SALEM — Legislative leaders remained tight-lipped Monday about a closed-door meeting concerning budget and tax issues they facilitated last week between business and labor groups.
The two politically powerful groups are generally at odds over the cost of state government and the mechanisms used to fund it. They clashed last fall over Measure 97, and unsuccessful ballot measure that would have created a tax on the Oregon sales of certain corporations in excess of $25 million. The measure would have raised $6 billion per two-year budget cycle.
But both sides attended a meeting Feb. 1 hosted by Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney and Speaker of the Oregon House Tina Kotek.
As the legislative session enters its first full week, Democratic lawmakers are sounding the alarm about potential cuts to services because of the nearly $1.8 billion gap between the state’s resources and what it would take to pay for existing services in the next budget cycle.
The meeting’s occurrence was announced Friday, but it’s not clear what was specifically was discussed. In a joint statement Friday, Courtney and Kotek called the meeting “productive” and said “everyone agrees that the current budget environment is not acceptable.”
Perennial political flashpoints include the cost of the state’s pension system for public employees and the state’s tax structure, including its reliance on income taxes for its general fund revenues.
In a meeting with reporters Monday, Kotek said it is now up to business and labor groups to continue talks independently.
“What I saw in that room was Oregonians who care about their state, who just came off a very difficult election where they might have been on the opposite sides, but understanding that we have a bigger issue that we all have to come together to solve,” Kotek said. “And so right now we’re stepping back and letting them continue to talk and we’ll see how that goes. We just felt it was our job to get it going, and we’re glad that it’s going, and we’ll see how it ends up.”
She said she and the senate president wanted to “provide a space” for business and labor groups to have a “confidential, honest conversation.”
Asked about why the meeting was private, she said if the conversations continue to progress, potential legislation will be vetted in a public setting.
“We’re trying to bring people together to say, OK, let’s talk about it one more time, this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation,” Kotek said. “And hopefully we’ll get some guidance on how best to put some legislation together and that then you will have very public conversations about it.”
Courtney’s office declined Monday to comment further on the meeting.
Senate Republicans sent a letter Monday to Kotek and Courtney, calling for a “constructive, bipartisan dialogue” on hot button issues such as PERS and transportation.
Legislative committees — which include Democrats and Republicans — are already holding public hearings on legislation pertinent to the state’s pension system. A public hearing is expected next week to address two bills proposed by Senate Republicans aimed at cutting PERS costs.
Reached Friday, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503, said the group was at the meeting of business and labor groups last Wednesday but declined to provide further details.
A voice message left with the local council of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), on Friday was not returned.
Duncan Wyse, president of the Oregon Business Council — which hosts the annual December convening of business and government leaders at the Oregon Business Summit — could not be immediately reached for comment late Monday afternoon.