, that's only the worst one.

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