by Sen. Doug Whitsett
On the eve of the 2014 election, I had high expectations.
I had hoped that the widely predicted national Republican wave would wash over Oregon and result in the kinds of leadership changes so desperately needed in this state. But as the first round of results were revealed, my initial optimism quickly faded and was replaced by the grim realism of what will occur in the many months ahead. It will soon become apparent to Oregonians that elections really do matter, and have consequences.
Although Democrats held majorities in both the Oregon House and the Senate during the 2013 and 2014 sessions, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers was able to prevent the passage of much bad legislation. The 2015 session will be significantly different, as there will be an 18-12 Democratic supermajority in the Senate and a 35-25 majority in the House. While not a supermajority, that margin in the House means that only one Republican would have to side with Democrats in order to create the supermajority required to enact new taxes.
The governor’s proposed budget gives a very clear indication of what to expect throughout the upcoming legislative session. An additional estimated $1.8 billion will be available to spend on state government programs for the next two years. His proposed budgets virtually spends it all. I anticipate that there will be no shortage of special interests lining up to ensure that those dollars will be steered in their direction, instead of into a rainy day fund or returned to the taxpayers who provided them in the first place.
Aside from the direct expenditure of tax dollars, we can also expect to see many pleas made for the spending of funds borrowed through the use of the state’s bonding capacity. There are many capital construction projects that are of questionable value to taxpayers but that could potentially reap large windfalls for entities that are politically well-connected. They include a renovation of the state capitol, even though we still owe millions in debt service on the improvements made to the building in 2007, and the proposed Columbia River Crossing project. The latter was halted only due to a lack of support from our counterparts in the Washington Legislature. I would hesitate to declare that particular multi-billion dollar project as being completely off the table.
Some of the legislative concepts that are taking the form of bills give very clear indications of the majority party’s true intentions and agendas for the session. They include a reduction of the tax deductions that encourage charitable contributions and home ownership, a rollback of part of the small business tax cuts passed during the 2013 special session and the elimination of the supermajority requirement to enact new taxes.
Tax increases are also likely to take a new and different form. The governor and leaders of his party have stated their intention enact a carbon tax that will cost all those who use fossil fuels billions of dollars. My suspicion is that once that new tax is in place, it will result in yet another example of capital cronyism in the name of environmental protection.
A bill implementing low-carbon fuel standards was passed in a previous legislative session, and is scheduled to sunset next year. The timing is very unfortunate. Our bipartisan coalition that has prevented this law from becoming permanent lost two Senate seats in the November election and no longer has the votes to prevent its extension.
Americans are experiencing the lowest energy prices in years due to an unprecedented boom in domestic oil and gas production. It would be unwise to deliberately and unilaterally raise the cost of Oregonians’ fuel for heating their homes and driving to work for the sake of feel-good policies that amount to a hidden gas tax as well as significant increases in the cost of all forms of energy derived from fossil fuels.
We can also expect to see efforts made to abolish or repurpose the popular personal income tax kicker that has historically prevented the state government from spending more money than it takes in. There has been much discussion as well about eliminating the property tax limitations approved by voters that help keep elderly residents, who are on fixed incomes, in their own homes.
Environmental organizations and trial lawyers are likely to be rewarded for their financial support of winning candidates. The payback will take the form of regulations on water, air, toxics, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and more, regardless of the impact this will have on family farmers and ranchers. Trial lawyers will be given expanded avenues for liability and class action lawsuits that have been prevented for the past four years by a single vote in the Senate.
Proposals will also advance that are aimed at increasing the minimum wage, paid sick leave and paid family leave, despite the detrimental effects that they might have on small businesses throughout Oregon.
For my part, I hope to advance an agenda that will further strengthen the ties between the Oregon Institute of Technology, Klamath Community College and regional K-12 education. My focus will be on developing a bipartisan coalition of Southern Oregon Legislators that will support financing a regional pilot program designed to greatly increase the number and kinds of college courses that are made available to high school students.
I also will support House legislation designed crack down on the kinds of rampant fraud that we’ve seen locally with the state’s food stamp program, as well as supporting further attempts to eradicate the methamphetamine epidemic that continues to devastate our families and communities.
Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls