AP NEWS

Ore. Republicans to shut down Senate over tax on businesses

May 7, 2019
FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2019 file photo, Oregon Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., left, Senate Democratic Leader Ginny Burdick and Senate President Peter Courtney speak to the media at the State Capitol in Salem, Ore. Baertschiger told reporters Monday, May 6, 2019 that Senate Republicans in Oregon have fled Salem to avoid a Tuesday vote on a $1 billion per-year funding package for schools. They oppose the proposed half a percent tax on businesses with sales over $1 million. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Senate Republicans in Oregon have fled Salem to avoid a Tuesday vote on a $1 billion per-year funding package for schools.

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.

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.

If enough Republicans don’t show up to the Capitol, they will deny the Senate a quorum, meaning there won’t be enough people 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.

While the minority leader 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.

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.

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.

Tuesday’s Senate vote would have come 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.”

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Follow Sarah Zimmerman on Twitter at @sarahzimm95