SALEM, Oregon — (The video in this story is from the House vote on the business tax increase to fund education.)
Senate Republicans in Oregon fled Salem or didn't show up to work on the Senate floor to avoid a Tuesday vote on a $1 billion per-year funding package for schools. They are not expected to vote on the package on Wednesday, either.
Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger told reporters Monday Republicans have been left out of the school funding conversation and that they are opposed to the proposed half a percent tax on businesses with sales over $1 million. The proposed tax would fund school programs trying to boost student performance and decrease class sizes.
“Republicans have taken this dramatic stance because this is the only tool we have being in the super minority to draw attention to the injustices of this type of legislation,” he said.
"Since we’re the minority party there’s really not much else senators can do to have this visceral, visible, obvious stance against this bill," Senate Republican Office Communications Director Kate Gillem told KGW Tuesday afternoon, "This was kind of the best way to show that, hey, Senator Herman Baertschiger is willing to work and so is the caucus, but not today."
Only two Republicans appeared on the floor Monday, just barely giving the Senate a quorum. Baertschiger, from Grants Pass, said that “members are gone,” and that Republicans won’t return until the funding package goes back to committee for changes.
Enough Republicans didn't show up to the Capitol, denying the Senate a quorum, which means there were not enough senators for a formal vote to continue. Baertschiger insinuated some members may have left the state, and that he wasn’t sure when Republicans would be back.
Republicans did not return to the floor when the Senate convened again at 2:30 p.m. after a recess Tuesday. However, Gillem said they are in negotiations with the majority party in an attempt to make changes to the bill.
"The plan is to get back to work this week however it can go on for as long as necessary," Gillem said.
While Baertschiger didn’t elaborate what changes Republicans are seeking in the school funding package, he said that the state’s spiraling public pension liability had to be addressed before any other legislation can move forward. The state’s Public Employees Retirement System— which covers teachers, police officers and public officials— is facing more than $25 billion in pension debt and counting.
“Until we have a permanent fix to PERS we will not be able to fund schools adequately,” said Baertschiger.
Gov. Kate Brown introduced her own PERS solution last month that would shield teachers from the brunt of rate hikes by cobbling together one-time funds from different streams of revenue. The Speaker of the House and Senate President are working on their own plan that would benefit all public agencies paying into the system.
When asked what specific changes they are seeking Tuesday, Gillem said the GOP wants Democrats to be more transparent about where the money is going and the impact on Oregon businesses.
"This is a tax on gross receipts so it's ultimately going to hurt taxpayers as well. So being more transparent about what that means for Oregonians I think is going to be really critical if the bill moves into committee again," she told KGW.
Baertschiger “there’s some stuff” in the governor’s proposal that Republicans are considering, but he maintained that simply “throwing money” at the education system won’t actually help students. He said the only way the legislature can truly dedicate revenue to schools is through a constitutional amendment, otherwise Democrats could raid the proposed revenue source to fund other priorities in times of recession.
"Essentially because the money is not dedicated to education and what that means is we would need to create a constitutional amendment - which hasn’t been slated for at all yet - to dedicate this money toward education," Gillem added. "Otherwise any legislature could change what it’s going towards."
But Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick says the tax revenue included in this education bill is clearly earmarked to go straight to classrooms.
"It is dedicated funds for education, not for PERS. And they know it," Sen. Burdick said.
She and her colleagues expressed exasperation and frustration over Senate Republicans' decision to no-show.
"I’m very disappointed because it is an honor and privilege to have these jobs. The people in our districts send us to Salem to do their work for them and the least we can do is show up," Burdick said.
"We will continue showing up for work. We have an important bill to vote on; it’s a transformational education bill for Oregon students and it’s just shocking and disappointing that we will not be able to do that because people will not show up for work."
The House approved the tax package last week after a five-hour discussion, with Republicans arguing the proposed tax on a business’ gross receipts would be passed onto the consumer as a defacto sales tax.
This comes a day before tens of thousands of teachers across the state are set to walkout to press lawmakers for more funding.
Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, the Portland Democrat behind the bill, said schools urgently need the $1 billion in extra funding to expand services and boost graduation rates, which are some of the worst in the nation.
While PERS reform is necessary, she said, so is injecting funds into the classroom.
“We still don’t have dedicated revenue for schools,” she said. “This whole pound of flesh idea where we have to fund pensions before anything else makes no sense to me. This is about changing the trajectory of our school funding formula and finally providing our educators with a steady source of revenue.”