Oregon’s state legislature begins a new session next week. Job number one is crafting the next two-year budget. In the last election, Democrats strengthened their majorities in both houses and leaders say they want to boost education and other priorities that suffered cuts in recent years.
At a recent lunchtime City Club event in Eugene, Democratic Speaker of the House Tina Kotek said lawmakers are poised to enact changes meant to give a boost to workers still recovering from the Great Recession.
Tina Kotek: “I know that if the Legislature does its work right, we can insure a more level playing field for women and working families who don’t just want to get by but want to get ahead.”
Kotek said people who work hard should be able to pursue the American Dream.
Tina Kotek: “So we must do three things in the legislative session ahead: We need to expand opportunity, we need to reward work, and we need to insure fairness.”
To that end, there are a range of proposed bills that would raise the minimum wage and mandate such worker benefits as sick time and paid leave. Democrats also plan to push forward with environmental initiatives such as the state’s Clean Fuel Standard. Representative Peter Buckley of Ashland says it’s a matter of Democrats delivering on campaign promises.
Peter Buckley: “We are going to govern on what we ran on. And I believe we’re in synch with the values of the majority of Oregonians who helped put us in office.”
Buckley says the intention is to build on what he calls “middle class economics.” That’s a phrase President Obama used in his recent State of the Union address to describe his plans for strengthening the middle class, which has seen its fortunes decline in recent decades as income inequality has grown. Buckley says the burgeoning economic recovery – nationally and in Oregon – validates that approach.
Peter Buckley: “The proof is very, very clear that middle class economics do work, that the path to additional prosperity is an expansion of middle class economics not a trickle-down theory that says tax cuts, tax cuts tax cuts lead to prosperity.”
Buckley is the chief budget writer in the House. He and Senator Richard Devlin of Lake Oswego recently released a budget framework, sort of the legislature’s first draft of the next two-year budget. It focuses in large part on continuing to restore the funding for K-12 and early childhood education that was lost to cuts during the recession. It also seeks to put money back into higher education. Buckley says the proposal would boost community college funding by 15 percent and the state’s public universities by 22 percent.
Peter Buckley: “Those percentages sound great. But what they’re actually doing is getting community colleges and universities back to where they were in 2007, before the recession hit.”
Buckley says quality education is key to rebuilding the middle class. But both Buckley and House Speaker Tina Kotek say while the current budget trajectory is restoring much of what was lost during the economic downturn, more money will be needed to make the kind of investments in education that would allow the state to excel. Lawmakers are reluctant to revisit the 25-year-old Measure 5, which curtailed property tax increases. But a variety of proposals for tapping the wealth of high-earners and large companies are up for consideration. That concerns Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli.
Ted Ferrioli: “It’s a virtual tsunami of tax proposals.”
Ferrioli says between taxes and new mandates such as paid leave and the Clean Fuels Standard, Democrats risk killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Ted Ferrioli: “The first casualty will be capital formation in Oregon for new investments and business expansion for existing businesses, because those are the places where consumers will push back against business owners trying to recapture those mandated costs from consumers.”
Further complicating the budget process is the growing possibility that – as the economic recovery increases state revenues – the “kicker” tax rebate mechanism will be triggered, blowing a possible 3-hundred million dollar hole in the budget.
Copyright 2015 Jefferson Public Radio.