Unelected, with a big stick
The behind-the-scenes powers in Salem
By Oakley Brooks
Oregonians hear a lot about the activities of the governor, the Senate president and the House speaker in the Oregon Legislature, but rarely do we hear much about those working behind the scenes. Here’s a short list of those little-seen power players who command respect in Salem and will figure prominently in the upcoming session.
Mark Nelson — Lobbyist
As Oregon’s most powerful lobbyist, Nelson’s big-ticket clients are RJ Reynolds and Anheuser-Busch, for whom he wards off increases in cigarette and beer taxes. He defends them by deftly turning the focus away from the mega conglomerates that pay him to the little guy who drinks beer and smokes. “Tobacco and beer companies don’t pay taxes. Oregonians pay taxes,” Nelson said of drinkers and smokers during the 2002 special legislative sessions, when tobacco taxes were threatened. “That’s what this is all about.” A clear sign of his clout, however, is the range of organizations that have tapped him to carry water, from the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities (ICNU) to Oregon Head Start Association and Association of Oregon Faculties. Nelson’s long list of customers nearly doubled back and bit him during those acrimonious special sessions in 2002, when several college professors argued for tobacco tax money to go toward education. But luckily for Nelson, the faculty association’s board didn’t agree that Nelson should lobby for that specific funding. A staff member for the state treasurer and attorney general before turning to lobbying in 1980, Nelson, 59, says his biggest recent win came in the 2005 session, when, working for ICNU, he went up against the giants of Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp and argued in favor of a law that barred utilities from collecting money for taxes they didn’t pay. (It passed and other business lobbies also claim that victory.) This fall, Nelson is taking on a new challenge. He’s organizing a fight against ballot Measure 45, which imposes term limits on legislators. The knee-jerk response is that Nelson is merely protecting the status quo in which he reigns supreme. But many Salem-watchers of all political persuasions have said fewer seasoned, independent-minded lawmakers (resulting from an experiment with term limits from 1992- 2002) have turned the Legislature into the partisan slugfest it is today. New term limits would only make it worse. In this case, Nelson may be doing the state, in addition to his clients, a favor.
Mike McCallum — President, Oregon Restaurant Association
McCallum, 49, is a different sort of lobbyist. He’s at the head of a powerful organization that was one of only eight groups to contribute more than $300,000 to candidates in legislative and statewide races in 2004 (ORA spreads its contributions to both parties). With 3,000 members, the restaurant association spends about half a million dollars a year on a four-person lobby led by McCallum and his right-hand man Bill Perry. Backed by that substantial cash flow, McCallum, a 20-year veteran in Salem, has the ear of Legislative leadership on crucial issues of minimum wage and lottery receipts for restaurateurs. In last year’s session, the Oregonian reported that McCallum convinced House majority leader Wayne Scott (R-Canby) and House speaker Karen Minnis (R-Wood Village) to sign a letter authored by McCallum and send it on to the lottery chief on the eve of a crucial lottery commission vote. Restaurateurs’ take of earnings on lottery games in their establishments was diminished but with added games their revenue has remained steady. While the Oregon minimum wage rose to $7.25, McCallum and the ORA convinced legislators to carve out exceptions in minimum wage bills for tipped employees to lower the food industry’s payroll. But the exception has never made it into law. This year, they hired a Washington lobbyist and succeeded in getting tipped employees exemptions into the federal minimum wage bill that would have trumped Oregon law. It, too, stalled out this summer. Look for McCallum and ORA to again push the issue in 2007.
Pat Egan — The governor’s chief of staff
The governor’s point person is such a crucial role that you’d have to substitute Republican Ron Saxton’s chief as a power player if he can pull off a win as the challenger. In Egan, 37, the Kulongoski camp says they have a bright, young political mind that can once again steer the Legislature in their favor. They have seen what an ineffective point person can mean to a governor’s agenda. Kulongoski shook up his staff just before the 2005 Legislative session, putting budget guru Teresa McHugh in as chief of staff and Team K had a hard time passing much in their agenda. Many Salem experts chided the governor’s team for being too insular. Egan spent several years as the Port of Portland’s lobbyist after serving as the legislative adviser for Gov. John Kitzhaber and then Kulongoski briefly in 2003. Many say he knows the ins and outs of the Salem scene. He wrote the $100 million Connect Oregon transportation program early in the Kulongoski administration and then lobbied on the part of the Port of Portland to get it passed — $16.8 million of the grants went to the port. Kulongoski is promising an energy package and a children’s health care initiative funded by tobacco taxes in ’07. Those will go nowhere without the deft maneuvering of Egan.
Paul Warner — Legislative revenue officer
Few individuals have the ability to turn ideas into numbers like Warner, an economist who explains the impact of new legislation on state revenue as bills come forward in the Legislature. Legislators also turn to him for his sense of how the economy is doing and how close he thinks revenue projections (which come first from the governor’s office) will be to reality. “When he talks, we all listen,” says one legislator of Warner, 52, who served as the state economist for 10 years before moving over to the Legislature in 1999. Warner will be central, as always, in the upcoming legislative session for the added reason that he’ll assist lawmakers in coping with the “kicker,” Oregon’s tax rebate system that this year will be returning $1.3 billion to businesses and individuals. Recession is also when Warner becomes critical as legislators search for ways to raise more money. He was often turned to during the hellish budget balancing in 2001-03, when state revenue suffered its most precipitous decline since the Great Depression. As crucial as Warner’s information is, he takes pains to make sure it’s consistent no matter who requests it. “Those who get it can go and couch it in how they view the world,” Warner says. “You just want to make sure that if people with different philosophies ask one question you give them the same answer.”
Also in the mix…
Dave Barrows, a lobbyist whose heavy-hitting clients — Nike and the Grand Ronde Tribes — speak volumes about his influence…Connie Seeley, senate president Peter Courtney’s chief of staff, puts the endgame budget together for the Democrat-dominated senate…Gary Wilhelms, a veteran staffer whose daughter is helping run Ron Saxton’s campaign, returns to head House speaker Karen Minnis’ office (provided she wins re-election)…Associated Oregon Industries may have a new face with Jay Clemens from Oklahoma replacing Richard Butrick as its chief, but its small army of lobbyists still commands a lot of attention in Salem…Ken Rocco, legislative fiscal officer, breaks down the state budget for legislators: What does each program cost and how are well are state agencies spending and managing their money?
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