Rumors abound in Salem’s Capitol these days. Summer is two weeks away and the deadline for completing this legislative session is only five weeks away. Is there a deal imminent? Negotiations for a final budget yet?
It depends on who you ask. A few weeks ago, when Gov. Kitzhaber signed into law the PERS reform bill SB 822, he said it “was a good start.” After he got the $271 million in good news from the May revenue forecast, he said: “We can do better.” Read between the lines. Sure enough, the governor upped the ante by laying out a new compromise framework on further PERS reforms coupled with additional revenue. House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney brought their Democratic caucuses back to the bargaining table.
But Senate and House Republicans refused to budge, no interest in coming to the table. Instead they held a medical provider fee bill hostage in the Senate for no apparent reason — $2 billion in budget cuts to Oregon health care, senior care, mental health services. Economic models show 14,000 hospital or secondary jobs in Oregon are reliant on this federal money alone. Several Republicans are already on record saying they support the provider bill, but only with further PERS reforms and with no commitment to end tax breaks for the wealthiest Oregonians. Doesn’t look much like a negotiation to me.
Last week, the governor announced it was time to move on: “I regret that Republican leadership has not indicated a willingness to develop a balanced compromise proposal involving both PERS and new revenue.” As late as last Thursday (May 29), I checked in with House Revenue Chair Phil Barnhart; he confirmed: no further PERS reform; the Republicans aren’t moving on additional revenue. House Majority Leader Val Hoyle is quoted in the papers: “It’s stunning to me, from a strategic perspective,” and “PERS is the main thing they want to do, and they’re willing to walk out of here without that vote.” Meanwhile, groups like the Oregon School Boards Association and Stand for Children — who used to be allies of the Democrats before they started bashing teachers — were freaking out as time ran out, telling legislators that there’s still something in the works. Maybe there is.
Dr. John Kitzhaber was first elected governor in 1994, the same year I first got elected to the Oregon House. Before that, Papa Doc served in the Oregon House and then 12 years in the Oregon Senate; eight of those he was Senate president. (I named him “Papa Doc” because his son Logan was born his first term.) I watched him maneuver four sessions in his eight years as governor in his first two terms — while Democrats were in the minority each session! Remember, the Oregon Health Plan and the Oregon Salmon Plan were passed with Republican majorities in both chambers for his entire eight years. The dude knows how the Legislature works and he loves a challenge. More vetoes than any governor in Oregon history. But he still got stuff done.
Suddenly, last Thursday, out of nowhere, the Republicans came up with a counter-proposal. While it’s a partisan piece of crap on its face, asking for $1 billion in additional PERS savings already rejected by Democrats, it offers $130 million in new revenue. Papa Doc is a fisherman, and this counter-proposal — weak as it is — is a nibble. Stay tuned.
Earlier in the session, Hoyle introduced me to her counterpart in the House Republican caucus, Minority Leader Mike McLane. Good guy. Mike grew up in Condon, got his law degree from Lewis and Clark and clerked for Justice Mick Gillette, one of my favorites, at the Oregon Supreme Court. He lives in Powell Butte and works for Miller Nash, a prestigious Portland law firm. He has a good sense of humor and doesn’t take himself too seriously, unlike, say, Rep. Dennis Richardson. Although Mike’s a rookie, he’s a quick read. And he has the benefit of Salem Rep. Vicki Berger, a smart and reasonable veteran, as his Republican caucus whip. (No, your eyes did not deceive you; I just said nice things about two Republicans in one paragraph.) They at least give me hope that Papa Doc will get a good outcome from this session. The Senate Republican caucus is much harder to read. But I’ll bet you Papa Doc can poach two votes and seal the deal. We can do better.