Last week's announcement that Democratic leaders were throwing in the towel on tax reform during this session didn't really come as much of a surprise, considering the various legislative forces that had aligned against the idea.
But it still came as a disappointment — and, if Oregon citizens are growing weary of legislative promises that this important topic or that important topic will be top of the agenda during the next session, you can understand that weariness: It's not the first time these particular cans have been kicked down that particular road.
This session, yet another can got kicked down the road: Reforms to the state's public pension fund, with its $22 billion unfunded liability, also appear to be joining that tax discussion: Democrats said all session long that pension reforms would be tied to tax reform; with tax reform off the table, so is the PERS discussion.
It still remains to be seen whether the last big-ticket item on this year's legislative docket, the bill that identifies major transportation projects around the state and ways to pay for them, will also be kicked over to 2019; our hope is that legislators still see a path forward in this session for the transportation bill.
Of course, all of this always comes with an asterisk: The Legislature is scheduled to remain in session until July 10, its mandated adjournment date. It is not completely out of the question, during the final weeks of the Legislature, to see proposals given up for dead lurch into unexpected life, like in a George Romero horror movie.
But a statement last week from three key Democrats — Gov. Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek — certainly suggested they weren't anticipating reanimation.
The statement read, in part, that the three had worked "for months with legislators in both parties, business leaders, and labor leaders, to identify ways to reduce state spending, contain costs going forward, and finally reform our revenue system. While we are moving forward on several major cost containment measures, it has become clear that the Legislature will not have the necessary support to achieve structural revenue reforms this session."
That is partially because Democrats are one vote short in both the Senate and the House of the supermajorities required to pass tax increases. Senate Republicans, in particular, have maintained a united front against any tax increase — and their position only seemed to harden as the session went along.
Other pockets of opposition have risen this session: Sen. Mark Hass, the Beaverton Democrat who's been carrying the flag of tax reform for at least the last couple of sessions, last week pitched an idea to simply increase corporate income taxes. The plan enjoyed some support from businesses. But the idea didn't go anywhere, in part because House Democrats objected to the fact that it didn't include a tax on corporate gross receipts.
No wonder that a frustrated Hass warned in a speech last week that failure to address these issues would trigger the sort of pension crisis that's facing Illinois: "It will eventually wreck our schools and swallow our state," he said.
It now seems that the Legislature will be able to patch together a budget that will allow the state to limp along for the next two years, with a combination of cost cuts and measures such as a tax on health care providers that will raise $550 million.
It also seems likely that the Legislature's failure to act will trigger yet another wave of citizen initiatives. Legislators complain about how those initiatives complicate their work in Salem. But it's hard to fault citizens for wanting to see if they can do something about the can before legislators get the chance to give it yet another kick. (mm)