Will Oregon Democrats Squander Their Supermajority?

Governor Kate Brown and Senate President Peter Courtney

The backtracking began the day after Democrats won a supermajority in the Oregon state legislature. Insiders dismissed the victory as a ‘fake’ supermajority, because in the Senate there was one rogue voter, a “Democrat in name only” determined to block progressive legislation — Betsy Johnson.

Pundits wondered aloud whether the Democrats’ primary goal this session — raising billions of dollars in new revenue to fund education and other services — was “Betsy proof”, since her questionable vote was needed if the Democrats wanted to avoid begging Republicans for support.

Consequently, say pundits, the 2019 legislative session — which many expect to address the simultaneous crises of revenue, education, housing, climate change, PERS, etc. — may end up like so many previous disappointing sessions, watered down and/or bargained away under the pressure of big money.

But Salem’s pitiful politics are under extra pressure this session: several progressive labor union-backed candidates won in key races and the landlord lobby’s candidates lost. Consequently, the balance of forces in Salem has shifted left, lifting voter expectations.

Opportunities are plenty for labor and tenants rights organizations, but big money is working quickly behind the scenes to water down or kill emerging legislation, leaving ready-made scapegoats like Betsy Johnson to be blamed for inaction from the Democratic supermajority.

Spotting Blame Beyond Betsy

The problem is not that Betsy is an immovable outlier, but that leading Democrats largely agree with her. The corporate-friendly Dems have been in power for years, lavishing tax breaks on corporations and wealthy individuals, while simultaneously starving schools and trying — and occasionally failing — to rob the retirement funds of public employees. The whole party has been running to the right for decades, Betsy merely leads the foot race, but only by a step or two.

For example, Oregon’s Democrats showed their true colors, again, when immediately following their ‘blue wave’ victory they chose Peter Courtney — yet again — to be Senate President. He’s a key reason that the Senate is where progressive legislation goes to die (or to be mangled beyond recognition).

Courtney was no friend to the $15 Now! campaign and even less friendly to failed pro-renter legislation in 2016 — House Bill 2004 — that would have legalized local rent control and banned no-cause evictions. His main tactic is to stall bills in committee, never bringing them to the floor for a vote, unless they are sufficiently watered down to please business interests. In the Dems’ race to the right Courtney is hot on Johnson’s heels.

Running in perfect stride with Courtney is Ginny Burdick, representing Tigard and Southwest Portland, who was also re-elected by her Senate colleagues to the powerful Senate Majority Leader position. Burdick and Courtney have been in the Oregon legislature for a combined 60 years, having overseen the party’s dramatic shift to the right and adoption of neoliberal politics — tax breaks and subsidies galore for big business and the wealthy, while education and other social programs get cut year after year.

These victories for the old guard will set the tone for the session, preventing critical changes to Senate protocols that newer senators have been clamoring for — such as removing Courtney’s onerous, self-imposed rule that prevents any bill from getting a floor vote, for example, unless 16 Senate votes are lined up and at least one Republican vote is secured.

One of the newly-elected insurgent Democrats, Shemia Fagan, broke a Salem taboo by saying publicly of the dispute:

“You can’t put the same people in charge — under the same rules, under the same caucus — and get substantially different results.”

She is, of course, exactly right, and she knows her housing agenda — ending no-cause evictions and overturning the ban on rent control for a start — could die under Courtney’s rules that encourage the watering down of progressive legislation (or even subtly weaponizing it against the people it’s meant to protect) in order to secure ‘bipartisan’ support. These rules also discourage transparency, allowing backroom machinations that silently kill or weaken critical legislation without accountability or visibility to the voters. These bills die a silent death in committee, where the public is prevented from knowing the positions of their elected representatives, ensuring that they cannot be held accountable in the following election cycle.

Another power of Senate leadership positions is the ability to appoint committee chairs who do the job of hammering out legislation before the floor vote. One of Courtney’s first moves was to appoint co-chairs to the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee, which is tasked to deal with the state budget, and he chose none other than Betsy Johnson.

Senator Betsy Johnson

If Betsy is a ‘problem’ for the Democrats she’s one of their own making. In actuality, Betsy is more scapegoat than pariah, put forth as the cartoonish villain in order to shield the real-life villainy of the Democratic Party leadership. All the backroom blaming that Democrats put on Betsy is never spoken aloud, since her actions are far too appreciated by corporate Dems and the insular culture in Salem.

Is it any surprise that the Democrats always seem to have an inner-party crisis the moment they can’t blame Republicans for inaction?

Can Dem Leadership Rein in Rogue Lawmakers?

Even if it were true that Betsy was a rogue actor it’s absolutely false that the Democrats have no mechanisms for keeping their members in line. In fact, the Democrats in Oregon are an especially disciplined party in some ways. Sure there is the occasional skirmish, but when the Dem leadership says ‘jump’ the rank-and-file Dem legislator usually asks ‘high high?’

The party is good at keeping ‘on program’ and delivering the votes that deliver the ‘victories’ whenever the old guard leadership tells the left to get into line. An example of this occurred again just last spring, when Governor Brown called a Special Session of the legislature for the sole purpose of giving tax breaks to wealthy owners of small businesses.

Some speculated that Brown’s move was to assure the business community that she was ‘safe’ to be re-elected. Her brazen move to call for a vote on an unpopular issue gave some left-wing Democrats heartburn, but they fell in line and voted for it anyway. A few progressive legislators were allowed to vote no, but only because the needed votes had already been secured.

Why do the Democrats fall into line? Because there are real life consequences for not doing so. To ensure she had the votes for her Special Session, the Governor went door to door at the legislature, likely offering a mix of carrots and sticks depending on the legislator.

What sticks do leading Democrats have to keep the unruly in line? The obvious one is that the Governor has veto power — and multiple other tools too — to effectively ensure that any rebellious legislator’s agenda never sees the light of day.

Dem leadership also decide who gets which legislative committee assignments, and thus who has real power and who doesn’t — who gets promoted into positions of leadership and who is permanently ineffectual.

The nuclear option is something Democrats never choose to do: run a candidate in the Democratic primary against an incumbent. When a politician is a ‘rogue political actor,’ the Democratic Party could easily oust them from office in a humiliating farewell that would serve as the ultimate punishment.

Even a threat — especially one that’s issued publicly — of a primary could easily change a vote, yet it never happens. It would, however, be a possibility if one Senator refused to give a needed vote for a priority of the leadership — such as Kate Brown’s Special Session; then you would see the full weight of the party come out in the open.

But such threats are never needed or used to pass progressive legislation, because Dem leadership doesn’t want truly progressive legislation to pass.

Democrats complain about Betsy plenty but they’ve never run a candidate against her in the primary election. In last November’s election she coasted to another easy victory. For the Democrats she just isn’t a problem big enough for a solution, and she’s the perfect fit for a scapegoat.

The Democrats need Betsy Johnson to keep her seat in order to have a ready made excuse for inaction.

Democrats Versus the Housing Crisis

The recent example of ex-Senator Rod Monroe proves that you can primary a right wing Democrat, and win. But Oregon Democrats didn’t choose to oust Monroe in the primary election, the tenant movement did.

Monroe’s Senate seat was considered safe until Portland Tenants United put him in the public cross-hairs, attacking him relentlessly for his blockage of pro-tenant House Bill 2004 — which would have ended the ban on local rent control and made no-cause evictions illegal. After a barrage of public protests — and consequently negative press — it became obvious that Monroe’s seat was vulnerable in the primary.

It was only after this that some progressive Democrats in the House broke rank with leadership and supported Shemia Fagan against him. Fagan’s electoral platform included the HB 2004 protections that Monroe had killed, and her victory ended Monroe’s political career while drastically weakening the landlord lobby propping him up.

Senator Shemia Fagan and former Senator Rod Monroe

Fagan’s victory was a resounding mandate for her pro-tenant agenda, and should have been enough for her tenant protection agenda to sail through the legislature this session. But the Democratic old guard has received money hand-over-fist from the landlord lobby, whose lead lobbyist, John DiLorenzo, recently said:

“I believe there are still sufficient votes in the Senate to resist any system like that envisioned in HB 2004.”

Interestingly, Peter Courtney gave Fagan control of the Senate Housing Committee, in what many considered to be an acknowledgment of her mandate on the issue.

But it was a bait-and-switch. Courtney moved Fagan into the Housing Committee and — using his Senate President powers — immediately moved tenant legislation into the Rules Committee, headed by Burdick, where the duo worked with Tina Kotek as well as the landlord and realtor lobby, who have been publicly thanked for their collaboration, to craft their own watered down ‘rent stabilization’ bill.

It’s these kinds of undemocratic shenanigans that are being used, yet again, to create investor-favored half-measures instead of actually putting forth solutions to the housing crisis.

And while the proposed bill — Senate Bill 608 — does nominally increase protections against ‘no-cause’ evictions — after the first year and with harmful exceptions — it’s unsurprisingly riddled with loopholes that give landlords power and leave tenants with a false sense of confidence.

And as far as ‘rent control’, it allows (and thus normalizes) yearly rent increases two to three times higher than any other rent control policy. This is the kind of ‘rent control’ that landlords are more excited about than fearful of: annual rent increases capped at 7% plus CPI, while in cities across the United States rent control means inflation only, or 1–3% max.

If the average rent growth illustrated by the blue curve is an indicator of housing crisis level rents, why would we institutionalize rent increases at dramatically higher rates?

So why pass a rent control bill that really isn’t a rent control bill? To ensure that landlords continue to have high rates of return on their investment — while extinguishing further threats of actual rent control by maintaining the ban on cities to create their own rent control policy.

SB 608 might be palatable if cities were allowed to craft their own policies to plug some of its holes and actually protect tenants, but the current bill was likely blessed by the landlord and realtor lobby precisely because the ban would be kept in place, guaranteeing high profits at the expense of renters, while ‘shutting the door’ on additional protections.

In a typical legislative session SB 608 wouldn’t be such a travesty, but this session is a Democratic supermajority propelled into power, in part, by the demands for strong tenant protections — a pillar demand of which was removing the ban on local rent control. This session was a moment to be seized instead of bargained away to big money, and it’s especially tragic because Portland is well positioned — after the election of Jo Ann Hardesty — to pass additional tenant legislation. Instead, the more intelligent landlords will certainly celebrate the passage of this compromised bill with greater enthusiasm than the average renter.

Democrats will no doubt tout the bill as ‘historic’ while some housing groups will at least call the bill ‘a big step in the right direction,’ while promises will be made to lower the rent cap (7% plus inflation) sometime in the future. The reality in Salem, however, is that issues are treated as ‘settled’ after a bill is passed, and off the table for years thereafter.

SB 608 is designed to pass the legislature quickly in order to mute opposition and declare ‘victory.’ Tenants have little time to demand that SB 608 be amended to include that the ban on local rent control be lifted.

Will Democrats Fund the State With Progressive or Regressive Taxes?

The main priority for Democrats this session is to raise revenue to fund schools and other basic services, but from where? And who is going to pay? Ninety-nine percent of Oregonians would prefer that the wealthiest 1% pay. Nobody except the rich wants a regressive sales tax, but the problem is that big business proved — by torpedoing of Measure 97 for example — that they will spend tens of millions of dollars to kill any attempt at progressive taxation. After the Measure 97 loss, Democrats stopped championing taxing the rich and corporations. Now it’s just ‘revenue’ that is mentioned, minus the word ‘progressive.’

The ‘big idea’ that is gaining steam — because big business likes it — is the ‘value added tax’ (VAT), possibly in conjunction with an excise tax (both are examples of ‘indirect taxes’ that are favored by big business because the taxes are easier to shift on to consumers). The taxes are essentially hidden sales taxes.

In Oregon the VAT tax is being renamed by big business — now the ‘business activity tax’ in order to sell it to the public, and to hide the fact that the tax burden will be shifted on to consumers. Of course, big business doesn’t want a business tax — their mission in life is to avoid such taxes. The name change is a clever way to fool voters and prevent outrage.

The size and implications of such a giant tax overhaul has barely been mentioned in public, since such a discussion would no doubt provoke a backlash and create space to discuss alternatives like a progressive income or corporate tax. Voters deserve to be educated about these taxes, and they deserve to be able to make a choice between a consumption tax or a progressive tax, instead of the regressive one being rammed down their throats.

With a supermajority, the Democrats can do anything they want. And yet they are leaning towards a policy most favored by big business, rather than doing what the voters would prefer, such as the progressive income tax that was passed in California combined with an increase in the corporate tax.

No More Excuses, No More Compromises

The Democrats seem stunned by their recent super-majority success, paralyzed by the expectations from voters on one hand, and the demands of big money on the other, caught between labor unions and big business, between renters and landlords.

It’s possible that 2019 will be a turning point for Oregon, but in what direction? For years there has been a stalemate of sorts between big business and big labor, creating a rudderless ship. But in politics the bigger power eventually asserts itself and grabs the steering wheel. Labor, renters and the broader left won the election handily — shifting the balance of power — but big business and big landlords are experts at stealing such prizes via lobbying, campaign donations, and more explicit forms of corruption.

The unions which helped win several of these elections for the Democrats — most notably SEIU and the Oregon Education Association — should publicly oppose regressive taxes and landlord-friendly housing solutions, while continuing to insist that Democrats tax the rich and corporations to fully fund education, housing, daycare, maternity leave healthcare, PERS, etc.

The 2019 session is a chance for the Oregon legislature to prove to voters what bold solutions look like. We’ll be watching what kind of bills come out and we’ll be highlighting the bad actors who may need a challenger in the next primary election. Labor and community groups did not pack the polls for business as usual politics, and if the session continues in the direction it’s going, we hope that others will join us in day-lighting and replacing the barriers to progress in Oregon.