Legislative update: No shortage of bad ideas

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Oregon lawmakers were sworn in to office two weeks ago. Since that time, we have had the opportunity to read through some of the more than 9,000 pages of proposed legislation that have thus far been submitted for consideration.

We were concerned that there would be no shortage of bad ideas proposed. Unfortunately, that anticipation is being fully realized.

Many of this year’s bills have appeared in previous legislative sessions where they either died in committee or were defeated in chamber floor votes. They have been reintroduced for one more attempt to be enacted into law by the new progressive liberal Democratic supermajorities.

Some of the worst ideas that have been proposed have taken the form of Senate and House Joint Resolutions. The passage of most of these resolutions would result in their subject matter being referred to voters in the next general election. Nearly all of them seek to amend Oregon’s Constitution in some way or another.

At this point, there are nine joint resolutions in the Senate and 19 in the House of Representatives. Several are “committee bills,” meaning that they are sponsored by committees rather than individual legislators. This process makes it much more difficult for voters to determine who is actually responsible for originating them.

A common theme of these joint resolutions is additional taxation on citizens to fund the further growth of state government. Several different approaches are being used to achieve this aim.

As I warned in a previous column, the personal income “kicker” is being targeted. HJR 8 would do away with it entirely by repealing all of its related provisions from the state Constitution. SJR 2 would transfer the “kicker” into the state’s K-12 school fund. HJR 18 would limit “kicker” rebates to taxpayers and transfer the corporate kicker into a newly established Oregon Fund.

The three-fifths supermajority requirement for tax increase votes to be approved by the Legislative Assembly is also under attack. HJR 1 would eliminate that requirement and replace it with a simple majority vote of both houses.

Similarly, HJR 9 would allow bills that repeal or suspend the operation of tax expenditure to pass with a simple majority vote. Tax expenditures are tax deductions and tax credits, such as the home mortgage deduction or the child care credits that serve to reduce taxes. This resolution would have the same effect as a tax increase, only by another name.

For decades, Oregonians have consistently opposed multiple proposals to implement a sales tax.  HJR 14 ignores that very clear mandate by establishing a five percent sales tax, with 75 percent of the proceeds earmarked towards education through the post-secondary level and the remainder to fund property tax relief for seniors and income tax relief for low-income citizens.

Speaking of property taxes, HJR 12 would reset the taxable value of real estate at the market value when properties are sold. This resolution would result in a massive increase in property taxes for the new owner of the homes, farms and commercial properties. The limitations on Oregon’s property taxes currently in place are the result of initiatives that created Constitutional Amendments passed by Oregon voters.

The initiative process is a form of direct democracy that enables citizens to create laws when the Legislature fails to do so. It provides citizens an important avenue for participation in the process, which is critical when one political party dominates a state’s system. Repeated efforts have been made over the years to weaken Oregon’s initiative system. They are often led by the same powerful special interest groups that routinely donate millions of dollars to fund Democrats’ political campaigns.

If HJR 3 were to become law, it would severely limit the ability of citizens to exercise their rights to petition for a redress of grievances. Under the bill, initiative petitions that cost the state money to implement, that is initiatives that have a fiscal impact, would be required to provide a new tax or fee to cover the immediate and future cost of that impact. If the new increased tax or fee does not cover the costs of the initiative-originated law, the Legislature would be authorized to reduce the appropriation of public moneys to implement the law. If an initiative includes a new or increased tax, the Legislature may adjust the rate of taxation.

Other joint resolutions create and divert money to a variety of cleverly named funds. They include the Stability Fund, Rainy Day Fund, State School Fund and the Oregon Rainy Day Fund. Some of these proposals even allow for the creation of various subaccounts within the funds, which could lead to a potential shell game being played with public dollars.

HJR 4 would “establish the state’s obligation to ensure every legal resident access to effective, medically appropriate and affordable health care.” One can only wonder what kind of new tax would be created to fund this universal entitlement. The $250 million that was wasted on the failed Cover Oregon website, as well as the extensive and expensive ad campaign directing people to that dysfunctional website, is hardly a confidence builder for government-provided health care.

In a previous column, I touched upon various proposals involving energy and the legislative attempts to tax fossil fuels and subsidize the so-called green energy programs of politically well-connected entities. Those include HJR 10, which would allow the Legislature to impose carbon taxes to fund reductions in carbon emissions and fossil fuel use, and HJR 11, which would remove the six percent of market value limitation on the tax rate imposed on oil or natural gas.

That’s not to say that all of the proposed joint resolutions are bad. There are a few that I would even be inclined to support.

HJR 13 establishes citizens’ rights to hunt, fish, trap and harvest wildlife and use traditional methods to do so. Similar proposals have come up in the past and failed to become law. Given the political dynamics of this upcoming session, I would be very surprised to see this bill actually referred to the people.

SJR 6 would shorten our regular legislative sessions by 10 days and add those to the short sessions held in even-numbered years. Those short sessions are presently not long enough to allow for any meaningful public participation.

SJR 8 would limit the types of measures that can be introduced in those short sessions.

Those annual sessions are the product of Measure 71, which was passed by voters in the November 2010 general election. Voters were told that the short sessions would be largely for the sake of making needed adjustments to the state’s two-year, or biennial, budget. However, the short sessions that we’ve since experienced have involved the introduction of a lot of very divisive policy bills. Too often, these bills have had political components, where the primary focus is forcing targeted incumbents take difficult votes during an election year that they will soon have to explain on the campaign trail.

As you can see, many of the joint resolutions that have been introduced contain a wide variety of ideas that will hurt Oregon’s working families and small businesses. Because the legislative process only requires a majority vote of each chamber to refer a resolution to the people, too many of these resolutions may appear on the ballot. But that’s largely dependent on the extent to which informed citizens are willing to take part in the process and tell their elected officials that some of these concepts will be harmful to the well-being of the state.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls