SALEM — With sweeping wins in races for governor and the Legislature, Oregon Democrats see a clear mandate to move on their agenda for 2019.
Voters increased the Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate to three-fifths supermajorities, capable of passing tax and finance bills without Republican votes. Democrats last had a supermajority in the 2009 session.
After a race that analysts had called “a toss-up,” Gov. Kate Brown won by a comfortable 6 percent margin over Republican Knute Buehler.
Brown called her win “a slam dunk,” and a message that voters wanted action on a range of issues, from affordable housing to the environment to education.
“When our values are on the ballot, Oregonians will come together and fight like hell to stand up for what we believe in,” Brown said on election night.
Specifics on the agenda will come into view when Brown releases her state budget proposal later this year.
Activists who backed Brown and legislative Democrats were quick to remind the victors of their agendas following election night.
“Gov. Brown has promised to pass the Clean Energy Jobs bill to cap pollution and invest in solutions next year,” said Tera Hurst, executive director of the environmental group Renew Oregon. “We look forward to continuing to work with her and legislative leadership on this bold climate protection strategy.”
A bill to cap emissions of the 100 top polluters in the state and use an estimated $700 million in fees from the companies to fund “green” jobs and other programs stalled earlier this year. The plan is expected to return in 2019.
Also expected to be on the table is corporate tax reform, with a possible gross receipts tax that would generate $1 billion earmarked for public schools. Requiring companies to offer paid family leave was a major campaign issue for some Democratic leaders.
In the House, Democrats picked up three seats, giving them a 38-22 majority. In the Senate, Democrats picked up one vote, giving them an 18-12 majority.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, issued a statement Wednesday saying the new political landscape would speed legislative action.
“I’m optimistic about the possibilities,” Kotek said. “Stronger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will allow us to focus on the big things we said we were going to prioritize — funding our schools, dealing with climate change, and tackling our housing crisis.”
House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, signaled her readiness to move quickly once the Legislature convenes Jan. 22.
“This caucus is ready to get to work,” Williamson said.
House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said recently that with Democrats holding the reins of power, political negotiations have devolved to liberal Democrats negotiating with moderate Democrats.
Some of those Democrats are worried about post-election hubris.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said Wednesday that he felt Oregon Democrats’ election night celebrations were too strong.
“When you really beat someone, and you really put them down, you know, you can train an anger and a hatred that’s so violent, that they’ll go to every extreme they can think of to stop you,” Courtney said.
Courtney said he worried that Republicans might resort to hardball tactics — “legislative anarchy” — such as denying the chamber a quorum of 20 senators if they felt locked-out of discussions.
With only one vote to spare in their Senate supermajority, Republicans could try to bring a Democrat over to their side on key issues.
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, noted that the Democrat’s Senate caucus included moderate lawmakers, such as Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who have voted with Republicans on some issues. Johnson was re-elected Tuesday while carrying the Democratic, Republican and Independent Party ballot nominations.
“Our caucus has worked well with Betsy in the past,” Knopp said. “We believe there are other Democrats, as well that will work with us on issues of concern. I have hopes we can get good things done for Central Oregon.”
Republicans in the past have resorted to championing ballot measures to send issues to the electorate when votes in Salem have not gone their way. Knopp said that isn’t a good plan of action.
“It’s very difficult to legislate by ballot measure,” Knopp said. “A lot of these complex issues don’t lend themselves well to the ballot process. We have to resolve these issues in the Legislature.”
Looming over everyone in Salem is how to handle the $22 billion projected shortfall in unfunded liabilities of the Public Employees Retirement System. In the past Democrats have suggested increasing revenue through taxes as the key to solving the problem, while Republicans have advocated for reforms that would make union members pay more for their benefits.
Mark Henkels, a political science professor at Western Oregon University in Monmouth who specializes in state politics, said PERS is the keystone issue to whatever else Democrats hope to accomplish.
“I think they have to take action on PERS one way or another,” Henkels said. “They are going to have a hard time if they do not come up with a solution. With the governorship and supermajorities, they now have a different level of responsibility than before.”
Henkels said Democrats have been given a unique opportunity because voters may have come out to vote in the congressional races to send a message to President Donald Trump. While they were there, they voted for Brown, Democratic candidates, and the party’s stands on ballot measures down the ballot.
“How much of this was a reaction to Trump and how much was native to Oregon candidates and issues is a question we will be looking at,” Henkels said. “Even though he was pretty decisively defeated, Buehler’s message on PERS and the quality of public school education, I think, resonated with a lot of voters. It’s something to consider.”
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, firstname.lastname@example.org