Do What You Can Do 4/18/19

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Senator Jeff Golden

*  “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
—Helen Keller

Welcome to the ninth edition of Do What You Can Do.

Have you checked out Capitolizing? It's the weekly podcast where Senator Shemia Fagan and I answer two questions every week: just what do we do here in the Capitol, and why the hell should you care? Find Capitolizing on iTunes and other podcast networks.

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What's Up

National Popular Vote Compact:

It was a long time coming. The State Senate finally had its chance to add Oregon to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (the House has approved it in a few past sessions, but this is its first appearance on the Senate floor). This is the agreement among states to award their electoral votes (a power that the U.S. Constitution assigns to state legislatures) to whatever presidential candidate receives the most popular votes nationwide, no matter what the vote is in their particular state.

We passed SB 870 by a 17-12 margin. The three Democrats who voted against it (including Senator Peter Courtney) wanted to refer the measure to voters to decide. I appreciate the fact that Senator Courtney was willing to bring it to a vote, even though he personally opposed the measure and knew the bill would likely pass anyway.

It’s near certain that the House will pass NPV bill again and that the Governor will sign it. The Compact takes effect only when states representing a total of 270 electoral votes (the number needed to win the presidency) formally join. We’re now positioned to to become the 16th state to step up, bringing the electoral vote total to 196. So the electoral college will still be in place for the 2020 presidential election. 2024? We’ll see.

Endorsing the Green New Deal:

The best back-and-forth I’ve has this session came during last week’s testimony on SJM 7, a resolution urging Congress to pass the Green New Deal. After my co-sponsor Sen. Fagan and I laid out our case to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, a couple of Republican Senators came straight at us for endorsing this brand of “socialism.” What followed was fun:

Full Committee Discussion on SJM 7

SJM 7 didn’t get through the committee and is done for the session. But I’m guessing this conversation isn’t over.

Ruch Outdoor Community School Students

A great visit with students from the Ruch Outdoor Community School

A Tax Package for Schools:

Last year a team of legislators from both chambers and both parties toured some 77 schools and talked to thousands of students, teachers, administrators and parents. They came back with clear plans to lift Oregon’s public school system to excellence with targeted investments in pre-kindergarten programs, special education, counseling and mental health, career preparation and community partnerships. Their blueprint calls for $1 Billion/year in new tax revenue.

The new proposal to raise that revenue is a corporate activities tax about ½ of 1% on receipts of all businesses earning more than $1 million/year. Groceries, fuel, medicine and medical supplies would be excluded, and personal income taxes would be modestly reduced. 

Like all new tax packages, this plan will get revised along the way.  There’s some interest in fine-tuning rates to raise an additional $144 million for community colleges and universities, so that “student success” can stretch from pre-kindergarten through grade 16 and into the workforce. I like the idea; without additional support, too many young Oregonians will get priced out of higher education with double-digit tuition increases. Legislative leadership knows the need, but they’re wary of overreaching with a tax proposal that Oregon corporations might oppose and defeat at the ballot box. That, they’ll tell you, has happened before, and they’re wary of putting the whole package in danger.   

This struggle is in the early innings.

school kids


“But won’t all that new revenue go straight to the PERS payments to retirees?” That’s the first question we hear when the debate begins on new school taxes. The short answer is ‘no,’ but there’s no denying that servicing the Public Employees Retirement System’s $26 Billion debt is a huge ongoing budget burden on Oregon’s school districts and governments at all levels. And there’s no doubt that the need to pay off that debt with public dollars makes it harder to build massive support for tax increases.

The hardest fact about this big debt is that most of it—$20 billion, give or take—can’t be legislated away. That amount is committed to retirees who benefit from the original PERS deal, which just about everyone now acknowledges as a mistake; when the stock market went down, the guaranteed return on investment left taxpayers on the hook in a very big way. But the State Supreme Court has ruled that those original generous terms are a clear and binding contractual promise that can’t be broken—not by the legislature, not by the governor, not by the people at the ballot box.  One way or another, we have to find a way to fund that liability.

Last week the Governor floated a proposal to start doing that. “There’s something for everyone to both love and hate in this plan,” she said, and she’s right. This plan aims to spread the heartburn around fairly with this package:

  • Take most of the personal income tax “kicker”—the refund Oregonians normally get when state revenues exceed early estimates by more than 2%. This coming year Oregonians would get $100 instead of the estimated average of $367 per taxpayer. Keeping part of the kicker would take a 2/3 vote of the legislature, at least 20 out of 30 senators and 40 out of 60 representatives. That won’t be easy; I’ve already received more than a few “Keep your greedy hands off my kicker!” emails.
  • Take about 25% of the roughly $2 billion surplus in the State Accident Insurance Fund (SAIF), which pays workers compensation claims. The businesses that pay into SAIF for workers comp coverage naturally see this as a new tax on them.
  • Require that current public employees start paying a share of the contribution to their retirement. To protect workers earning modest wages (and there are a lot of them), the first $20,000 of income would still get the full employer contribution. After that, longer-term employees (with a more generous PERS plan) would contribute 3% of their income to the retirement fund while those hired more recently would pay 1.5%. “This proposal,” said a teacher’s union representative, “takes Oregon backwards and will harm students and schools by making it more difficult to recruit and retain qualified educators and increasing teacher shortages.”

In other words: while pretty much everyone wants bold action to bring down the PERS debt, every proposed step to do that draws fury. The Governor’s proposal would reduce the debt some $3.3 billion over the next 16 years.  That could change the trajectory so that the amount still owed could start going down instead of up every year. Without being ready to sign on completely before more conversation, I give the Governor points for political backbone on this issue.

Juvenile Justice:

A huge bill, SB 1008, passed the Senate this Tuesday. It’s the package of juvenile justice reforms I described last week. Tying the different parts together is the premise that youngsters convicted of serious, often violent felonies should get a “second look” after years of incarceration to see if they’ve changed enough to return to society rather than move on to become lifers in adult prisons.  “These are our children,” said Sen. Jackie Winters, (R-Salem), in moving testimony. “They may be hard to love, they may have done horrible things, but they’re still our children.” Sen. Winters has led the charge on this reform for years, and seeing it finally move towards enactment not only marked the culmination of years of dedicated public service on her part but also prompted more than a few tears across the chamber.

Senator Jackie Winters

Senator Jackie Winters. Photo courtesy of Bradley Parks/OPB

Parts of this bill run counter to the tough-on-crime Measure 11, which Oregonians passed in 1994 to establish mandatory minimum sentences for a list of serious crimes, and allowed more youngsters to be tried as adults. The legislature can override a popular vote only with a 2/3 margin, at least 20 out of 30 Senators and 40 out of 60 Representatives. Tuesday's vote tally in the Senate: 20-10. It will be one of the most memorable of the 2019 session.

Senator Peter Courtney - SB 1008

Senate President Peter Courtney gets personal in his floor speech on SB 1008

What Do You Think?

We recently asked for your take on increasing the cigarette tax to $2/pack as a funding source for healthcare. Two of you opposed the idea and 20 said "yes," with a few saying it should go higher. 

As it turns out, it would. We didn't describe the proposal accurately; what the proposal would actually do is raise the tax $2 over the current $1.33/pack, for a total of $3.33/pack, almost exactly what California and Washington State charge. Anyone want to change their vote?

This week's topic is trains. In a committee hearing on the Department of Transportation (ODOT), I learned that every trip on the passenger train that runs from Eugene to Portland (and then on to Seattle) is subsidized with about $100 in public funds. ODOT has tried for years to reduce the subsidy by increasing ridership, but there's no real progress, partly because passenger trains are so often delayed by freight trains. 

Who doesn't love trains? Even living in a region without passenger service, most of us want more urban commuters to have an alternative to one-person car travel, especially as we work hard to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. But 100 taxpayer dollars for every ticket? Some legislators are ready to give up on Oregon's passenger trains. 

What do you think? Write

Oregon Freight Train

Photo courtesy of ODOT

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Our best to you for now. Please remember to do what you can do.


Senator Jeff Golden
Chair, Campaign Finance Committee 
Senate District 3 (Rogue Valley)

Capitol Phone: 503-986-1703
Capitol Address: 900 Court St NE, S-421, Salem, OR, 97301
Twitter: @SenatorGolden
Podcast: Capitolizing