By Oakley Brooks
Like the start of the baseball season each spring, hope also seems to spring eternal at the opening of a new legislative session. Oregon’s Senate and House are called into session Jan. 8 and, for now, among those with an economic agenda, all is forgotten after the pitched battles and frustrations of 2005. Salem’s electeds and lobbyists seem to have gotten the message that the public is fed up with their obstructionist carrying on (while snagging all-expense-paid trips to Hawaii). Heading into this year’s session, the name of the game for business lobbyists is to compromise and smile on the governor’s agenda.
LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH
On the surface it looked like the newly re-elected Gov. Ted Kulongoski rubbed the losing constituents’ nose in it a bit with two of his staff appointments: Chip Terhune, the Oregon Education Association lobbyist, took over as chief of staff and Tim Nesbitt, the former Oregon AFL-CIO chief, joined as Terhune’s deputy. But the consensus is that Terhune, at least, is a political professional, not an ideologue. Although he’s spent a lot of time in recent years working on behalf of teachers and ballot measures to increase the size of the state budget pie, his background also includes time working alongside the tenured professor of Salem lobbying — Mark Nelson. “He has a broad background and I’m comfortable with him heading up the governor’s staff,” says Bill Perry, government relations chief for the Oregon Restaurant Association.
Perry is a little more wary of the former labor lobbyist Nesbitt. But John Ledger, Associated Oregon Industries’ VP and one of its lobbyists, thinks Nesbitt, too, will check his ideology at the door: It’s been a tradition for lobbyists who take on new government posts. “It’s dangerous to assume that what people have done in a past job they’ll bring to their current post,” Ledger says.
WHAT’S ON THE BUSINESS AGENDA?
There’s a growing school of thought among business lobbyists that corporate leaders will agree to the state keeping the $275 million corporate tax refund or “kicker” if it’s spent on business priorities. Putting the kicker in a reserve fund is one option. But some groups are also looking hard at investing the corporate kicker in higher education or transportation. If the kicker-to-reserve option fails, the Oregon Business Association (OBA), the self-described “moderate” business voice, will be pushing for a one-time capital investment either for state universities and community colleges, or on non-highway transportation projects similar to those backed by last session’s Connect Oregon program. “We want the rainy-day fund to succeed but we just don’t think the kicker is the best way to do it,” says OBA President Lynn Lundquist, who says the organization favors placing the state’s unspent balance at the end of each funding cycle in a reserve fund.
OBA will push for more money dedicated to K-12, though Lundquist says he realizes it might not be the 14% increase Kulongoski has proposed. AOI’s Ledger says he’s encouraged by more dollars in Kulongoski’s higher education budget. On K-12, Ledger wouldn’t comment (AOI’s board hadn’t finalized its agenda by press time), but issued a reminder that “the Legislature has always been tighter with the purse strings than the governor.”
The state farm bureau plans to rein in the state’s minimum wage, which rose 30 cents to $7.80 an hour Jan. 1 to keep up with inflation. Farmers typically pay laborers right at the minimum and farm bureau lobbyist Don Schellenberg says a new study from University of California-Davis due out around the first of the year will document how cost-of-living raises burden farmers. “We have to mitigate this and we’ll be pushing for that,” says Schellenberg. Meanwhile, restaurant reps say they have struck a deal with labor commissioner Dan Gardner to smooth the way for legislation allowing wait staff to forgo mandatory breaks in the midst of lunch and dinner rush periods. Bill Perry describes that as a potential win not only for restaurant owners frustrated with juggling staff but also servers dependent on tip income. “They’re losing income at the busiest times,” he says.
Minimum requirements for sales of biofuels and subsidies for ethanol and biodiesel look to have a better chance this session. Industry backers now have a trade group, the Northwest Biofuels Association, several refineries in the works in Oregon and a sea change in public opinion on renewable energy since a renewable fuels bill died because of partisan squabbling in 2005. The change in House leadership and continued backing from the OBA and farm bureau should also help biofuels’ case in the Legislature.
Kulongoski still has a lot of work to do to sell his plan to boost renewables’ portion of electricity generation to 25% by 2025. Business groups have so far been lukewarm to the plan because of potential electricity rate increases; despite private investments in wind generation in Oregon, cheap hydroelectric power here generally has made solar, wind and geothermal energy less competitive than in California, for instance, where a substantial renewable policy has been adopted.
BUSTING THE METAL PIRATES
The most intriguing bill likely to get attention this session is the stolen metals legislation being hashed out at press time by reps of the nursery, construction, railroad, metal recycling industries and law enforcement officials. A robust, meth-fueled underground trade has developed around stolen sprinkler pipes, housing materials, tools and railroad equipment. Union Pacific, for instance, budgets $1 million a year in the region for stolen metals and equipment. The new bill would place reporting requirements on metals recyclers and stiffen the penalties for metal thieves and recyclers who don’t comply with reporting standards or are caught trading stolen goods.