Legislature is active in Salem
The 1990s saw an anti-government political tide. The Oregon Legislature, where I represent Lake Oswego, struggles with a number of amendments to the state constitution from that time.
Last month we created a rainy day fund to protect essential services when revenue drops off. To do so, we voted to suspend the 'corporate kicker'. This strange provision of the constitution, referred to the voters by the 1999 Legislature, requires that corporate income taxes in excess of what was projected must be paid out to corporations.
The kicker can be suspended only on a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate. The bill to put the current corporate kicker in the new rainy day fund passed the Senate with just one vote to spare.
Last week the Oregon House passed a resolution referring to voters an amendment to the double majority requirement of the Oregon constitution. The current language, added by initiative in 1996, invalidates a tax measure that wins a majority of votes if fewer than 50 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
The double majority creates odd incentives, motivating opponents of a tax levy to discard their ballots in order to prevent a 50 percent turnout. The amendment passed by the House would exempt any tax measure on a May or Nov-ember ballot from the double majority requirement.
Another provision of the Oregon Constitution, referred to the ballot by the 1995 Legislature, requires a three-fifths vote of both the House and Senate for any bill to raise revenue. But 'raise revenue' has been broadly interpreted. When the Legislature considers ending a tax credit or deduction, we're advised to get a three-fifths vote because those who previously got the credit or deduction would pay more in taxes if it went away.
Sometimes we see hair-splitting over whether a fee increase is a bill to raise revenue. The Judiciary Committee I chair is considering funding sources to renovate county courthouses, many of which are in poor condition and at risk of falling down in an earthquake. Two potential sources are viewed quite differently.
A proposal to increase document recording fees does not require a three-fifths vote because recording is often done at the courthouse. But a fee charged to business entities for limited liability, a legal privilege those entities would invoke in lawsuits at the courthouse, requires a three-fifths vote.
The three-fifths vote requirement forms a major obstacle to meeting the needs of Oregonians in the current session. The Healthy Kids proposal to extend health coverage to all children in Oregon depends on an increase in the cigarette tax. But Healthy Kids is currently stalled by the need to get 36 votes in the 60-member House.
The proposed budget is grossly inadequate for Oregon community colleges and universities. Oregon's $10 corporate minimum tax, not raised since 1931, provides a logical source for the needed funds. But the three-fifths requirement stands in the way of raising this tax.
Last November's election changed the number of votes in the Legislature available for many proposals. But the constitutional amendments of the 1990s limit our ability to solve many of the state's greatest problems.