With about two months remaining in the legislative session, we've reached the point at which the focus is narrowing onto the biggest and most contentious issues in the Capitol — and at least some Democrats are starting to sense that, despite their super-majorities in both chambers, they may not be able to win approval for all the items on their agenda.
In that light, it was interesting to note this comment from Speaker of the House Tina Kotek in a recent story in The Oregonian: "We only have so many super-majority votes in our pocket."
So, the question at this point becomes this: Where will legislative leaders choose to use those votes? Which agenda items will rise to the top? Which ones will be set aside? And how long can Democrats maintain those super-majorities, the three-fifths edge in each chamber that will allow them to pass revenue bills without the benefit of a single Republican vote?
And there's this as well: How will voters react if any of these bills are referred to them through the initiative process, which is likely? It's possible that ballot measures could undo much of the Legislature's work.
So it will be interesting to see what sort of alliances take shape over the final weeks of the session.
The top priority at this point, for both Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders, appears to be pushing through a proposed gross-receipts tax on Oregon businesses. The proposal, which would apply to businesses with at least $1 million a year in Oregon sales, would generate an estimated $1 billion a year for schools. But it's not yet clear where precisely the money would be spent, and that issue could drive a wedge between the governor and legislative leaders. The subcommittee where the taxation plan has been hammered out is an offshoot of the Joint Committee on School Success, which has been focused on K-12 education. Both Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney last week sent signals that they believe the money should almost exclusively be spent on K-12 education. With teachers around the state scheduled to descend on Salem on May 8 in an echo of similar protests by educators nationwide, you can be sure that legislators are starting to feel the pressure.
In fact, Kotek told reporters last week that if community colleges and universities want dedicated funding, "maybe that's next year's discussion."
The problem with that, of course, is that Oregon's community colleges and universities have been hearing "maybe next year" for decades now. Last year, when Brown was making her initial pitch for the tax on businesses, she broadly suggested that at least some of the money might go to Oregon higher education; her thinking then was that she'd need support from higher education officials and advocates to push through the business tax. Last week, she seemed to renew that pitch, saying that such support would be essential, especially if the tax were referred to voters. How the Democratic leaders resolve this conflict could well determine the fate of the business tax.
Adding to the complexity of all of this is the question of what to what extent reforms to Oregon's underfunded public pension system will have to go along with the business tax proposal. Part of this is practical: Without reform, increasing pension premiums likely will eat away a huge chunk of any additional revenue. And part of it may be political: The proposed tax might not muster the required three-fifths majorities if it doesn't go hand in hand with pension reforms.
And still lurking are big issues that the Legislature must resolve, such as how to balance a budget in which costs have again significantly outstripped spending — not to mention a carbon cap-and-trade proposal that reportedly is receiving a behind-the-scenes overhaul and a contentious gun control bill. Don't be surprised to see some of these initiatives fall by the wayside in the final few weeks of the session.