by Sen. Doug Whitsett
Oregon voters approved Measure 71 during the November 2010 general election. That Constitutional amendment established short legislative sessions in even-numbered years. Lawmakers will gather in Salem on the first of February to participate in the 35-day session that resulted from that 2010 vote of the people.
Legislative leaders sold Measure 71 to voters as a much-needed opportunity for legislators to make minor adjustments to state budgets, to pass laws that were already well vetted and limited in scope, and to address emergency situations.
I voted against Senate Joint Resolution 41, which referred the Constitutional amendment to the voters to decide, for three reasons. The first was that I was not convinced that the Legislative Assembly could demonstrate the discipline required to limit its scope of work during the short sessions. Moreover, I was concerned the short sessions would be designed to limit the opportunity for the public to participate in their lawmaking process. Finally, I feared that holding legislative sessions during election years would cause bills to be introduced in order to be used as fodder in political campaigns.
Those concerns and fears have now been fully demonstrated to be both legitimate and valid.
Bills introduced during the short legislative sessions have become progressively more complex since 2010. Major policies are being established with minimal opportunity for public participation. Moreover, the stated intentions of some majority party leaders, as well as the various interest groups that support them, made in advance of the currently pending session further confirm that the promises made to voters will continue to be broken.
Liberal activist groups have threatened to bring a series of ballot measures forward for the 2016 general election. Many of these groups represent the political arms of the public employee unions and environmental advocacy organizations that largely support Democrat legislators.
The Initiative Petitions cover a variety of topics, including renewable energy, taxes on businesses and a raise in the state’s minimum wage. Their advocates pledge that if the Legislature does not give in and compromise with their various demands, they will force the issues to be brought directly before voters through ballot initiatives. They promise that those ballot measures will be securely funded by entities with deep pockets.
As a result, Democrat leadership is actively engaged in efforts to achieve compromise on many of these issues. Some industries and associations, certain to be adversely affected by those ballot measures, are hoping to avoid expensive multi-million dollar campaigns and are instead seeking avenues to address them through legislative compromise.
Among the issues is a significant increase in the state’s minimum wage. Signatures are being gathered for ballot initiatives to increase Oregon’s minimum wage from its current level of $9.25 per hour up to $13.50 and $15.
Oregon’s minimum wage is currently among the five highest in the United States. Measure 25, adopted by the people in the November 2002 general election, automatically indexed Oregon minimum wage to keep up with inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index.
Governor Brown recently issued a statement of support for resolution of the minimum wage conflict. Proposals that may be introduced to pre-empt that ballot measure fight are already in the works. One would create three separate minimum wages, broken down by geographic regions of the state.
Another proposed ballot measure would raise taxes by several billion dollars for many companies doing business in Oregon. Our Oregon is advancing the measure under the guise of providing more funding for critical services such as education, public safety and human services.
However, the proponents of the measure are aware there is no legal way to bind how future Legislatures choose to spend the money. They are also aware that Oregon already faces multi-billion dollar shortfalls in its ability to pay for previously negotiated public employee labor contracts and Public Employee Retirement System unfunded liabilities. Their promises that moneys raised by passage of the ballot measure will be spent on expanded state services may be disingenuous and destined to be broken.
A proposed series of ballot measures is sponsored by environmental groups. They have demonstrated enough support to force the state’s two largest investor owned utilities to agree to a compromise in order to keep those concepts from being put before voters. Not surprisingly, their behind-closed-doors compromise generally appears to benefit their investors at the expense of their ratepayers and the consumer-owned utilities. That piece of legislation is expected to be considered during next month’s session.
Other major policy bills have been or are likely to be introduced.
A carbon cap and trade bill nearly identical to California legislation has already been introduced in committee. The bill is essentially a sales tax on all forms of fossil fuel. It has the potential to significantly drive up the costs of energy and goods for every man, woman and child in Oregon.
Yet another likely bill will attempt to double the state’s transient housing tax. The additional revenue would be allocated to subsidizing a bid to hold the 2019 world track championships in Eugene. This effort appears to have gained momentum after former Governor John Kitzhaber received campaign contributions from entities that served to benefit from that tax revenue allocation.
Instead of focusing on these priorities, the Legislative Assembly could and should investigate and analyze several major issues of concern during the short session and the ensuing interim between sessions. One subject is the already initiated in-depth discussions of the abuse of the Business Energy Tax Credit program, as well as the lack of accountability within the Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Revenue (ODR) that allowed the abuse to occur. I am assigned to the committee that will investigate DOE and determine what should be done with the agency. Representative Gail Whitsett (R-Klamath Falls) is assigned to the House Revenue Committee that oversees the ODR.
The future budgetary impacts of new union contracts for state employees would also be a worthwhile subject for discussion during the February session. So too would discussions of the ongoing lawsuits between the state and software giant Oracle over the disastrous multi-million dollar boondoggle known as Cover Oregon. That discussion should include the potential of the state having to pay back some of the federal dollars that funded the ill-fated project.
Oregon’s Department of Human Services (DHS) could definitely benefit from additional legislative scrutiny following disturbing and ongoing revelations about its foster care program. This issue was discussed last Thursday in a hearing of the Senate Interim Committee on Human Services and Early Childhood.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is facing a funding crisis. I have been assigned to a task force charged with examining the agency’s budget problems and finding solutions. The task force held its first meeting last week and will continue to meet throughout the interim, after the short session adjourns in early March.
Multiple other state agencies are facing budgetary shortfalls that these annual short sessions were intended to address. Those agencies include but are not limited to DHS, the Oregon Health Authority, the Public Employee Retirement System and the Department of Energy’s Small-Scale Energy Loan Program.
No shortage exists among important issues for the Legislature to deal with during the coming months. A few are scheduled to be addressed during the February session. However, they will not be the focus of the February session.
Many major policy bills will be presented with little time for consideration and debate. Hearing schedules will be so short that most public participation will be prevented. Too many bills will be based more on re-election campaigns than on what is good for Oregon and its people.
The Legislative website, www.oregonlegislature.gov, contains a wealth of information about the bills that will be moving through the process for the February session. I urge you to be involved in the process throughout the next several weeks. Our future depends on the active participation of concerned citizens, in order to obtain the kind of results that will move this state forward in a positive direction.
Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls
NOTE: To read Sen. Whitsett’s previous discussion on the how the 2nd Amendment and due process rights are under attack in the upcoming ‘short session’, please click here.