SALEM — The Oregon Legislature faces an unprecedented workload, but is chipping away on six different fronts, according to its most experienced member.
As a legislator, “I’ve never moved on as many fronts in my life,” said Senate President Peter Courtney. “I’ve never seen a Legislature being asked to do so much at a time when the world’s falling apart and a time when there’s hatred and there’s divisions everywhere.”
The Salem Democrat is in his 33rd year in the Legislature and is the longest-serving Senate president in Oregon history.
The Legislature is less than a month into its 2017 session, which began Feb. 1. Courtney said it was mind-boggling that lawmakers already were tackling so many major issues.
Meanwhile, some Democrats and Republicans have suggested that the Legislature also take on immigration, foreign trade and other issues that have Congress stymied.
Courtney identified his six legislative priorities:
• State budget — Balancing the state budget is the Legislature’s overriding task. Last month, the co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget committee proposed a 2017-19 state budget that would require deep cutbacks in services and schools despite the state’s increased tax revenue.
The budget committee is finishing up a series of public hearings around the state. Courtney and co-chair Sen. Richard Devlin, D- Tualatin, said that unfortunately, much of the testimony has been orchestrated instead of coming from grass-roots Oregonians.
• Revenue — Legislators are considering a gross receipts tax for businesses so as to bring in more revenue, offset some program cutbacks, and reform Oregon’s tax structure.
• PERS — Can the Legislature legally do more to reduce the deficit in the Public Employees Retirement System while also being fair to future retirees?
• Cost containment — “We’re looking at all the different governmental programs. Can we do anything – not less but rather more efficiently, more cost-effective,” Courtney said. “You’re going to see some major changes.”
In return for supporting any tax increases, Republicans want reductions in PERS spending and other areas.
• Hospital tax — Courtney said a hospital tax of “many millions of dollars” is needed to preserve the Oregon Health Plan, which is how the state provides insurance through Medicaid.
• Transportation — Legislators are striving to put together a multi-billion-dollar transportation-finance plan that could help with roads, bridges, culverts, airports, train stations, mass transit and other transportation for the next 20 years.
The Legislature faces a constitutional deadline of finishing its work by early July.
“I’m just scared to death because that’s a lot going on for a little legislative body, when Congress is all over the place [and so is] the presidency. You got demonstrations flying around and you got people angry,” Courtney said.
“And here is this little, western, Oregon Legislature … trying to see if they can break through on all these areas, with no help basically from Washington, D.C. No help from anybody else! All on their own.
“That’s a lot of things that we’re trying to do. It’s a credit to the men and women, Democrats and Republicans, that are here that are willing.”