With the pounding of a gavel on June 30, the 2011 Oregon Legislature game to a close. The numbers for this most recent legislative session speak for themselves: 642 bills signed into law; 153-day long session (the shortest in decades); one legislative rick-roll; and zero weeks-long occupations by the State Capitol by supporters of collective bargaining rights for public employees.
After a recent piece in which I summed up the legislative outcomes of a handful of bills I had been following the progress of on Blue Oregon, I thought it would be great to do a respective piece on the 2011 legislative session as a whole. There was just one problem, however. I’m a pretty lousy session-watcher, besides the specific policy areas that hold my interest. Granted, on occasion I would flip through the Oregonian or click over to the comments section of NW Republican or Oregon Catalyst to get informed about the most recent goings-on in Salem. As it turns out, however, those websites are a poor place to receive accurate information about legislative activities. (Or, about anything else, really.) As I don’t contribute to either of those websites, I thought it would be best to avoid writing an uninformed respective on the 2011 Oregon legislative session. Instead, I thought it would be best to go straight to the source and collect the thoughts and insights from my state representative, Ben Cannon.
Ben Cannon is an Oxford grad and a middle school teacher at Arbor School of Arts and Sciences in Tualatin. With such a track record, it’s almost odd that Cannon is only my state representative opposed to being my Congressional representative. (But then I remember who my Congressional representative is, and I’m totally cool with it.) I was looking forward to receiving insights from Rep. Cannon about this most recent session, and the big-ticket bills that passed- and failed to pass- by a closely divided legislature. However, due to the many issues and events that had occurred over the previous six months, I was a little unsure about where to begin. So I decided that using a little humor might be the best way to get things started.
So, Ben Cannon, you’re a tax-and-spend Democrat representing the 46th district in east Portland…
Your words, not mine.
In what way did you take more from my paycheck in this recent session, and what “wasteful government spending” did you blow it on?
You know, that’s a great way to go into what was perhaps the most important accomplishment that occurred in this most recent session- the passing of a balanced state budget. It is the one constitutional requirement demanded of the legislature- and let me tell you, in this most recent session it was no small feat. Heading into the session, we were looking at a deficit of $3.5 billion dollars. And there was a refusal by a majority of members to even consider revenue increases.
So the answer to the question of how much did you increases taxes would be “by none.”
Correct. We had no new taxes passed in this most recent session. And admittedly, due to in part to drying up in support of the federal government to states, the way we dealt with the balanced budget was done in a way that will be very painful for vulnerable residents in our state- we balanced the budget through cuts in schools, human service, public safety. We loaded higher costs on college tuition increases- we increased class sizes while decreasing the school year. While it’s true we balanced the budget, it needs to be asked at what cost. While it is imperative to balance the budget, it is equally as imperative to attempt and address the structural issues in state government that need to be addressed.
The most notable of these issues are health care, which is the single largest cost driver for both state and local governments. By far the most damaging fiscal situation is health care costs- businesses, families, individuals simply cannot afford to purchase health care. And we are taking the first steps towards attempting the transformation of that cost curve, of receiving better health care at a reduced cost. And these issues are being addressed by HB 3650 and SB 99 which established the state’s health insurance exchange, which will be a great purchasing tool for consumers in a couple of years.
We also took steps to get the state’s footing on sound footing. It needs to be recognized that the economy feeds the state’s budget- and we need to manage spending careful to equal extra revenues. Another tool is to increase jobs, which will result in revenues being brought in that way. We took honest steps toward creating jobs and aiding an economic recovery. The “cool schools” legislation, for example, is putting people to work. The Oregon, Inc. legislation that funds research centers that develop products and innovative technology. The Buy Oregon bill that creates additional incentives for government purchasers to buy products and goods made in Oregon.
Although we did not enact revenue increases we did end- or curtail- some tax breaks that were ended or curtailed due to legislation passed in 2009, and ending or curtailing these tax breaks had a significant effect towards balancing the budget. The legislature was forced to review one-third of tax credits on the books in a serious way- to justify them compared to other spending priorities.
So ending these tax breaks resulted in more savings for the state?
Big time savings. For example, we ended the reduced energy tax credit. I challenged ending it, but that program is being redesigned to focus more on renewable- commercial scale renewable versus large-scale, wind, etc. This will save the state a lot of money.
The 2011 Oregon legislature was closely divided between the two parties, resulting in an almost shared balance of power. Can you describe what that was like, and how it impacted the legislative process?
There was a strong feeling of cooperation during this most recent legislative session, of bipartisanship and civility. By definition, anything that became law had to be passed in the spirit of bipartisanship. The Governor and the co-Speakers set a strong tone- bipartisanship was necessary. Oregon legislators were their “best selves.” Its kind of like the 7th and 8th graders that I teach. If they are given responsibility, they will act responsibly. No side could not participate. However, due to this division of power, some important business was not able to be done. A very small number of conservatives blocked important legislation in committee.
The legislature is getting better at governing itself. In 2007 it established deadlines on bill hearings, committee schedules- this led to an increased efficient tone. That’s not all particularly good. It can short cut public involvement. If the legislature operates on strict guidelines, the public may not be as involved. This also requires more work during the interim between sessions- which is hard for working legislators such as myself to participate. Lobbyists who work year round gain clout in this efficient model, at the expense of diminished clout of elected legislators. Democracy is messy- we should not be surprised or dismayed when debates take a while.
But it is possible to actually govern in a bipartisan manner? I thought that was just a myth!
It certainly is possible to govern in a bipartisan manner, but again it comes at a price. Very important work was not accomplished. The State Bank Bill, for example, which was supported by a majority of legislators and included support from the financial industry- this bill was killed. Consumer protection bilsl faield to get out of committees, where they were blacked by a small number of conservatives. A bill for ecosystem services- that would provide a lower cost approach to comply with environmental legislation. This bipartisan bill was killed. Without Democratic majorities it only took one conservative member to kill a bill. The BPA bill had majority support but was opposed by the committee chair. A bill to let consumers know how much energy it takes to operate a building was killed. We should certainly celebrate the successes of bipartisanship, and recognize the accomplishments that bipartisanship allowed to occur. I mean, redistricting was accomplished on a bipartisan level! But, we do need to recognize the limitations that bipartisanship creates as well.
Now I’d like to go through the session and have you reflect on some specific bills that either you sponsored or some other key pieces of legislation, and get your thoughts on the process that went through either success or failure. The first is HB 3150, which allows cities to lower speed limits on throughways through town. I see its still referred to as the “Greenways” bill on your website?
(Laughs.) Yes, I still kept the term “greenways” on my website, as in the end it was left undefined. I do like to call it the “greenways” bill- it provides more a vivid description than “byways.” In the end, it gives local jurisdiction the ability to lower speed districts. There was a silly kerfuffle over the use of language and the term “green.” I, along with others, removed the “offending term” and we got the policy done.
How about HB 3149, the Car-sharing bill, which allows personal cars to be rented out by car-sharing companies?
This bill is an innovative market-based approach that solves multiple issues. Both environmental as well as economic, putting a few extra dollars in people’s pocket while allowing them to choose to live the car-free lifestyle. I needed to share this business model with other legislators- it was brand new to me when I learned about it a couple of years ago. We hand to bend over backwards to get the bill drafted so that insurance companies would not oppose it but still work with car-sharing companies. This required a lot of conference calls. A lot of painful conference calls.
So in March, the Tuition Equity bill that would have provided in-state tuition to children born of immigrants passed the Senate by an 18-11. Despite this bipartisan show of support from the Senate side, it never failed to reach the House floor for a vote by the time the session ran out in June. What happened?
Practically, the tuition equity bill simply lacked the support of the Republican co-chair if the committee it needed to come out of. And with the division of power as it were in the House, that’s all it took to kill a bill. Why wasn’t there more support from the House Republicans? It comes down to Republican politics and how certain elements in the Republican party continue to make immigration a hard issue for Republican members to touch. Even sensible, pro-business reforms like tuition equity that has been passed in such conservative states like Utah. I’m optimistic that the movement which coalesced towards the end of this session will help see this bill to the finish line. The reality is that too many members on the Republican side of the aisle are yanked around by their shrillest members, and that is unfortunate.
What is ironic is that the Tuition Equity Bill was sponsored by a Republican, Senator Morse, yet still was unable to gain traction on the House side. Do you know if Senator Morse was turned to as a possible tool to get his colleagues on the House side to support the bill?
Efforts came from all quarters by those who care deeply about this issue, and no stone was left unturned in an effort to get this bill passed. At the end of the day, the votes were simply not there in the committee- while I strongly believe that the votes were there on the floor. Bob Jenson, the Republican co-sponsor of this bill on the House side who is a teacher from Pendleton, and Mike Denbrow from Portland worked their heart out for this bill, but to no avail.
What are your thoughts on HB 3145, the newly expanded Bottle Bill?
After decades of attempting to expand the Bottle Bill, finally in 2007 we were able to expand the bill to include water bottles, and this led to a pathway for future expansion. The trust between recyclers, grocers, and distributors existed so that we were able to pass a bill with triggers to get more drinking containers out of the waste stream. As a result, millions of containers will be routed out of our state’s landfills. This is an example of the kind of legislation that can be produced through a bipartisan effort. It took time and understanding and the establishment of relationships as opposed to simply making a series of compromises. We needed to understand each other’s needs and worked together to make sure those needs are met.
For the final piece of legislation, touch on HB 3000, what I like to refer to as the Cannon-Clem Buy Oregon Bill.
This bill is an example of how government can encourage economic development, which is the central political question of our time. There is one side that believes deregulation and tax cuts are the way to go, versus a belief of having the government nurture small and medium-sized businesses and investing government dollars locally. How can the purchasing power of government be leveraged for local business development? Let’s use the tools that the government has to unlock small business development, to create an education system that produces entrepreneurs, researchers, and scientists that will help produce a thriving state economy. And we need to not just focus on short-run jobs, but jobs that last as well. Buy Oregon takes on a piece of that.
So what’s in store for the future then? The next session is not that far away, and will be conducted during an election year. What issues or unfinished business will be priorities of yours for the next 18 months or so?
That’s a long conversation best had at another time. But your readers will get an idea of the unfinished business that Ive mentioned earlier.