Oregon’s public employee unions joined forces Tuesday with Nike and a group of long-term care providers to launch a new coalition aimed at pushing a major tax package through next year’s Legislature.
Leaders of the Coalition for the Common Good said they want to work with legislators on new revenue for schools and other public services. And, unlike in previous years, they don’t want to tie the negotiations to agreements on cutting costs of the state’s public pension system.
“We want to bring a sole focus into revenue reform,” said James Carlson, president of the Oregon Health Care Association. “The reality is we can’t afford to waste another five years chasing a deal that may or may not happen” on cutting government costs, he added.
The state’s major public employee unions have repeatedly led efforts — both on the ballot and in the Legislature — to gain big new revenue sources for schools and other state services.
They now see a big opening this year after Democratic Gov. Kate Brown was re-elected and Democrats gained seats in both legislative chambers. They now have the three-fifths supermajority needed in the House and Senate to pass tax increases, without any Republican votes.
Melissa Unger, executive director of Local 503 of the Service Employees International Union, said that the new coalition is looking for a “bold solution that gets us where we want to go … It’s really about investing in our state.”
Nike started working with Brown earlier this year on tax policy. This summer, the Fortune 500 apparel company agreed to join the governor and the unions in opposing two conservative tax measures on the ballot. At the same time, a union-backed group agreed not to proceed with a proposed ballot measure that would require corporations to disclose more information about their taxes and workforce.
Nike signed the letter along with the five other founding members of the coalition to work for “[i]nvestments that can adequately fund strong schools and essential public services.”
The letter also called for a “state where businesses can grow and thrive; where Oregon-based businesses are valued for the contribution they make to the local economy and their engagement with the community.”
The other signers were the Oregon Education Association, SEIU Local 503, Oregon AFSCME Council 75, the Oregon Health Care Association and the Russell Development Company. The latter is a Portland-based firm headed by John Russell, who has frequently worked with Democrats.
The letter didn’t specifically address whether the revenue discussions should exclude talks of cost control. Nike spokesman Greg Rossiter said the company didn’t have any further comment for now beyond the letter.
Unger said she welcomed additional business involvement in the tax discussions. At this point, the state’s major business groups have repeatedly said they want any talk of revenue to also include cost controls.
The Oregon Business Plan — which will be discussed next week at the annual Oregon Leadership Summit put on by business interests — says that “Oregon needs revenue reform as well as better cost management to resolve its fiscal crisis.”
The governor and legislative leaders talked with members of the new coalition Monday. Brown said Tuesday in a statement that “Oregon’s education has gone underfunded for too long” and added that “now is the best opportunity in a generation to right this wrong.”
Brown released her proposed 2019–21 budget on Wednesday and has said she plans to call for major new investments in education.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, called next session “probably the best chance we’ll ever have to do something remarkable” for education. He said he also supported focusing on taxes separately. Making an agreement on pension reform and other cost controls has been a recipe for delay, he said.
Given their reduced numbers, Republican legislators acknowledge that it will be harder to head off any tax increases they don’t like.
But state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said he didn’t think the state would be able to make major new investments without first making major strides in dealing with Oregon’s $22 billion pension debt.
“We obviously have to look at both” revenue and cost controls he said. “Whether those discussions are happening together or separately is material to the outcome.”
“I do not believe anyone, including in the majority, have the luxury of ignoring the catastrophic failure” in the pension system, Knopp added.
SEIU’s Unger said she is fine with separate negotiations on PERS and other issues. And she said members of the new coalition understand that even if they can get a tax measure through the Legislature, they have to be prepared for the eventuality that it could get referred to voters.