The Legislature closed its 2017 session a few days ahead of schedule, and there has already been plenty of political posturing about the successes, missed opportunities and issues that need to be revisited.
Many veteran lawmakers say the session was one of the toughest they’ve participated in and they closed it with a feeling of unfinished business. As state Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said in a statement afterward, “We had some satisfying wins. At best, our successes are tempered by disappointment.”
On the plus side, lawmakers were able to balance a $21 billion operating budget that began with a $1.4 billion shortfall even though the state experienced record revenue leading up to the session. Along the way, they managed to approve:
• A long-term, $5.3 billion transportation improvement package.
• A $600 million tax on insurers and providers that preserves health care for about 350,000 Oregonians who gained Medicaid coverage under the expanded federal Affordable Care Act.
• Record funding for K-12 public schools, up 11 percent from the current biennium. For most of the state’s 200 or so school districts, lawmakers say it’s enough money to keep current services going.
• A controversial $10 million reproductive health bill expanding funding for no-cost abortions, family planning services and postpartum care. Oregon’s bill is unique to other states in that patients would have access to the procedure for virtually any reason, at any time, including sex-selective and late-term abortions.
• A plan to reduce state spending over the next two years by $200 million.
Lawmakers also approved the state becoming REAL ID compliant, which will allow residents to upgrade their driver’s licenses or identification cards to federal standards in the future.
Oregon will now also be joining a handful of other states that give judges the power to take guns away from suicidal or dangerous people.
The state also became the third in the nation to raise the tobacco sales age to 21, although tobacco possession isn’t affected.
With successes, though, there were certainly failures. Lawmakers couldn’t agree on revenue reforms that included a corporate income taxing structure that would stabilize and provide long-term school funding, and they declined to tackle the elephant of the session, the spiraling costs of the Public Employees Retirement System and instead kicked that $22 billion problem down the road. Gov. Kate Brown has vowed to get all parties to the table to work out solutions to both of the major issues, but her lack of leadership was evident throughout the session, so the jury is out on whether she can follow through.
It also remains to be seen what the session’s impact will have in our region. Lawmakers drastically cut funding from Measure 98, which voters had approved, that would have provided money to help schools raise graduation rates and provide more vocational and technical education, something that would be very helpful in rural areas of Eastern Oregon. Community colleges also didn’t get as much funding that they need, which can hurt Blue Mountain Community College.
It’s also uncertain what the taxing impacts will be on our region, especially combined with local city, county and school taxes, and what benefits the transportation package will provide our area.
What is certain, though, is that there is unfinished business. Democrats and Republicans alike should start thinking about how to address those issues, and about who among them is up to providing bipartisan leadership that all Oregonians can look up to.