By any account, Democrats in Oregon's Legislature had a very good night Tuesday.
House Democrats hoping to pick up one seat overshot that goal, taking three. That gives the party more than the three-fifths “supermajority” they need in the House to pass new tax measures without needing any Republican help. It's the most lopsided advantage either party has held in the House since 1975, when Democrats also had 38 members, to Republicans' 22.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Democrats captured a Republican-held seat in Medford, securing an 18-12 supermajority of their own.
“I always assume we'll lose some races, and to basically win all the races that you've been focusing on was a wonderful surprise,” House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said Wednesday. “Even up until election night, I wasn't sure where we would be.”
The result is deflating for Oregon Republicans; going into election day, they believed they had an opportunity to win the governor’s office and hold — or even make gains on — their ground in the Oregon House and Senate. Instead, Oregon saw its own blue wave.
More practically, the election means Democratic leaders will have a stronger hand in the Legislature to push through what they’ve long said are their priorities next year: finding new money dedicated to the state’s flagging education system and creating a long-expected cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in Oregon.
“Stronger Democratic majorities in both chambers are going to allow us to focus on the big things we already said we were going to work on,” said Kotek.
Her counterpart in the Senate, Peter Courtney, was less enthused about talking up his party’s newfound advantage.
“I don't think in terms of supermajority,” said Courtney, a Salem Democrat and the president of the Senate. “All I think about is what we gotta get done … It’s time to make a historic, incredible run at trying to come up with a way to fund K-12 [schools].”
'It’s Gonna Tax Something'
Earlier this year, Courtney and Kotek convened a special Joint Committee on Student Success — 14 lawmakers who've been holding hearings and speaking with students, teachers and parents around the state to get a sense of the largest challenges facing them.
The study period is a way to understand factors that leave Oregon with a graduation rate of just 77 percent, one of the lowest in the nation, among other challenges. Courtney and others tie that struggle to the passage in 1990 of Measure 5, which strictly limited the amount of local property taxes that can be used to pay for education, and so forced the state to pay for schools.
“They gutted the funding for K-12,” said Courtney, who’s served 34 years in the Legislature and won re-election in his own right Tuesday. “Ever since then, the schools have been struggling, and because the state had to then bail out the schools, they didn't have enough to pay for everything else.”
The student success committee plans to arrive at a list of services and programs it believes are lacking. Then, Courtney says, it will propose a new revenue source. A similar process was used to create a $5.3 billion revenue package for transportation that lawmakers passed in 2017.
“You come up with a source of money, and you dedicate it to all that,” Courtney said of the effort on education. “You're talking a lot of money, and it's going to be a tax.”
What kind of tax? Neither the Senate president nor House speaker are sure, saying possibilities will be floated later this year.
“It's gonna tax something, and that's all I know,” Courtney said. “I don't care what it is.”
A new tax would require supermajority support in each chamber to pass, making this week’s election results a potential game changer. After all, bipartisan agreement could be hard to come by. Education funding tends to divide Republicans and Democrats in Oregon.
That divide was on display in the recent governor's race, with Republican state Rep. Knute Buehler touting reforms to the state's public pension fund, known as PERS, that he believed could create $1.2 billion in savings to pay for schools.
Democratic Gov. Kate Brown criticized that proposal, suggesting it would decimate the retirement plans of public employees. Money for schools would have to come from elsewhere, she said.
State Sen. Arnie Roblan, a co-chair of the Student Success committee, said in a Thursday hearing he’s committed to finding both savings and new money for schools. The committee is made up of eight Democrats and six Republicans.
“It’s going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done, from my perspective,” said Roblan, D-Coos Bay. “It’s going to be a bipartisan, bicameral package, and that’s the way it works.”
Still, differing philosophies between the two parties mean Democrats’ big majority could come in handy.
“It would help in terms of getting something over the finish line,” said Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland. But that might not mean a new tax is a lock. Burdick believes any proposal will ultimately be referred to voters — either by business interests or lawmakers themselves.
Supermajorities also give Democrats more leeway in passing what’s likely to be another controversial topic: capping carbon emissions by Oregon’s largest polluters, and creating a system in which companies must purchase permits for every ton of carbon they unleash.
Such systems are aimed at sending market signals to companies to invest in cleaner practices, as well as raising money for clean energy projects. But they’re rare in the United States. Only California has instituted an economy-wide cap-and-trade system like Oregon is considering. (A number of states in the Northeast regulate emissions of power plants.)
“Both the Senate president and I have been very clear: We will do something to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kotek.
A cap-and-trade policy has been in the works for years in Oregon, and legislators took up a set of bills in their “short” session earlier this year to implement one. That effort was ultimately scrapped over concerns that such a weighty policy was best reserved for the longer “regular” session in 2019.
“We have a program that with some additional edits can be passed next year, and we need to do that,” Kotek said.
The system being proposed in Oregon has been subject to debate about whether it creates a new tax. Buehler, who opposed the proposal, called it “a $1.4 billion tax on energy.”
Proponents of the policy say it’s not a tax, but merely a permit fee companies would need to pay. If Democrats are able to pass a cap-and-trade policy by a supermajority, that argument would become moot.
Democratic Strength Statewide
Democrats’ successes in legislative races on Tuesday occurred around the state.
On the House side, the party initially looked to a Bend district being vacated by Buehler as their best chance to gain ground. That potential crumbled this summer, when Democratic nominee Nathan Boddie became embroiled in sexual misconduct allegations but refused to relinquish the nomination.
Instead, the Democrats won races that initially appeared less promising for them: Rachel Prusak defeated Republican Rep. Julie Parrish, who’d successfully defended her seat in a left-leaning district south of Portland three times.
In Hood River, Democrat Anna Williams unseated Rep. Jeff Helfrich, a Republican who’d been appointed to the seat in late 2017. And perhaps most surprisingly, Republican Rep. Rich Vial of Scholls lost to Democrat Courtney Neron, despite outraising her by a wide margin.
“There were four [Republican-held] districts on the Oregon House side that Hillary Clinton won two years ago, and we won three of the four,” said Kotek.
According to House Chief Clerk Tim Sekarak, Democrats have never had more than 38 members in the House, though they've reached that number in 1975, 1937 and 1935. The last time Republicans held a 38-22 advantage was 1969.
In the Senate, a battle over an open seat representing Ashland and Medford went to Democrat Jeff Golden. Democrats also nearly captured the Hood River seat held by state Sen. Chuck Thomsen.
The results, combined with Brown’s victory and the widespread defeat of four conservative ballot measures, leave Oregon looking as deep blue as ever.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate have not commented on the results since Tuesday. But party leaders believe their defeat came at the hands of Democrats’ well-developed ground game in Oregon.
“We're going up against a machine,” Oregon Republican Party spokesman Kevin Hoar said on election night, when the scope of the losses was becoming clear. “We're running uphill and we know that. Everybody knows that's how it is.”
Sitting next to Hoar, party chairman Bill Currier set a more optimistic tone, suggesting Buehler’s campaign had elevated issues that haven’t been debated in Oregon.
“We will regroup, and the dynamics will change,” Currier said. “As far as the party goes, I think we’re in a much stronger position than we were.”