Following up on yesterday’s post comparing the cojones of Oregon Democrats to the relative lack thereof in their Washington counterparts (“Oregon Dems play ball; Washington Dems lack ‘em“), the Oregon House passed two bills yesterday raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy. The two tax increases would bring in a combined $733 million over the 2009-2011 biennium, softening cuts to education by filling in a sizeable chunk of Oregon’s estimated $4 billion revenue shortfall.
The bills have already passed out of committee in the Senate, where they are widely expected to pass. And…
Pleased by the votes, Gov. Ted Kulongoski said the measures “will not solve our budget shortfalls, but they will help thousands of Oregonians during this very trying economic period. … I look forward to signing these measures into law.”
It is interesting to note that by raising income taxes from the current top rate of 9 percent to 10.8 percent on household incomes over $250,000 a year, and 11 percent on household incomes over $500,000, Oregon’s HB 2649 will have a similar impact on the wealthy as would have the high-earners income tax pushed by advocates like me during Washington’s previous session, which in most iterations would have imposed a 2 to 3 percent tax on household incomes over $250,000 a year. Likewise, Oregon and Washington both have super-majority requirements for passing tax increases, both have an initiative and referendum process that would likely subject any tax increase to a vote of the people, and both faced similar sized deficits as a percentage of their overall budgets.
Yet Oregon Democrats chose to raise taxes to help soften devastating budget cuts—never a popular thing to do—while Washington Democrats refused to even seriously debate the option. Huh.
I’m not sure how to explain the cultural differences between the Democratic caucuses in these two neighboring Northwest states, that leads one to legislate boldly in the interests of their constituents while the other remains timidly enthralled to the status quo. But I am increasingly becoming convinced that there is only one option available to Washington progressives who seek accountability and responsiveness from the Democratic legislators we work so hard to elect. And it’s a lesson, ironically, we may need to learn from Oregon’s Republicans.
The Oregon tax bills passed by 37-23 margin, just barely within the three-fifths majority necessary. But with one Dem voting nay, the measure would have failed without the support of two Republicans who crossed over to approve the measures. And as Carla reports on Blue Oregon, such breaks in party discipline don’t sit well with Oregon Republicans who are now on the warpath against their two traitorous colleagues.
“I think they’ve left the team and it wouldn’t surprise me if they have strong opponents in the primary” next year, said Oregon Republican Chairman Bob Tiernan.
On top of that, Tiernan said it was “probably likely” that the state GOP would actually wind up helping defeat Smith and Jenson in next year’s party primary.
Tax activist Russ Walker, who heads the Oregon chapter of FreedomWorks and is vice chairman of the state GOP, has helped take out two Republican incumbents in past years who voted with Democrats in primary. Rep. Vic Backlund, R-Keizer, was beat in 2004 and Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, lost in 2006.
“I swear to God they will not come back to this building,” said Walker. “Those guys are not reflecting the values of those who put them in those seats.”
Not that moving the state party even further to the right is the best electoral prescription for what ails Oregon Republicans, but from a Machiavellian perspective you gotta at least admire the GOP’s traditional enforcement of party discipline. Perhaps Greg Smith (R-Heppner) and Bob Jenson (R-Pendleton) believe their party is too weak at the moment to extract its usual revenge, or perhaps they truly care enough about education to risk the inevitable, but there’s a reason so few Republicans tend to cross the aisle on contentious votes, particularly those involving tax increases.
Democrats, on the other hand, we’re all over the place, which is partially due to the fact that we really are a big tent party (herding cats and all that), and partially due to the fact that progressives tend to be, by nature, substantially less vindictive than our counterparts on the right. Organized labor got absolutely screwed by Dems during Washington’s recent legislative session, but talk to them about their threats to withhold money from caucus committees and it’s like… you know… we’ll see how the 2010 session goes.
Way to hold their feet to the fire, guys.
The fact is, Democratic legislators, at least here in Washington state, simply aren’t afraid of disappointing the progressive base of the party because they know that there aren’t any consequences. Serious, well-financed Democratic primary challenges come less often than Seattle snowstorms, and they are never backed by the Party itself. Hell, we can’t even take out Sen. Tim Sheldon. So what does a Democratic incumbent have to fear?
I heard plenty of grumbling during the past session about conservative stances from swing district, suburban Democrats, or about the BIAW-toadying leadership of House Speaker Frank Chopp, but honestly, they’re not the main problem. Swing district Dems come from swing districts, and when averaged together, broadly tend to represent the often conflicting interests of their broad constituencies. And as Speaker, Chopp’s job is in fact to build and maintain a strong Democratic majority, a job he’s admittedly done efficiently, even if progressives like me have legitimate complaints about his failure to use it.
No, the legislators who have most let down the progressive base are generally those who hail from safe, Democratic and overwhelmingly progressive districts. You know, mostly Seattle and other largely urban strongholds. Whatever their values or their votes, as a block, they simply aren’t delivering, either within caucus deliberations or on the floor. And whether this failure is due to caution, competence or ideology, this block will continue to disappoint until we either replace them with legislators who are willing and able to effectively represent our interests, or the fear of such replacements forces them to step up their game to the next level.
Of course, our main focus should be on recruiting and supporting strong candidates in races for open seats—not the annointed or the same-old, same-old party faithful who would only deliver more of the same, and not the politics as usual kinda single-issue advocates who so often fail to be effective on the broader progressive agenda. (One can’t help but admire Chopp’s passionate advocacy on behalf of affordable housing, but… well… you know.) No, what we need are smart, passionate, creative, fearlessly independent progressives, unbeholden to the party or any particular faction thereof, who are eager to use the safety their districts provide to pursue a broad and boldly progressive agenda.
You know, the kinda legislators who aren’t afraid to talk taxes regardless of how loudly the leadership yells “Shhhhhh!”
But… seats don’t open up all that often, so if we progressives really want our Democrats to be responsive to our needs, we need to primary a few of our own, and we need to do so with such an overwhelming show of force that future primary threats are taken damn seriously. When safe Democrats understand that they’re only safe from Republicans, perhaps they’ll start paying more than just lip service to our concerns.
This isn’t a tactic to which I’ve come lightly, and I fully understand the logistical and electoral challenge it represents. Way back in 2004 I ridiculed SEIU for failing to take out a little old lady in what I thought at the time was a misguided effort to primary Rep. Helen Sommers. (But then, I also described Joni Balter as “one of Seattle’s more thoughtful and evenhanded political commentators,” so what did I know?) But a lot of things have changed since then, not the least of which being the near super-majorities Democrats have since won in both the House and the Senate.
With plenty of cushion and few opportunities for expansion, spending electoral resources primarying Dems in safe districts does not represent the same sort of politically self-destructive in-fighting it might during leaner times. Indeed, without a viable Republican opposition to pick off the weak links and keep Democrats on their toes, one can reasonably argue that we’re in desperate need of a little intramural competition to keep our party lean and fit. In politics as in other pursuits, combatants tend to rise to the level of the competition; the Republican caucus is currently in a woeful state, and the Democratic majority has arguably responded accordingly.
So while I know Frank, Lisa and others might not like my harsh prescription, they’ve done little to convince me it isn’t needed nonetheless.