Gov. Kate Brown faces a legacy-defining choice as the 2017 Legislature enters its final weeks: Will she put the good of Oregon ahead of her quest for re-election next year?
The answer matters deeply for Oregonians. For this year’s legislative session to succeed, Brown must stand up to public-employee unions and their allies.
The unions and some Democrats on the left seem so insistent on getting their own way that they would rather sink the ship of state than accommodate reasonable, meaningful compromise. The difficulty for Brown is that she counts on their money and grass-roots activism for her 2018 election campaign, to which she already is devoting considerable time.
At stake in 2017 are statewide transportation improvements, taxes, and cost savings in the Public Employees Retirement System and other areas.
As Scappoose Sen. Betsy Johnson, a moderate Democrat, and other veteran legislators have noted, this year’s big issues appear far more intertwined than in the past.
That makes it easier for any interest group or partisan bloc to thwart progress everywhere if they don’t get their way in one area.
The latest example is the Service Employees International Union’s threat to overturn the Legislature’s transportation-infrastructure package, which has been a priority for Democrats and Republicans alike, unless legislators pass a suitable tax package to help schools and human services.
This is last fall’s ballot fight being replayed. In the aftermath of its decisive but divisive defeat of Ballot Measure 97, the business community has been unable to coalesce and work with unions on an alternative. As a result, SEIU, the Oregon Education Association and their allies are continuing their push to dramatically increase business taxes.
The SEIU contends that Oregon should increase revenue for schools and human services before raising taxes and fees for transportation projects. That is a rational viewpoint. But it would be irrational to fight the transportation package at the ballot box — as the SEIU said it might do — if its preferred revenue plan fails in the Legislature.
The Democratic majority in the Legislature needs Republican votes to pass any tax package. Republicans want meaningful cost savings, including PERS reforms beyond the meager proposal unveiled last week.
Republicans, especially in the Senate, are steadfast against the unions’ preferred gross receipts tax — a commercial activity tax — to replace Oregon’s existing corporate income tax. That plan would create such winners and losers that some companies could see their tax bills triple.
Centrist legislators are floating an alternative that deserves consideration: Temporarily raise corporate and personal income taxes to deal with the state’s budget hole.
That is not a long-term solution to Oregon’s unstable, unpredictable tax system. But neither is it a wrong-way trip into the unintended tax consequences of a new business tax that, even if it is doable, needs far more work.
Brown endorsed the transportation package this week. That is a welcome step but by itself an inadequate one. Oregonians need her to campaign not for re-election but for a worthwhile transportation package, meaningful PERS reforms and pragmatic tax decisions.
Success will require passion, persuasiveness and willingness to defy her past allies.