Oregon co-speakers aim to steer a bipartisan ship

Oregon co-speakers aim to steer a bipartisan ship
Co-speakers Bruce Hanna, left, and Arnie Roblan. (KATU News/File photos)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Two captains will guide the politics in Oregon’s House of Representatives this session after last November’s election left the chamber evenly split. Both co-speakers say they don’t intend to let the ship bottom out on a partisan sandbar.

The House now has 30 Republicans and 30 Democrats, which forced the body’s leadership to come up with a power-sharing agreement. House members officially elected Reps. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, and Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, as co-speakers on Jan. 10. It was the first time in state history such an arrangement had been made.

In this session the stakes are high. The state of Oregon faces a $3.5 billion shortfall and an unemployment rate stagnant at 10.6 percent, where it’s been for more than a year.

Both Hanna and Roblan said in phone interviews this week they are confident they can get things done even with a spilt House and the daunting task ahead of them.

“I’m very optimistic about the potential results,” Hanna said. “I feel like Oregon, in general, through the election cycle, not just in the House, not just in the Senate, but overall, I think Oregonians said, ‘balance is pretty good here.’”

“I know that the 60 members of the House all have one thing in common: We love Oregon, and we want to make it the best place we can,” Roblan said, referring to the cooperation he expects to take place this session.

But even with all the talk of bipartisanship, both parties have their platforms. On the same day the state inaugurated – in another historical moment – Democrat Gov. John Kitzhaber for the third time, the House Republicans rolled out their legislative agenda and one bullet point stood out:

“Repeal the job-killing gross-receipts tax in Measure 67 and replace it with two reasonable corporate minimum tax rates.”

In 2009 and spilling into 2010, a political battle raged over the measure and its companion, Measure 66, which left deep partisan scars in the flesh of the electorate. The 2009 Legislature had approved a hike in the corporate minimum tax from $10 to $150 a year but business groups, uniting under the banner of Oregonians Against Job Killing Taxes, vowed to overturn it by taking it to the people at the ballot box. But the people reaffirmed the tax hike by 54 percent to 46 percent during a special election on Jan. 26, 2010.

Will the push for a partial repeal or reform of Measure 67 pit the parties toward a head-on crash? Both Roblan and Hanna said no.

“I think that we will have conversations,” Roblan said. “The Republicans have always said to me, ‘When the people speak, you’ve got to listen.’ … I think this is one where conversations have to happen and that we have to look at it real carefully.”

Hanna said he didn’t like the term “fight” when referring to any debate over the issue.

“I think it’s worthy of a vigorous discussion,” he said. “Business has said to us repeatedly that before it was enacted (and) they’ve said it since, we’ve had a low level of investment income come to our state. … I believe there are models out there that step in a corporate minimum tax” that businesses would be willing to at least think about.

He acknowledged that any idea to get a reformed Measure 67 passed would have to be a good one.

At least one political observer thinks it is likely things will get downright mean this session, especially with any talk of reforming Measure 67.

Shortly after last November’s election, when it became clear power would be evenly split in the House, the Democrats barely hanging onto a majority in the Senate and the election of another Democratic governor, Oregon State University political science professor Bill Lunch was quoted as saying, “The Roman emperors could not have dreamed up a more delicious torture for their gladiators than this. It’s just going to be ugly.”

His opinion about the subject hasn’t changed even after all the nice things everyone said during inaugural ceremonies last week.

“We’ve had similar kinds of statements at the beginning of many sessions,” he said Wednesday. “Even if one could imagine Hanna and Roblan going out for a drink and resolving a compromise position … I think it’s going to be exceedingly difficult for both Hanna and Roblan, as sincere and serious as I’m sure they are about trying to get along, (it) doesn’t mean they are going to be able to bring their caucuses with them.”

Much of the division has a lot to do with geography and demographics. Lunch pointed out that most Republicans represent rural districts that have seriously suffered through the decline of the timber industry while most Democrats represent urban districts and a large chunk of the suburbs.

“It’s my observation of the folks who represent constituents in say, on the one hand downtown Portland and on the other hand Douglas County - though they have some shared values, they also have very substantial differences in lifestyle, outlook and ideology,” he said.

Thus, Lunch thinks it’ll be difficult for Roblan and Hanna to get their caucuses on the same page, especially over an issue like Measure 67 where “it’s hard to envision an issue (more) central to the identity of the parties.”

The co-speakers do, at least, have geography in common. They both represent districts in rural Southwestern Oregon (in one area their districts touch) and their region suffers from many of the same economic problems. Their journey into politics, however, stems from two different backgrounds: Hanna from business and Roblan from education.

Hanna’s road to politics included being the president of the Oregon Soft Drink Association. As president he participated in testimony and many conversations with different legislators. In the 1990s he and his wife, Teresa, bought the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Roseburg and its sister company Automatic Vending Service.

He said it has all prepared him for service as a legislator.

“As a small business owner, I tend to be the human-resources expert and the HAZMAT expert,” he said, referring to the varied number of skills required to manage a business and a legislative body.

Roblan’s a retired principal from Marshfield High School. He began as a math teacher, then to dean of students, to assistant principal and finally to principal in 1989. Several of his former students, including Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, have gone into politics.

“(I) always felt that getting kids to understand how government works was an important thing to do,” he said.

He too said his background in education has served to prepare him for legislative service.

“Having been a principal and working with lots of different people to solve problems makes me fairly pragmatic,” he said.

Hanna and Roblan have worked together in the past and both said they got along with each other. In fact, Roblan said when legislative leaders looked at various models of co-governance in a legislative body, getting along with the other speaker was found to be a key to pulling off a successful session.

“It really works best, no matter what model you have, if the co-speakers, or the other people (in other models) who share power at the top, if they get along and made it work, it worked, if they fought the whole time, it didn’t work.”

He said it mattered less what kind of model was used. What mattered was finding people who could get along enough to solve problems.

Roblan thinks he can do that with Hanna. They both worked to hammer out legislation during the special session last February that would bar legislators from jumping directly to a public official position in state government. House Bill 3638 passed the House but failed in the Senate.

“What I found was that when the discussion was deep ... we (he and Hanna) could come to a place where we could agree. I was really impressed with his work there as well,” Roblan said.

Hanna said he’s known Roblan for some time and has worked with him on a number of committees and in other leadership positions.

“(Roblan’s) a person who I truly believe wants this to work and is in it to see that it does and to work as closely, with not only his but our caucuses as well,” he said.

Many have argued that because the state’s woes are so pressing, fixing them will force lawmakers to put aside extreme positions and compromise on many issues. It’s certainly what both Roblan and Hanna say is the mood in the House.

“I’ve seen the faces of people across the aisle; I’ve talked to the majority of the members of the Legislature as we’ve begun this process. I think that people are in the mindset of working together,” Hanna said.

The two captains will officially embark on this journey Feb. 1 upon some of the stormiest waters in recent memory, confident they can guide their crew and the state to prosperity.