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Capital Chatter: Of socialists, state police and SEIU

Things are heating up over school budget, transportation and tax plans at the Capitol.

Union workers made an appearance. So did the Democratic Socialists of America. And the Oregon State Police.

It was a lunch hour of odd encounters Tuesday as the Oregon Legislature's budget-writing committee discussed and approved a record two-year state education budget of $8.2 billion. The overall education budget is an 11 percent increase over 2015-17, according to Sen. Rod Monroe, D-Portland.

Some Democratic and Republican legislators want more. So do members of the Service Employees International Union, which held a large rally Tuesday at the Oregon Capitol.

As they headed to their noon meeting, members of the Legislature's Joint Ways & Means Committee had to walk through SEIU members and others lining both sides of the hallway. The orderly demonstrators held signs — which supposedly are banned inside the Capitol — and chanted "8.2 just won't do" over and over as the committee began its work.

If the purpose was to galvanize SEIU members, it probably succeeded. If the goal was to persuade legislators, it failed miserably. The gauntlet irritated Republicans and Democrats alike. Republican Sen. Fred Girod of Lyons, who is known for his pithy comments, responded with, "8.2 will have to do."

Monroe, one of the Legislature's most vocal advocates for education and higher funding, said lawmakers should be applauded and not jeered for coming up with the record $8.2 billion school budget.

• Yes, Virginia, there are socialists in Portland: A small group of Portlanders, wearing shirts identifying themselves as Democratic Socialists of America, interrupted Tuesday's Ways & Means meeting and unfurled a large banner that said, "No Toxic Budget! People Over Profits."

As protests go, it was comical. As they unrolled the banner, a plainclothes Oregon State Police officer calmly rolled it from the other end and ushered the protesters out of the room. (Banners, like signs, are not allowed in the Capitol unless they are part of a stationary exhibit or display.)

• Thanks be for the OSP: The plainclothes and uniformed OSP officers who staff the Capitol are invariably friendly and helpful.

And watchful. I wouldn't want to mess with any of them.

But neither do they over-react. The Democratic Socialists of America were politely hustled out but neither arrested nor cited.

The committee simply paused and watched during the brief incident, then went back to work without comment.

• Will the sausage regain its flavor? The politics of legislating have been likened to sausage-making. Feel free to assign your favorite (or not) flavors of sausage to these three legislative developments:

1. During a public hearing on Wednesday, two state senators — Democrat Betsy Johnson of Scappoose and Republican Brian Boquist of Dallas — assailed SEIU Local 503 President Steve Demarest for his union's threat to fight the transportation package unless the Legislature also increased taxes on business.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, has toed that line as well.

Demarest's comments gave ammunition to people who contend that labor unions control the Oregon Capitol, especially the Governor's Office and the state House. Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday, however, said she had made it clear to both SEIU and the House that she did not support holding the transportation package hostage for tax increases.

2. The Senate has passed a watered-down version of rent control — removing the provision that would have allowed cities to impose rent controls.

The original bill was a priority for Kotek. But she said the House would accept the Senate alterations, because the bill improves landlord-tenant regulations on eviction notices, and she then would look to add the rent stabilization provision to another bill.

The House might not get the chance to concur. There aren't enough votes in the Senate to pass even the watered-down bill. Republicans still don't like it and some Democrats think it's too weak.

3. The Legislature apparently won't be meddling with Oregon's role in the Electoral College. The House overwhelmingly passed National Popular Vote, which would bind Oregon's electoral voters to whichever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote.

But Senate Democrats will only support the bill if the matter is referred to Oregon voters for their decisions. Supporters of the bill apparently don't want that.

• Bad feelings in the Capitol: The Oregon Senate is getting fed up with the Oregon House, which is not uncommon in the final weeks of legislative sessions.

Speaker Kotek and Rep. Bentz reportedly are at loggerheads over cost-savings changes to Oregon's low-carbon fuel standards. Republicans, who've come a long way by dropping their demand for full repeal of the law, want those changes as a condition for supporting the transportation package. Republican and Democratic senators are trying to find their own solution, instead of leaving it to the House.

Meanwhile, the Senate and the governor want the Legislature to act on a health-provider tax, which has been stuck in the House. Some senators are ready to pull an end-run if the House delays.

• How to flunk PERS 101: The Oregon Supreme Court has allowed some reforms in the Public Employees Retirement System but struck down others, leaving legality of future reforms in question.

The only surefire way to settle that question is for the Legislature to pass all the mainstream PERS reforms but not count on any resulting savings until after the courts rule. The ones that survive the inevitable legal challenges then could be implemented in full or in part. The ones struck done by the Supreme Court would forever be abandoned.

For years, I've been baffled by the Legislature's piecemeal approach to PERS reforms instead of this broad, common-sense approach. After all, no matter what the Legislature does or doesn't do on PERS, someone will take the issue to court. Why not get everything resolved at once?

Meanwhile, public employees are flocking to retirement because the 2017 Legislature and Gov. Brown's administration have failed to explain how the potential changes might affect the workers' retirement. The reality is that few legislators know the answer; instead, they tell even journalists to check with PERS for an explanation of what legislation would do.

• Yay for Donald Trump (really): Sen. Ron Wyden recently held his 820th town hall as a U.S. senator for Oregon. He's a Democrat to the core but has a track record of working with Republican colleagues. In fact, he and Republicans collaborated on a health care plan that might have worked far better than the Affordable Care Act.

At the town hall in Salem, Wyden praised the Trump administration's response to Canada's unfair trade practices involving software lumber exports to the U.S.

• Don't believe everything you read: Dubious facts and incomplete information often travel through the Oregon Capitol.

Here are two examples.

Example 1: Oregon Senate Republicans are lobbying for passage of a bill that would allow a private hospital company to circumvent state regulators and build a psychiatric hospital in Wilsonville. Their Senate Bill 1054 could have merit.

Republican lawmakers introduced a retired Green Beret as an advocate for mentally ill veterans and supporter for the legislation. He was eloquent. What they didn't say, until the question was raised, was that he is employed by a subsidiary of the company that wants to build the hospital. Neither did he identify his connection in a newspaper commentary he wrote. That omission, whether inadvertent or intentional, troubled me.

Example 2: This involves a contentious plan to build a pedestrian bridge outside Bend across the Deschutes River, which is protected as a wild and scenic river. In an email to a Senate committee, the head of the Bend Park and Recreation District implied that Bend Rep. Knute Buehler would support the bridge if it were on U.S. Forest Service land. So I asked Buehler. He said absolutely not.

The above examples likely stem from misunderstanding and miscommunication, not deliberate misinformation. But that's why journalists ask so many questions: Get it nailed down.

I'm biased — and so are you: To digress only slightly, psychology tells us that people tend to give greater weight to information that supports their side, to give less weight to information that contradicts them and to interpret information in ways most favorable to their viewpoint.

That is why legislators who want tax increases can say that Oregonians are clamoring for higher taxes on businesses. And legislators who oppose tax increases can claim that Oregonians don't want higher taxes on anyone.

Each side hears what it wants to hear. If each side listens to its core constituents, it will feel vindicated in believing that's what Oregonians want.

Dick Hughes has been covering the state's political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com or follow him at Facebook.com/Hughesisms.