Politicians deserve plaudits when they do the right thing. In Oregon, they’re likely to get punished.
Such is the case with two Democrats who represent the North Coast — veteran Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose and first-term Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell of Astoria — who got in trouble for standing up for their convictions.
Johnson is one of the most independent-minded legislators in the state Capitol, known for following her conscience instead of the party line. She is a straight talker, a trait that endears her even to people who disagree. This year she gained even more influence, being appointed to help lead the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways & Means, which makes the state budget decisions.
In an unusual move, Senate President Peter Courtney had split the Senate Ways & Means co-chair’s position in half, appointing Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, and Johnson as “co-co-chairs” to share the job. Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, is the co-chair from the House.
Courtney would have none of Johnson’s independence when it came time last week for Ways & Means to vote on House Bill 2020, a carbon cap-and-trade scheme known by its supporters as Clean Fuel Jobs. Courtney temporarily replaced her on the committee with himself, ensuring the bill would be approved — on party-line votes.
Clear-eyed Johnson had recognized the bill’s flaws and, to the angst of its supporters, had proposed significant changes.
Supporters have consistently pointed out that the bill has been years in the making and thus has been well-vetted. But length of construction does not necessarily guarantee the quality of the outcome. In sending the bill to the House floor for a vote, the Ways & Means Committee also adopted the 116th amendment proposed this year for the bill. (Johnson’s proposal was amendment 102.)
Courtney holds the authority to appoint Senate committee members and to replace them. But might does not make right.
His egregious power play cut out one of Oregon’s most capable legislators. It also illustrated the liberal Senate Democrats’ desperation to pass legislation that essentially will accomplish nothing to affect global climate change.
Expect Johnson to have a lot to say when HB 2020 reaches the Senate floor.
As for Mitchell, she is under fire from the public employee unions that helped elect her. Mitchell joined most other House Democrats to pass Senate Bill 1049, which makes changes in the under-funded Oregon Public Employees Retirement System. (Johnson voted for it in the Senate.)
The major change is extending the timeline for bolstering reserves that PERS needs to meet its expected pension obligations. What angers public employees is that a small portion of their supplemental retirement accounts now will be diverted to that cause, helping reduce the PERS unfunded actuarial liability. That change could trim their final pensions by 1 percent to 2 percent.
Politically, Mitchell was in a no-win situation. She faced intense pressure on one side from public employees, who now feel betrayed by her, and on the other side from the Democratic legislative leaders demanding passage of SB 1049.
As a candidate, Mitchell had vowed to stand up for public employees. As a legislator, she had assumed she would vote against SB 1049, after House Speaker Tina Kotek and Courtney revealed their legislation. Then she had an epiphany: The PERS situation was far worse and would cause greater damage to public budgets — and jobs — than she previously had understood.
“The insight I gained as a legislator into the actuarial issues surrounding PERS forced me to question my assumptions,” she wrote in a thoughtful explanation of her vote.
Indeed, the issues facing legislators often are more complicated and carry greater ramifications than people outside the Capitol may perceive. Mitchell deserves credit for achieving that realization, regardless of how anyone feels about her vote.
The Daily Astorian’s editorial board reluctantly endorsed Mitchell during her election campaign. We were skeptical whether she would have the gumption to represent all of her constituents, not just her progressive base. We were wrong.
We elect legislators to make the best possible decisions for the whole of Oregon. In their own ways, Mitchell and Johnson have done so.