Labor ponders what to expect from Legislature

SALEM — The Oregon Legislature began its 73rd session Jan. 10. Once again, union leaders expect it to be a battleground of pro- and anti-worker proposals.

Over the next six to nine months, legislators will have to make decisions about taxing and spending, and respond to constituent concerns about jobs and health care, schools, prisons and transportation.

The Democrats won control of the Oregon Senate in the November 2004 election, but the Oregon House is still in Republican hands, and some new House Republicans are reputed to be more conservative than the legislators they replaced.

That means deadlock is a possibility, says Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt, whose job is to coordinate the union political presence in Salem.

“The superficial analysis would say that the Senate will do good stuff and the House will do bad stuff, and neither of the twain shall meet, so we stay the same.”

But in a deeper analysis, Nesbitt said, legislators of both parties are going to have to make hard budget decisions.

“K-12 schools, community colleges, and the Oregon Health Plan are going to need more money to continue to meet their mission, so unless we end up with a surprisingly robust economic turnaround, we’re going to be forced to either cut budgets or increase revenues.”

The Oregon AFL-CIO has been pushing tax reform to restore fairness to Oregon’s tax system by eliminating special-interest tax breaks for corporations. Specifically, the federation is calling on the Legislature to roll back income tax breaks to the level in effect 10 years ago, and oppose any new tax breaks whose revenue losses aren’t offset by the repeal or reduction of other tax breaks.

It’s simple, Nesbitt said: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

But Nesbitt thinks Tom Butler, the Republican chair of the House Revenue Committee, may not see things that way.

In the last session, lawmakers approved $75 million in business tax breaks that don’t take affect until now. That amount of money is the budgetary equivalent of five days of school for every student in Oregon, Nesbitt said.

And already in this session, a bill to cut capital gains taxes has been introduced, by no less than House Majority Leader Wayne Scott (R-Canby).

Scott also introduced, on the second day of the new session, a bill to eliminate annual increases in the minimum wage (HB 2331). Oregon’s minimum wage law, approved by voters via a 2002 ballot measure, provides for annual increases in the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. The Oregon Restaurant Association has continued to argue that Oregon’s high unemployment is a result of its high minimum wage. That’s contradicted, says Oregon AFL-CIO political director Steve Lanning, by the fact those industries that pay minimum wage are actually growing in employment; the job losses are mostly in high-paying tech and manufacturing sectors, and are a result of foreign competition.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, a set of more than 20 pro-worker bills was introduced by labor ally Dan Gardner, the elected commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries and a longtime member of Electrical Workers Local 48. One bill would make it unlawful to discipline an employee for asserting wage and hour rights. Another would provide a penalty for non-payment of wages due to willful or repeated failure to record actual hours worked. A third would invalidate non-competition agreement if an employee is laid off.

Nesbitt predicts that legislators will be surprised this year by the amount of public pressure to do something about rising health care costs.

“Given the level of public demand, the Legislature will want to do something,” Nesbitt said. “The challenge for us is to get them to do something meaningful.”

Senate President Peter Courtney is expected to introduce a bill to regulate the rates health insurance companies charge. Companies would have to demonstrate increased costs before they would be allowed to raise rates.

That proposal is one of five health care reforms that the Oregon AFL-CIO will be seeking support for. The others are:

• Consolidating employees of all school districts statewide into one big health insurance purchasing pool.

• Expanding Oregon’s fledgling prescription drug purchasing pool by opening it up to union health trusts, uninsured individuals, and self-insured employers.

• Requiring hospitals to establish fair and equitable rates for all payers that reflect the reasonable cost of providing the service.

• Making public the extent to which some large employers have employees that use taxpayer-subsidized health care services.

The Oregon AFL-CIO also will ask the Legislature to go on record in support of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill in the U.S. Congress that would rewrite the labor law to better protect workers’ right to unionize.

Lanning said there may be some modest reforms that could win support of Republicans in the House, such as a proposal backed by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 to forbid firing of clerks on the first offense for failing to check ID on alcohol purchases — if their employer didn’t give them at least two hours of training. Lanning said the proposal has the backing of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and could be seen by Republican lawmakers as a common-sense fairness measure.

Also, Lanning said, the AFL-CIO might be able to find common cause with some Republicans on several jobs bills — money for transportation and infrastructure improvements, particularly in North Bend — that could put some union members back to work.

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