With the 2017 legislative session behind her, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown joined OPB’s "Think Out Loud" to reflect on successes and disappointments, and to talk about the future.
Looking ahead to the 2018 ballot, Oregonians can expect to revisit battles around corporate taxation and education. Brown emphasized an interest in keeping those issues within the Legislature. She said she plans to invite stakeholders in business and labor, as well as lawmakers, to negotiate toward a resolution on revenue and spending.
Democrats’ efforts at corporate tax reform ground to a halt in June. Republicans expressed disappointment in the efforts to reduce government spending and the two sides could not reach an agreement. In the end, there were not enough votes for the tax reform plan to clear the three-fifths supermajority needed to raise taxes.
The legislative fight paled in comparison to the costly 2016 ballot measure struggle over Measure 97, which would have increased taxes on companies with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon. The measure failed in November by a large margin.
The specter of Measure 97 loomed large as union groups filed initiative petitions for new measures addressing corporate taxation for the 2018 election. Brown spoke carefully about another ballot fight, pointing out that the previous battle made it challenging to get stakeholders to the table to compromise in the ensuing legislative session.
“I think we are tired of the ballot measure strategy," she said. "It’s time to see if we can really get people to a table, and tackle the long-term, structural deficit issues that Oregon faces.”
Brown highlighted the recent passage of the $5.3 billion transportation package as a success and a model for future bipartisan collaboration. Despite the stalling of an earlier version of the package, the governor said she felt confident the Legislature could pass a bill.
“We had buy-in,” she said, pointing to an array of support from urban and rural politicians across party lines.
The package includes a range of infrastructure upgrades for public transit, roads and bicycle projects throughout the state. Brown estimated the investment would also bring 16,000 construction jobs to the state.
“It was one of the most comprehensive, probably one of the more innovative transportation packages that we’ve seen in the state, probably ever,” she said.
Brown also pushed back against criticism that funding road projects runs counter to her commitments to reducing the effects of climate change.
“It is absolutely imperative that we invest in ensuring that our road system is resilient, and preserved for the future, for future generations,” she said.
The current transportation package is a slimmed-down version of an initial $8 billion proposal advocated by the governor and Democratic leaders. Lawmakers cut out Portland-specific taxes to fund highway expansion in the Metro area. Republicans were also able to gain small concessions on the low-carbon fuel standards that were a sticking point for transportation negotiations in the 2015 legislative session.
The governor argued that the Oregon Legislature was able to work across party lines despite near-complete Democratic control.
“We’ve been able to move forward on a number of the priorities that I’ve had for the legislative session, including balancing the budget, which is significant,” Brown said.
She pointed to struggling states, including Washington, which needed three special sessions to avoid a government shutdown.
“We were able to balance the budget in a way that reflects the priorities of rural and urban Oregon,” she said
Republican leaders saw things differently. In a post-session statement released July 7, House Minority Leader Mike McLane decried Democratic efforts to increase taxes and pass a rent control bill. He also expressed skepticism toward the Democrats' commitment on cost containment.
"Passage of the transportation package was among few positive highlights this session," McLane said in his statement. "In the end, the 2017 session will be remembered more for missed opportunities and our failure to get our state’s financial house in order. Soon, we will realize what a mistake it was to kick our budget problems down the road yet again.”
Brown deflected questions about a potential reelection bid, pointing to her team’s current focus on recently passed bills and preparation for the 2018 legislative agenda.
“My focus right now is on making sure that Oregon is thriving and that state government is running more effectively and efficiently,” she said.
Despite her reluctance to commit to a run for reelection, the governor did talk about her hope for successful corporate tax reform in the 2019 session, which is the next full session for the Oregon Legislature. Brown argued that her work would prepare the next governor for the post-election 2019 session, whomever that might be.
“We’re taking the next few weeks, talking to folks, seeing who we can bring to the table — but I’m going to set the table, and make sure that we have a strategy in place as we move to the next biennium,” she said.