AFL-CIO gives Oregon Legislature mixed review

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

SALEM — The Oregon State Legislature ended its 2005 session Aug. 5, and union leaders gave its work a mixed review.

Oregon’s Legislature has just one regular session every two years, and this time it suffered from a kind of gridlock, with Democrats in control of the Oregon Senate and Republicans running the Oregon House of Representatives. It was the first time in over a decade that the Republicans didn’t control both chambers.

That was a relief to union leaders like Steve Lanning, political director of the Oregon AFL-CIO. Democrats tend to work much more closely with organized labor, so at least unions weren’t on the defense quite as much, Lanning said.

Unions pay close attention to the state Capitol because a lot is at stake for working people. For example, lawmakers decide whether corporations and the wealthy will pay their share of taxes; whether regulations will protect workers on the job; whether injured and unemployed workers will get the help they need; and whether the state will do something to slow health care cost increases.

A quick tally at the session’s end showed that the House voted in accord with the AFL-CIO position on eight out of 20 bills, whereas the Senate voted with the AFL-CIO recommendation in 23 out of 25 cases.

“We were able to stop most of the bad things from happening,” said State Representative Diane Rosenbaum. “But very little got done that was significant, and that was largely because the Republicans were in control.”

Rosenbaum, a Portland Democrat, is a retired member of Communications Workers of America (CWA) and a former member of the Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board. She is also president of the labor caucus of the National Conference of State Legislators. And in the House this session, she served as Democratic whip, responsible for making sure Democrats vote according to party recommendations.


In a budget hole, haggling over the size of the shovel

Arguably the most important decisions made by the Legislature are about taxing and spending: Who will pay how much in taxes, and what public purposes will receive priority.

At the beginning of the session, the AFL-CIO line was “no new taxes, just give us back our old taxes.” That’s because year after year, the Legislature cut the taxes paid by corporations and the wealthy with round after round of special tax breaks. And year after year, state budgets got tighter — class sizes grew and state courts closed on Fridays. The state labor federation argued that if Oregon would just roll back the tax breaks, it would not have to make the budget cuts. But that idea didn’t fly, testament to the strength of the “loophole lobby.” So the federation adopted a new slogan: “If you’re in a budget hole, stop digging.” In other words, at least stop giving new tax giveaways if you’re having to make budget cuts. The Republican-led House didn’t heed that advice either, and passed new tax cuts, to the tune of $280 billion over four years, by one estimate. The Democrat-led Senate reduced those tax cuts to $35 million over four years, with two-thirds going to the poorest workers via an enlarged “earned income tax credit.”

In sum, the Legislature was unwilling to roll back tax loopholes — or reform a tax system in which the state is dependent on workers’ income taxes while corporate taxes account for just 5 percent of the state budget and two-thirds of Oregon corporations pay just $10 a year in taxes. Stymied in Salem, labor may take the issue directly to voters; the Oregon AFL-CIO is mulling possible ballot initiatives to increase the corporate minimum tax, and make corporations pay the same rate on profits that working people do on income.


The resultant cuts

But in the meantime, lawmakers’ unwillingness to find revenues means further belt-tightening for some state budgets. Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt said K-12 education was shortchanged, and so were the Oregon Health Plan and state human services.

The budget lawmakers approved totals $12.393 billion for the next two years. That includes $5.24 billion for K-12 education, an amount education advocates said would leave schools $55 million below what’s needed to maintain current service.

One minor budget casualty was Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) of the University of Oregon, which helps labor unions with training and research just as business schools help businesses. LERC had its budget cut 14 percent, and may lay off at least one staffperson.

“That $100,000 is chicken feed for them, but it’s huge for us,” said LERC professor Barbara Byrd.

One state program opposed by unions had its funding terminated. Jobs Plus, the brainchild of anti-union millionaire Dick Wentz, paid companies to hire the unemployed, in effect using unemployment insurance money intended to benefit workers for the benefit of employers. Lanning said political support for the program waned as employers realized they were paying a higher unemployment insurance premium so that a few businesses could get a wage subsidy.

Money for new construction

Not every part of the budget faced cuts. Lawmakers found a way to pay for several new construction projects that will likely employ skilled union construction workers:
• $100 million in lottery-backed bonds will fund non-highway transportation infrastructure through an initiative called Connect Oregon;
• $410 million in new bonds will pay for new construction and improvements at Oregon universities and community colleges over the next five to six years;
• and construction will continue at a prison in Madras [though once completed, the facility will remain unused for nine months because legislators didn’t appropriate the funding to hire additional corrections officers.]


“Somewhere in this river valley, someone is spraying atrazine”

The Legislature resolved a drawn-out skirmish over pesticides, funding a pesticide use reporting system — but changing the program to make it almost useless to researchers looking into the effects of pesticides on human health and the environment. Concerned about occupational exposure, the AFL-CIO had joined with environmental and public health groups in 1999 to pass a law that set up a Pesticide Use Reporting System. That law was a compromise with a group representing pesticide users; the group wanted to stave off a farther-reaching “Right-to-Know” bill that would have given Oregonians the right to find out what pesticides are being used in their workplace, on their neighbor’s property, or at their children’s playground. But at the request of the pesticide users group, the 2001 and 2003 Legislatures failed to appropriate the money needed to run the program. This year, the money was finally approved, but the data will be reported using geographic designations too large and imprecise for it to be useful to researchers.

Beyond the budget, union lobbyists saw many of their proposals fail. Among the defeats were a package of bills aimed at reining in health care costs, and a handful of bills pushed by unions representing public workers and grocery workers to help their members.


Do something about health care costs? Better luck next session

Runaway health care costs are dipping into employers’ and workers’ bottom lines, and are leaving some without any access to health care. But with the hospital, insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies paying close attention, lawmakers couldn’t work up the nerve to do anything about it. Union health care activists found that House Republicans were very good at saying no to Democratic proposals, but themselves had no real agenda for reducing costs. Then again, Senate Democrats couldn’t be relied on to support Democratic proposals either. Out of an ambitious set of cost-cutting proposals, not one bill of any significance passed both houses.

Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) lobbied for a handful of bills that didn’t make it. A bill that would have opened state Public Employee Benefit Board to participation by local governments failed to pass either chamber. The Senate passed a bill making it easier to unionize at local governments, but the bill, allowing “card check” union recognition, got no hearing in House. The Senate also passed a revenue-neutral bill that would have allowed 9-1-1 operators to retire early with a reduced benefit. But the bill was doomed in the House, said Council 75 Executive Director Ken Allen, after an article appeared in The Oregonian showing retired teachers lounging by a pool in Arizona.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 assigned a staff person as a full-time lobbyist to push bills that adopt a less punitive approach in cases where grocery cashiers unknowingly sell alcohol to minors. The bills had no success this time around, but the union plans to reintroduce them in the future.

Several bills supported by labor passed, including greater regulation of insurance company doctors who examine injured workers; and a bill requiring insurers to give the same level of coverage to mental health as they do to physical ailments.

And several bills opposed by labor were defeated, including a bill written by agribusiness lobbyists that would have determined the rules under which farmworkers could unionize; and a bill that would have rolled back provisions of the minimum wage law voters passed in 2002, canceling automatic cost-of-living increases in the minimum wage for workers who receive tips.

The Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council was able to get several bills passed. In public construction projects that combine federal and state money, workers will be paid according to whichever is higher of the two “prevailing wage” rates. [For some crafts, the difference can be $5 or $6 an hour, said OSBCTC Executive Secretary Bob Shiprack.] Another new law requires subcontractors on public works projects to carry a bond to cover failure to pay so-called Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rates. And “responsible bidder” requirements — passed six years ago — will be beefed-up thanks to SB 1006, a bill authored by Electrical Workers staff attorney Norm Malbin. Under the new law, contractors that win bids on public construction projects will have to document that they are “responsible,” meaning they meet their pay, training and contractual obligations and comply with all applicable laws. The building trades were also able to defeat a bill sponsored by the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors that would have weakened apprenticeship training requirements.

There were a few bad bills that slipped through, including two bills that, as of press time, the Oregon AFL-CIO was asking the governor to veto.

A big corporation can always get special favors

Sometimes it seemed workers had one party, and corporations had two. Nike — the non-union shoe and apparel titan that led its industry in outsourcing production to foreign sweatshops — didn’t want to pay the local taxes its neighbors in Beaverton pay. So it demanded and received a special law that prevents Beaverton from annexing Nike’s Washington County “campus.” The Oregon AFL-CIO opposed the bill, which would exempt one of the world’s richest corporations from contributing to local government for 35 years. The bill passed both House and Senate with bi-partisan support; as of press time it was unknown whether Governor Ted Kulongoski would sign it.

The other measure was a bill giving a tax credit to agricultural employers that pay minimum wage, in effect rewarding low-wage employers big or small, and giving them a disincentive to pay farmworkers more than minimum wage.

As of press time, the Oregon AFL-CIO had not finished compiling its ratings of individual legislators. COPE (Committee on Political Education) ratings show how often lawmakers voted in accord with labor’s recommendations on bills that mattered most to unions and their members.

Nesbitt said that eight months ago labor leaders had a combination of modest and hopeful expectations for the 2005 Legislature. “The modest expectation was that when it comes to budget, the Legislature would do no further harm and would stop digging the hole deeper,” he said. Those expectations were modestly achieved. “I view this as a session in which we kept the finger in the dike against new tax breaks for businesses that were already favored by the tax system.”

But the hopeful expectation, Nesbitt said, was that the Legislature would do something about spiraling health care costs. Those hopes were dashed, he said.

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