Money is on everyone’s mind as deals and revenue report loom
Money is always on everyone’s mind in the Capitol, and the revenue forecast this week will tell legislators how much they have to spend. Simultaneously, a bill to spend some of Oregon’s booming fortunes on front-line workers seems to be slipping away.
Every quarter, Oregon economists forecast upcoming state revenue. Recently, the projections have exceeded expectations. Unanticipated billions of dollars have made their way into Oregon’s projected budget, based largely on excellent economic performance throughout the pandemic and generous federal emergency funding. This has allowed the Legislature to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to policy areas including housing, workforce and infrastructure.
Optimism is high that the economic report Wednesday, Feb. 9, will continue the streak of good news for the Legislature. The upcoming forecast includes 2020's final quarter, when spending is expected to be high and before the recent market jolts.
Good economic news means more bills can be paid for. With most bills still technically alive before the first procedural deadline on Monday, Feb. 7, lobbyists are buzzing about whose bills have a chance. The long-anticipated front-line worker bill, which could benefit school workers, is generating much of the talk.
Across two sessions, legislators, unions and other worker representatives have pushed to distribute money to front-line workers who were compelled to work during the pandemic, putting them at greater risk of COVID-19-related harm. Rep. Andrea Valderrama, D-Portland, has been among the most vocal champions for this legislation. Valderrama, a David Douglas School Board member, told The Oregonian that front-line workers were called heroes but they, the lowest-waged and the hardest hit, “did not receive additional compensation or hazard pay for showing up to these jobs.”
One starting point for the legislation was a payment of up to $1,000 for every front-line worker, which could include school staff such as teachers, bus drivers and food service workers.
But, as is so often the case, the devil is in the details. What is a “front-line worker” and how much time would they have to work to qualify? Anything greater than $600 is a potential federal tax liability, so how much good would be accomplished? And can the state even afford a payment, with the sheer number of potential recipients quickly escalating any gesture into hundreds of millions of dollars.
One option being floated would create some sort of tax credit or tax break that could be targeted at workers who claimed the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. Straightforward to implement, the tax credit could potentially benefit the neediest. But it does not promise the resounding good feeling of giving every front-line worker a check for their important work.
As this reality has set in, so too has disillusionment. Legislators and lobbyists who genuinely want to use one-time money to reward the hardest-working and neediest Oregonians for their shared sacrifice have found that it is less and less likely that they’ll be able to do so in the way they want.
OSBA is not involved with the bill, but I have been privy to some behind-the-scenes discussions. Asking around among lobbyists and government relations professionals, I found uniform unhappiness with the session and the Legislature. When asked “How is the session going for you?” every lobbyist — whether progressive or conservative, old or young, contract or issue-specific — answered that things felt bad. Confidence in their ability to influence the best outcomes was low, and morale was lower.
Lobbyists did not want to be identified for fear it could affect their work, but some select responses offer an idea of the mood.
“Public schools? That’s too hot for me. I couldn’t do that this year,” said a lobbyist for a progressive organization involved in Oregon elections.
“Can no bills pass? That’s what I want,” said a business-focused lobbyist.
Griping is not uncommon among lobbyists. The professionals employed to represent different interests care deeply about their issues, and a small part of them lives and dies with every bill. It can be both thrilling (the Student Success Act) and crushing (every underfunded State School Fund), and so there is always a lot of letting off steam.
But it is quite unusual to get negative feedback from every lobbyist. Usually somebody is winning if somebody else is losing. The general malaise is a sign of the cumulative effect of years of coronavirus restrictions and ever-sharper partisan divides. Lobbyists and legislators are struggling to make the human connections that grease the wheels of good governance and create legislation for Oregon’s benefit.
There has been no major turbulence one week into this short session, and some good bills for schools appear to be on their way. The deadline Monday to post bills will ratchet up the stakes. But another soothing economic forecast could go a long way toward making this an effective legislative session.
- Richard Donovan
Legislative Services specialist