Battle lines drawn: Oregon's political fights loom over 2016 and beyond – OregonLive.com
SALEM — Conflict filled the air during this week’s Oregon Leadership Summit, usually a chance for Oregon’s business and political leaders to make nice ahead of bruising legislative sessions and political campaigns.
It’s easy to see why.
Talk of tax increases, renter protections, a higher minimum wage and measures to clamp down on labor unions have dominated Oregon politics since the 2015 legislative session ended in acrimony over a failed transportation deal.
With just weeks before lawmakers head back into session next year, those battle lines are as stark as ever.
The Oregonian/OregonLive has examined some the most pressing fights to see how they’ll shake out in 2016 and beyond. Their outcomes, win or lose, could change the face of the state.
Finding new revenue: Business leaders cheered Senate President Peter Courtney on Monday after he bombastically urged a peace deal on new state revenues and other measures. But they might have missed something in his message.
The Salem Democrat, like Gov. Kate Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, agrees that Oregon needs more money — so leaders can spend more on education and social services while absorbing budget hits from health care reform and a rising pension bill.
But he’s given Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, the green light to negotiate something less ambitious than $2.6 billion-a-year tax on large corporations that labor-affiliated group Our Oregon is steering toward the November 2016 ballot.
Hass agrees with Our Oregon that a tax on businesses’ gross receipts makes sense, noting that other states have done the same. But he thinks setting that tax at a fraction of what Our Oregon has proposed — maybe raising just $500 million a year — would keep the peace.
“Maybe there’s a compromise that will avoid this very divisive campaign,” Hass said Tuesday.
Brown, a Democrat, told The Oregonian/OregonLive said she’s had many conversations with Hass as she decides which approach to push. House Democrats might also be amenable to compromise, insiders say, but some lawmakers are concerned Hass’ effort won’t go far enough.
That tension comes amid pressure from corporate heavyweights such as Intel and Columbia Sportswear to pull back. Other critics have suggested creating a sales tax, hiking the vehicle license fee or trimming pension benefits.
Labor advocates, however, say those are nonstarters. They also note that their measure has polled well — leaving the ballot as an attractive fallback.
Not to be outdone, conservative groups are working up their own nuclear option: a “right to work” measure that would sharply limit unions’ ability to raise the kind of money needed to fight major ballot campaigns.
Raising the minimum wage: Brown has yet to say where Oregon’s — or Portland’s — minimum wage should land. But her office has been increasingly involved in talks that would head off most of the measures inching toward next year’s ballot.
“The governor’s office is definitely taking more of a leadership role,” said Joe Baessler, state political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “She’s trying to come up with an agreement all sides can live with.”
Some advocates, already gathering ballot signatures, want voters to back a $15-an-hour wage. Another coalition, led by labor groups, wants a $13.50 minimum, with cities winning permission to set local rates higher.
A compromise in Salem would see those less-ambitious measures go away. And, for now, insiders think a deal is within reach — assuming Democrats can agree on something close to $13.50 and a mechanism that reflects Portland’s higher cost of living. Kotek supports $13.50; Courtney says that’s too high.
Some insiders say a breakthrough could come as soon as January — just in time for the February session.
Transportation redux: Might lawmakers make another run at a transportation funding package in 2016? That depends.
Brown, in her keynote speech Monday, said the Legislature should wait until 2017, after voters decide on a ballot measure that might weaken or scrap the state’s low-carbon fuel standard. That conflict snared an attempt to pass a package in 2015. Brown joins Courtney and Kotek, who also support waiting.
But one of the House Republicans who helped shape this year’s near-miss, John Davis of Wilsonville, says he wants to move a transportation bill this February — including provisions that would modify or repeal the state’s clean fuels law.
That last part’s a deal-breaker for Brown, who says the issues must be split apart going forward. And yet both sides are still talking. Brown, in an interview, suggested that the bones of a deal for the 2017 session could be ready by next summer.
“I’m not slamming the door” on a deal before 2017, Brown said, “but I think it’s extremely challenging.”
Affordable housing: Kotek offered new details Monday about one of her top 2016 priorities: legislation to address Oregon’s affordable housing crisis. House Democrats had first announced the effort during a committee hearing in November.
Kotek wants to try again to lift a state ban that prevents local governments from requiring developers to designate a portion of units for lower-income families. A bill lifting that pre-emption passed the House this year before dying in the Senate.
The concept remains controversial among developers and their lobbyists, who worry it might discourage construction. Housing advocates say the measure would help offset displacement in the wake of rising rents and home prices.
Lobbyists for landlords and developers have signaled their willingness to talk — suggesting they might support limits on rent increases and lease terminations after apartment buildings are sold.
Democrats also want new funding for rent-relief programs and more money to subsidize the construction of affordable housing. Both of those might be a tall order in light of budget challenges in 2017 that have some lawmakers looking to save money instead of spend it.
The details might change, but Kotek said she’ll be unbowed.
“We cannot take a business-as-usual approach,” she said, “to this crisis.”
— Denis C. Theriault