Local lawmakers at center of changing Senate
Big changes are coming to the Oregon Senate, and Washington County lawmakers will be in the midst of it for 2018.
Sen. Ginny Burdick, whose district includes Tigard, leads the Senate Democrats.
Sen. Richard Devlin of Tualatin is stepping down after two decades in the Legislature.
Sen. Mark Hass, whose district includes Beaverton, Aloha and parts of unincorporated Washington County, chairs the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee — the body charged with figuring out how much money the state takes in.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, whose district includes the northeast corner of Washington County, wants to take a leadership role on the budget-writing Ways & Means Committee.
Burdick, Hass and Johnson all said their plates are full as they gear up for the so-called "short session" of 2018, which begins in February.
The Oregon Legislature meets every year, with longer sessions in odd-numbered years, and an almost open-ended list of priorities and topics to discuss. In even-numbered years, the sessions are shorter and the primary topic is supposed to be adjusting the two-year budget.
In recent years, however, other policy topics have bled into the short-sessions as well.
One of the biggest issues for the Senate in 2018 comes from the turnover in leadership.
In October, Gov. Kate Brown appointed Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, to represent Oregon on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. The council is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration and helps develop strategies to balance power production and wildlife conservation in the Columbia River basin.
Devlin and Ferrioli have both served in the Oregon Legislature since 1997. Devlin is the top budget-writer in the Senate, and Ferrioli serves as Senate Republican leader.
The Senate confirmed their appointments Wednesday, Nov. 15.
Ferrioli leads the GOP and Burdick leads the Democrats in the Senate, and one could expect them to be foes. But the Oregon Legislature operates with much more bipartisanship than does the U.S. Congress.
"I will deeply miss Sen. Ferrioli," Burdick said. "Both of us made a real effort to run a smooth session in 2017."
Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, has been tapped to replace Ferrioli as leader of the Senate Republicans.
As for Devlin, he has been the Senate's co-chair of Ways & Means, the budget-writing body made up of Republicans and Democrats, and members of the House and Senate. As such, he has been seen as the Senate's top budget guru for several sessions.
"Richard is one of a kind," Burdick said. "He knows every line, every number, of the budget. He's amazing."
Senate President Peter Courtney is expected to name the new co-chair soon. Rep. Nancy Nathanson of Eugene is the House co-chair.
Burdick declined to speculate on who would take on the budget mantle in the Senate, except to say it wouldn't be her.
"Everyone's wondering," she said.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, has thrown her hat into the ring. She is one of the vice-chairwomen of the budget-crafting committee, along with Sen. Winters. Johnson is from Scappoose, but her district includes a slice of Washington County north of Beaverton.
Johnson served three terms in the House and is in her third term in the Senate, and she's had a coveted seat on the Ways & Means Committee ever since her rookie year.
"I have a working knowledge of the budgets," she said last week. "We may be facing some very, very difficult budget decisions in '18. I think I can contribute."
Salem insiders say Johnson would be a long-shot for the role. Despite her party affiliation, she often bucks Democratic leadership on an array of issues and sides with legislative Republicans.
Johnson said whoever gets the nod will have big shoes to fill.
"I see how hard Devlin works," she said. "Devlin is the best (co-chair) I've seen."
Hass ended any speculation about seeking the helm of the budget committee.
"No," he told The Times. "I'm on a different track."
Hass praised those who serve on Ways & Means, which every two years wrangles a general fund of around $20 billion and a full budget — counting all federal money — of close to $60 billion. He said it's a daunting lift.
"That kind of work appeals to a certain person," Hass said. "And that kind of person isn't me."
Besides, Hass said, he has another priority.
Ways & Means figures out how to spend the money. As chair of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, Hass is hoping to increase the amount of money available to spend.
In the waning weeks of the 2017 session, Hass and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek came up with a tax reform plan to address the state's $1.4 billion revenue shortfall, which would have raised an estimated $900 million in the next two years.
The plan foundered.
Hass said he still wants to focus on additional revenue. But he might take a page from the Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization, which began meeting in May 2015 and took its proposals on a tour of Oregon, holding town halls throughout the state to hear from urban, suburban and rural Oregonians; and liberal and conservative alike. That process took most of year.
By June 2017, the committee had cobbled together $5.3 billion worth of transportation investments over the next 10 years: the state's biggest transportation plan in decades, and the biggest anyone expects to see in the foreseeable future. It passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by the governor.
Hass said that approach — taking a year, doing "road shows" around the state — could be a model for revenue reform as well. He hasn't committed to using that blueprint yet, but said he's intrigued by the approach.
"It feels like a slog," he said, "but I'm optimistic."
Burdick, Hass and Johnson agree that another X-factor going into next year's session — which begins in February — is Ballot Measure 101.
Near the end of the 2017 session, lawmakers extended an existing tax on hospitals, which is used to fund health care for low-income Oregonians and which generates matching federal dollars. This year, facing that $1.4 billion shortfall, lawmakers expanded the existing tax on some health insurance plans and managed care organizations, and also expanded the hospital tax. The change passed with bipartisan support.
But a trio of Republican lawmakers who opposed the change referred the Medicaid funding plan to voters. One of them was state Rep. Julie Parrish of West Linn, whose district includes Tualatin. They got enough signatures, and the measure will go to voters in January.
A "yes" vote will maintain the revenue that has been "baked into" the 2018-20 budget. A "no" vote will blow a hole in the budget. Either that, or up to 350,000 Oregonians could lose health care coverage.
If the measure fails, filling that budget gap "will become the issue that dominates the whole session," Hass predicted.
Johnson said she hopes the short session focuses on budget issues and little else. Although the even-year sessions initially were designed to be budget-centric, big, sticky and sometimes intractable policy issues have crept into several of the recent sessions.
"I hope we have a disciplined, minimalist, constrained session," Johnson said.
The short session was designed to address changes in the economy, budgeting errors and analyses of bureau performance, she argued.
"They were not intended as a do-over for things that happen in the longer session," Johnson said. "To my mind, if you can't do it in five months, you shouldn't try to do it in five weeks."
Another major X-factor for 2018: Two competing Republican tax plans now working their way through the U.S. House and Senate. If either of them gets signed into law by President Donald Trump — and he has called that one of his highest priorities for his first year in office — it could throw a monkey wrench into Oregon's tax structure.
That's because both state and federal taxes often hinge off each other (for instance, federal tax deductions for specific state taxes).
"We're connected to the federal code in just so many ways," Burdick said. "If they pass a (tax package), we'll want to make adjustments to the state tax code next year. If we don't, people will have to wait a full year before they discover how it all affects them."
Finally, the Democratic leader declined to comment on the other issue that has unsettled the Senate this month: Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, faces allegations of unwanted sexual advances on colleagues. As a result, Senate President Peter Courtney has stripped Kruse of his committee assignments.
"I don't want to get into any of that," Burdick said late last week.
In the wake of the allegations, the Capitol Club — the association of lobbyists in Salem — convened an open discussion on workplace environment on Tuesday. Kotek also sent a note to the Capitol Club explaining that lawmakers and their capitol staff are required to participate in mandatory training every year; that training includes harassment in the workplace.