Local lawmakers at center of changing Senate
Big changes are coming to the Oregon Senate in the short session in February, triggered by the loss of two veteran leaders, one from each party.
On Nov. 15, the Senate confirmed Gov. Kate Brown's appointments of Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, to represent Oregon on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
Devlin is the top budget-writer in the Senate, and Ferrioli is Senate Republican leader. Both have served two decades in the Legislature.
"I will deeply miss Sen. Ferrioli," said Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, Ferrioli's counterpart as Senate Democratic leader. "Both of us made a real effort to run a smooth session in 2017."
Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, has been tapped to replace Ferrioli as leader of the Senate Republicans. Winters, a moderate, could bring a different approach to leading a GOP caucus dominated by conservatives.
Devlin leaves a gaping hole, as he's the chamber's leading budget geek.
"Richard is one of a kind," Burdick said. "He knows every line, every number, of the budget. He's amazing."
Devlin's replacement, to be named by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, will team with Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, the House budget committee co-chair.
Burdick declined to speculate on who would take on the budget mantle in the Senate, except to say it wouldn't be her.
"Everyone's wondering," she said.
Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, ended any speculation that he might seek the helm of the budget committee. He already chairs the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee — the body charged with figuring out how much money the state takes in.
"I'm on a different track," Hass said.
Hass praised those who serve on Ways & Means, which crafts the state budget every two years.
"That kind of work appeals to a certain person," Hass said. "And that kind of person isn't me."
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, has thrown her hat into the ring to replace Devlin. She's had a coveted seat on the Ways & Means Committee ever since her rookie session years ago, and is a vice chairwoman of the budget-crafting committee, along with Winters and others.
"I have a working knowledge of the budgets," Johnson said last week. "We may be facing some very, very difficult budget decisions in '18. I think I can contribute."
Salem insiders say Johnson would be a long-shot for the role. She often bucks Democratic leadership on an array of issues and sides with legislative Republicans.
Johnson said whoever gets the nod will have big shoes to fill.
"I see how hard Devlin works," she said. "Devlin is the best (co-chair) I've seen."
The Oregon Legislature meets every year, with longer sessions in odd-numbered years, and an almost open-ended list of priorities and topics to discuss. In even-numbered years, the sessions are shorter and the primary topic is supposed to be adjusting the two-year budget or other issues that can't wait for the longer session.
Burdick, Hass and Johnson agree that an X-factor going into next year's session is Ballot Measure 101.
Near the end of the 2017 session, lawmakers extended an existing tax on hospitals, which is used to fund health care for low-income Oregonians and which generates matching federal dollars. This year, facing a $1.4 billion shortfall, lawmakers expanded the existing tax to include some health insurance plans and managed care organizations, and also raised the hospital tax. The changes passed with bipartisan support.
But a trio of Republican lawmakers who opposed the changes referred the Medicaid funding plan to voters. One of them was state Rep. Julie Parrish of West Linn. They got enough signatures, and the measure will go to voters in January.
A "yes" vote will maintain the revenue that has been "baked into" the state budget. A "no" vote will blow a hole in the budget. Either that, or up to 350,000 Oregonians could lose health care coverage, according to supporters of the health care tax.
If the measure fails, filling that budget gap "will become the issue that dominates the whole session," Hass predicted.
Johnson said she hopes the short session focuses on budget issues and little else.
"I hope we have a disciplined, minimalist, constrained session," Johnson said.
The short session was designed to address changes in the economy, budgeting errors and analyses of bureau performance, she argued.
"They were not intended as a do-over for things that happen in the longer session," Johnson said. "To my mind, if you can't do it in five months, you shouldn't try to do it in five weeks."
Another major X-factor for 2018: two competing Republican tax plans in Congress, one that passed the House and the other pending in the Senate. If either of them gets signed into law by President Donald Trump — and he has called that one of his highest priorities for his first year in office — it could throw a monkey wrench into Oregon's tax structure.
That's because both state and federal taxes often hinge off each other (for instance, federal tax deductions for specific state taxes).
"We're connected to the federal code in just so many ways," Burdick said. "If they pass a (tax package), we'll want to make adjustments to the state tax code next year. If we don't, people will have to wait a full year before they discover how it all affects them."