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Capital Chatter: Oregon endangered by lack of state police

Senate president Peter Courtney seeks more money to increase the ranks of the Oregon State Police.

The drug cartels operating in Southern Oregon remind Senate President Peter Courtney of the Mafia on the East Coast, where he grew up. Law enforcement is so lacking that Oregon State Police dare not go into certain locales

Courtney, D-Salem, said the inadequate number of state troopers is a statewide concern. OSP lacks sufficient officers to handle two major incidents occurring in Oregon at the same time.

He told me that he is now asking the Legislature's budget committee to increase the OSP budget by $6,585,200, allowing the agency to add 20 troopers during 2017-19. That would provide $5,088,960 for personnel and supplies, $276,140 for startup costs, $1,183,100 for the troopers' vehicles and equipment, and $317,000 for training.

•OSP had sought $35 million.

In Oregon, state police are more than a highway patrol. They also investigate criminal cases, including fish-and-game violations; run the state crime labs; staff the governor's security detail and provide security at the Oregon Capitol; back up city and county police departments; and much more.

Side note: A state police captain told the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission last week that OSP has neither the staffing nor the training to investigate wolf killings of livestock. "I don't think it fits our mission," said Capt. Jeff Samuels, who heads the OSP's Fish & Wildlife Division.

• More for mental health: Courtney also scored a — partial – victory in mental health. The Legislature's budget committee approved a $20.1 million increase in mental health services for 2017-19. It's not the $100 million that Courtney pounded the table in hopes of getting, but he's a pragmatist. He'll take what he can get.

This assumes the Legislature approves the Oregon Health Authority budget in its current form.

• Ode to a tangled tax increase: Gov. Kate Brown said she and her staff have been pushing hard for the latest tax plan, which would combine a short-term increase in corporate taxes with the eventual imposition of a commercial activity tax.

The "CAT" is a gross receipts tax, a form of sales tax paid by businesses, and has similarities to Measure 97, which voters soundly defeated last fall.

It would replace the current corporate income tax. But the plan, put together by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, also would eliminate past tax cuts that had been enacted for small businesses.

Small businesses — such as sole proprietorships, limited liability companies and S corporations – could see their state taxes go up by more than 40 percent. Republicans note that many of those businesses are in rural Oregon, which has missed out on the robust economic recovery of urban Oregon.

Some large corporations — ones that do a high volume of sales but operate on thin profit margins, such as grocers and auto dealers — could face a three-fold increase in taxes.

That's why lobbyists are scurrying to get more favorable tax treatment for their particular industry or business. After all, they are paid to represent their clients' best interests. However, the result could be a final bill peppered with special conditions, ones that were inserted to win support for the overall bill but not make for sound tax policy.

Don't bet – yet – on this bill passing the Legislature. Behind the scenes, Gov. Brown reportedly is talking with people about potentially starting a new tax-reform effort after the Legislature adjourns.

She has been consistent before and during the legislative session that she would be satisfied with short-term fixes to increase taxes for 2015-17 and fill a $1.4 billion budget hole. And then tackle tax reform.

The Joint Committee on Tax Reform worked Thursday on the Kotek-Hass plan and will continue on Monday. Co-chair Rep. Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, told committee members and legislative staff to be prepared to spend their weekend studying the bill and potential changes.

As for the bill's political challenges:

It tries to achieve tax reform and tax increases at the same time. Tax reform is more palatable when it is neutral – reducing existing taxes in the same amount as the new taxes.

Legislative projections suggest the plan could cost thousands of private-sector jobs, replacing them in the Oregon economy with government jobs. One version of the plan estimates a 13,000 loss in private jobs and a 14,000 gain in public-sector jobs.

No Republican senators support the commercial activities tax, although some would back a temporary increase in income taxes.

If the Kotek-Hass plan were to pass the House, it might be put to an immediate vote in the Senate, where it would fail. That could open the door for a centrist compromise that would attract the needed Republican votes while also losing some Democratic votes.

A major tax increase probably is unnecessary to balance the state budget for 2017-19. Even some Democrats concede that. A number of agency budgets already are moving through the Legislature.

The education budget of $8.2 billion is halfway through the Legislature. Final approval would reduce pressure for a tax increase – an increase that is billed as vital for schools. The Senate approved the budget 25-5 on June 8. As of this writing, Speaker Kotek has not scheduled it for action in the House.

• Thanks to a good hospital: The treatment facility formerly known as Salem Hospital is near the home that Ontario Rep. Cliff Bentz has been renting during the legislative session. That proximity was life-saving for Bentz, who suffered an arterial blockage in his heart on Sunday and swiftly had two stents inserted.

"I am extremely fortunate to have recognized the symptoms almost immediately following their onset, that Salem Hospital is located about six minutes from the house I rent, and to have been near a hospital that enjoys and employs absolutely excellent staff very familiar with this type of medical issue," Bentz said in a statement.

Bentz is a key player in the Legislature, serving on the high-profile tax reform and transportation committees and as an assistant House Republican leader. After being treated at Salem Health hospital, he is expected to be on limited legislative duty for a while.

Side note: Two years after Salem Hospital and Oregon Health & Science University become linked, they have dissolved that affiliation and are renegotiating their relationship. Salem Health — the not-for-profit that includes the hospital and clinics — had become part of OHSU, with an extensive branding campaign that included dropping the name "Salem Hospital." However, the affiliation reportedly stumbled in both the clinical and financial areas.

• Buddy, can you spare two or three minutes? Legislative staff couldn't get a timer to operate Tuesday morning. Consequently, people were not under a strict time limit while testifying about the Kotek-Hass tax plan before the Joint Committee on Tax Reform.

I'm surprised that legislative committees lack uniform procedures and equipment for timing testimony.

One committee used a stoplight-looking device with green, amber and red lights. Another committee projected a countdown timer on a screen. Others depended on watches, smartphones or laptops for tracking time.

• Lost amid the Rules: About 200 bills were sitting in the Senate Rules Committee this week. Among the bills likely to be lost — i.e., ignored and left for dead — is one that would allow the Bend Park and Recreation District to eventually construct a pedestrian bridge across the Deschutes River, which is designated as a Wild and Scenic River.

The bill began in the House as a ban on such a bridge. A Senate committee reversed course, amending the bill to allow a bridge but only at a specific site on federal land.

Instead of sending the amended House Bill 2027 to the full Senate for a vote, President Courtney shipped it to the Rules Committee, presumably to languish until the Legislature adjourns. Some legislators are not keen on interfering in what they see as a local issue.

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