One day before the Oregon Senate is scheduled to vote on a controversial tax package for public schools, Senate Republicans have left the Capitol and some appear to be leaving Oregon to prevent a vote on the legislation.
With Democrats in control of both legislative chambers, Republicans are looking for any and all strategies to delay the proceedings.
Without Republicans on the Senate floor, all legislative business would come to a halt. Crossing state lines would mean Republicans would be outside the Oregon State Police’s jurisdiction and could not be brought back to the statehouse. Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, implied some of his colleagues had taken such steps.
Oregon lawmakers are considering billions of dollars in new business taxes to boost funding for the state’s public schools. While Republicans have tended to agree with the idea that Oregon’s schools need more money, they have been pushing for conversations about how to ensure the state’s approximate $26 billion pension system debt doesn’t gobble up all those new taxes before proceeds reach the classroom.
Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, said Democrats have dismissed input from Republicans this entire legislative session.
“If you’re going to do something for children you have to address PERS,” Bentz said. “I was in Lakeview, Oregon, and I asked how much of their budget is going to PERS: 40%. 40%. That was two years ago. You can’t educate your kids when half your money is going into retirement payments.”
Bentz was not in the legislature Monday and declined to say his exact whereabouts.
Gov. Kate Brown has offered one proposal to address the state’s pension crisis. Legislative leaders, including House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, have been in behind-closed-doors negotiations and are expected to release a plan soon.
In addition to seeing a plan to tackle the state’s pension problem, Baertschiger said he’s worried that in the future, the money raised by the new tax plan could be spent on services besides education. Although Democrats have promised the new revenue would be used for schools, it would take a constitutional amendment — and thus a vote by the people — to ensure the money goes into a dedicated fund for education.
“Next time we are in a downtrend economy, good lord, who knows what happens,” Baertschiger said.
House Bill 3427 would funnel about $2 billion every two years into schools. The tax would require businesses to pay a tax of 0.57% on sales inside the state’s borders that exceed $1 million.
The first $1 million in sales would be exempt. There are some carve-outs for gas, groceries and some health care providers. In addition, businesses could subtract 35% of their labor or capital costs from total sales and there is a personal income tax cut by 0.25% for some consumers.
Of the about 460,000 businesses in Oregon, about 40,000 of would be hit by the new tax, according to the legislative revenue office.
On Monday, only two Republicans were on the Senate floor, just enough for a quorum.
Tayleranne Gillespie, former spokeswoman for the Senate Republican Party, said Republicans have discussed walking out since the start of session.
It would be an unusual but not an unprecedented move. In 2001, for example, House Democrats left Salem for five delays during a fight over redistricting.
Last week, Republicans tried another delaying tactic when the tax package came up in the House: They forced the House clerk to read the entire bill, all 45 pages.
The task took two and a half hours, but the House eventually voted for the tax plan.