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Capital Chatter: Senator turns to courts over tax bill

Boquist is suing the Oregon Department of Revenue and, in their official roles, Gov. Kate Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney.

State Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, does not have a law degree. However, he does have experience with the law. In the Army, he was an investigator, prosecutor and judge in cases involving the Uniform Code of Military Justice. As a businessman, he's dealt with litigation and with tax law. As a lawmaker from rural Polk County, he has helped write laws.

So it came to pass that he wrote his own legal complaint — 48 pages, plus copious attachments — challenging the constitutionality of Senate Bill 1528, which the Oregon Legislature passed this year. The hotly contested legislation stops some Oregon businesses from getting the same new tax break on their state income taxes as they're getting on their federal taxes. (For details, see Capital Bureau reporter Claire Withycombe's story.)

Boquist is suing the Oregon Department of Revenue and, in their official roles, Gov. Kate Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney. The bill passed narrowly, 16-13 in the Senate and 32-28 in the House.

For those interested in the legal verbiage, Boquist's lawsuit states (as submitted), "This action seeks a declaratory judgment that Senate Bill 1528B from the 2018 Regular Legislature Session now embodied in ORS Chapter 316 is unconstitutional null and void on four grounds under the Oregon Constitution; the origination clause for revenue bills, super majority clause for passage of revenue bills, the federal tax alignment clause, and the reversal of super majority requirements require an equal vote clause. …"

In other words, Boquist and fellow Republicans contend the legislation increased taxes. Thus, approval would have required a supermajority vote for passage. Most Democrats disagree, saying the prevention of a tax break does not equate with a tax increase; therefore, the bill's passage by a simple majority was just dandy.

Gov. Brown's staff declined to comment on the lawsuit.

President Courtney was succinct: "Sen. Boquist had made it clear he was going to file a lawsuit. It's been done. Let's now go forward."

Boquist issued a press release saying he had begun his "march to the Supreme Court" to overturn SB 1528, which he called a $1.3 billion tax increase on individual small business owners.

• Three intriguing aspects: In the press release, Boquist said that if his lawsuit is blocked by the "establishment," he would put it on the ballot as an initiative.

He provided an online link to the lawsuit, saying, "Since the majority Democrats do not allow legislators to post official acts on their 'state' web pages, please use this link to view the filed lawsuit."

He confirmed he is pleading the legal case himself: "If a legislator is not welcome in the court, then the branches of government are not equal, as Legislators welcome Judges in the halls of the Legislature as equal partners."

• GOP-loving Democrats?": Meanwhile, two Democrats legislators got in political hot water for appreciating a Republican's help. The Democratic Party of Oregon has booted Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, and Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, off the party's Executive Committee.

Their political sin? In 2016, they provided praise for Dennis Richardson, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, and he used their words in his Voters' Pamphlet statement: "'When the community of Vernonia needed help after the floods, Dennis worked across the aisle, putting people before politics. We believe he'll do the same as Secretary of State.' – Senator Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) and Representative Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie)"

They were referring to Richardson's work as a co-chair of the Legislature's budget committee. Unlike Senate Bill 1528, most bills that pass the Oregon Legislature, including budget authorizations, have bipartisan support.

• Ironies abound: The secretary of state election was nearly two years ago, yet some Democrats are still peeved at Witt and Johnson. The Democratic candidate in that race, Brad Avakian, was deemed so far left that newspaper editorial boards around the state endorsed Richardson, who won. Meanwhile, Jeanne P. Atkins, who was secretary of state at the time, is now chair of the Oregon Democratic Party.

The party's Executive Committee includes, "Each Democratic member of Congress, each Democratic statewide elected office holder, and each Democratic member of the Oregon House and Senate." It's a safe bet that many legislators don't realizes they're on the committee, as their presence is not necessary for a quorum.

The party bylaws do say: "A member of the Executive Committee, who actively and openly supports a non-Democratic candidate for partisan elective office, when a Democrat is running for the same office, is subject to removal by a two-thirds vote of the SCC (State Central Committee)."

Hmm. I wonder whether Democrats would express the same umbrage if Johnson and Witt said nice things about an Independent, Pacific Green or other non-Republican candidate.

"It is much ado about nothing," Johnson told me. "What Rep. Witt and I did was acknowledge the substantial help we got from Dennis Richardson — when he was co-chair — when we were trying to rebuild Vernonia after devastating floods."

By the way, some Republican legislators have not been shy about thanking Democratic Gov. Brown for her help. Examples: Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said she was instrumental in seeking state money for a new academic building at OSU-Cascades. Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, has talked about her response to the Chetco Bar Fire. Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, lauded both Speaker Kotek, D-Portland, and Brown for their attention to his district's economic development and transportation issues.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Hughe