If the Oregon Legislature intends to pass tax and spending reforms in 2019, the work should have begun months ago.
That was the message from veteran legislators at the recent Oregon Leadership Summit. It echoed what Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders said in June: In the 2019 Legislature, focus on structural budget and tax reforms.
Yet Brown told the Leadership Summit this month that she wanted to achieve such reforms a year earlier — in the 2018 Legislature. She said her staff was working on “options to solve the structural deficit issues Oregon faces, not just for the short term but for the long term.”
With that 35-day legislative session starting in February, Brown has yet to show her hand.
Which reinforces why four veteran legislators — Democrats and Republicans — were skeptical about the state soon being able to make progress on tax and spending reforms.
The four lawmakers steered the massive transportation-finance plan through this year’s Legislature. The Democrats — Springfield Sen. Lee Beyer and Coos Bay Rep. Caddy McKeown — chaired the special transportation committee. The Republicans — Dallas Sen. Brian Boquist and Ontario Rep. Cliff Bentz — served as vice chairs.
Their collaborative success might provide a guide for handling revenue and budget reform, which is why the summit’s organizers asked them to speak. Yet the lawmakers warned that financial reform would be far more complicated, difficult and potentially divisive than the state’s transportation package, far-reaching as it was.
Three approaches were key to the transportation plan:
First, the four legislators operated as a bipartisan leadership team, instead of the Democrats controlling the outcome. The four trusted and respected each other, even when they disagreed, sometimes vehemently.
That team approach recognized political practicality — the majority Democrats would need minority Republicans’ votes for passage. Widespread bipartisan support also would deter critics from trying to overturn the transportation plan through a voter referendum.
That approach also reflected the leadership quartet’s commitment to a transportation plan that would overcome ideological and geographical differences. Maybe it’s noteworthy that three of the four came from rural regions; none represented the Portland metro area; none was considered an ideologue.
Second, the negotiations involved months of work — or years, if you count past iterations of transportation plans.
Third, everyone had a say. Scores of individuals and interest groups from throughout Oregon participated in workgroups. They could not reasonably claim they had not been heard.
In contrast, the 2018 Legislature is only weeks away and Oregonians know little about the governor’s and legislative leaders’ plans for genuine tax and spending reforms. We are not filled with hope.