Let the Speaker be Heard
An Interview with Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, Republican Karen Minnis
BrainstormNW: Republicans have controlled both
chambers of the Oregon legislature for five sessions. They now control one
chamber. Is that going to make a difference in how you do your job?
Minnis: The last legislative session was a very
difficult one because there wasn’t one person really in charge over there in
the Senate. I was trying to work with two leaders instead of one. This session,
I’m coming back as a second term House Speaker, and Peter Courtney is a second
term Senate President. And the Governor is in his second session. We will have
our disagreements, but at least there is some familiarity there with the
BrainstormNW: The Governor began the last
session as a fiscal conservative (What is the Fiscal Cliff?) and then twice proposed tax increases…comment?
Minnis: If he had come up with something a little
more reasoned than going for broke (tax increases)…I kept saying this is not
going to fly. It is not going to pass. The voters are going to be angry.
BrainstormNW: It is fair to say that the
legislature polls pretty low right in terms of credibility?
Minnis: And I’m sorry for that.
BrainstormNW: When the Governor gave his State
of the State address he lashed out at President Bush and wandered off to talk
about the Kyoto accords and the war in Iraq. When Oregon has so many problems
at home, do you think the Governor ought to be using the State of the State
speech to insert himself into international affairs?
Minnis: The Governor’s opening remarks started out
well. He was right to focus on economic development and to take a stand against
raising taxes. But then he took a sharp turn to the left. It was as if he had
done a poll of his political base beforehand and written the second half of his
speech to accommodate them. I was disappointed he focused so much time and
energy appealing to radical environmentalists and commenting on foreign
BrainstormNW: It would seem that the state is
getting a lot of mixed signals from the Governor, particularly on tax and
spending policy and on economic recovery. As Speaker, you must have some sense
of direction of where you are going to try to take the House. What are your
priorities for stabilizing state government’s fiscal house?
Minnis: We absolutely must hold the line on spending.
With our economy starting to recover, we must build a responsible budget with
the taxes Oregonians are already paying and begin to restore voters’ trust. You
can’t do that by coming to Salem and immediately putting your hand out to
We must continue focusing on economic development. The
state’s fiscal health will only improve when more Oregonians are working family
wage jobs and paying taxes. That means improving our land use system so that
more land is available for businesses to grow and create jobs. It means
speeding up the time it takes to get the necessary permits to open a business
and employ people. We also need to enact a spending limit so that spending doesn’t
outpace citizen’s incomes.
BrainstormNW: What does the revenue forecast
Minnis: We have a billion dollars more than we had at
the end of last session.
BrainstormNW: That means that there doesn’t
have to be a shortfall?
Minnis: Depends on whom you ask. Will the budgets be
tight…yes…but I think it is manageable. If you have a target to aim at and you
know how much money you have then you can make your choices. The problem we ran
into last session was that every time we thought we had our arms around how
much revenue we were going to have, the bottom kept falling on us. That’s what
drove the outcome. Things have stabilized—they are not wonderful, but they are
BrainstormNW: The two big issues the public
has said no to are tax increases and the repeal of Measure 37—do you have to
remind the Governor and the Senate Democrats that the messages are clear?
Minnis: They get that. We have said that the public
voted for 37 twice. Measure 37 is the result of government not responding to
the most reasonable requests, and that’s why you get the kind of initiatives
you get. We have a land use committee but I will not be inclined to go and do
some wild stuff. We are working with the proponents of the initiative. And I am
taking a very slow approach to that whole issue. I want to make sure the
people’s intent is what is followed through on.
BrainstormNW: What’s going to happen if the
governor decides he doesn’t want to back the people’s intent on Measure 37 and
the Senate Democrats don’t want to either, and the Oregonian and the
Salem Statesman Journal and the press are behind them? How would you
react to that?
Minnis: The voters have spoken twice. We need to
BrainstormNW: Where was your district on the
income tax surcharge issue?
Minnis: I live in east Multnomah County. I knew where
my district was on those issues…and once the county income tax was implemented
and then [the legislature] came out with an income surcharge, I was stunned. It
was plain as the nose on your face it wasn’t going to pass. People were very,
BrainstormNW: Do you think that a spending cap
is a key to real fiscal reform in government spending? Will Oregonians accept
any form of tax reform without a spending cap that assures them that tax reform
is not just another name for tax increase?
Minnis: Yes, a spending cap is key to fiscal reform.
The problem is that when times are good, the state spends every dime that comes
in the door. There’s been a lack of fiscal discipline. Government shouldn’t
grow faster than the revenue that supports it. That’s why a cap is critical.
I don’t think Oregonians will accept “tax reform” anytime
soon and certainly not without a spending cap in place. Government has
consistently asked voters for more of their money even after they say “no”—as
we saw with Ballot Measure 28 and 30. We have to rebuild voters’ faith in us,
which means making the hard choices.
BrainstormNW: Do you expect the Governor to be
with you on the spending cap?
Minnis: He talked about a cap in his (Oregon Business
Council) speech, and he’s talked about some sort of a rainy day fund. So let’s
roll up our sleeves and see if we can make some progress. We can move all kinds
of legislation, but you have to get the governor to sign the bills.
BrainstormNW: What do you mean by that? Are
you referring to former Gov. Kitzhaber’s reputation for vetoing virtually every
major economic initiative? Has Gov. Kulongoski indicated that he would follow
the same path?
Minnis: The Governor doesn’t have to veto the bills;
he now has a Democrat Senate that can kill bills for him.
BrainstormNW: In the late ’90s and early
2000s, as Oregon’s economic boom was beginning to first fray and then collapse,
the major business associations spent their time lobbying for more spending on
education and salmon recovery. Have any of these business groups been
forthcoming about Oregon’s high taxes, burdensome land use policy, and
difficult regulatory process? Where do you go to get insight into the real
problems confronting business and into the reasons businesses are leaving and
relocating out of the state rather than growing? Are average citizens a better
barometer of what is needed than the business associations?
Minnis: Overall there’s been a better lobbying effort
by the state’s business lobby in the last couple of years. When AOI (Associated
Oregon Industries), the Oregon Business Council, NFIB (National Federation of
Independent Businesses), and others speak with the same voice and echo the same
concerns, it makes it easier to effect change at the capitol. Last session, I
put together an Economic Development Work Group headed by Jim Zupancic that
worked with business leaders to focus on the ones in common and that would help
make a difference if enacted soon. Citizens certainly are a good barometer of
what is happening in Oregon’s economy. If people are out of work or moving out
of state, that tells you something’s wrong.
BrainstormNW: Cong.Greg Walden criticized the
governor in the August BrainstormNW issue because he (Walden) said that
he couldn’t understand the governor’s philosophy being to stand back and watch
the House and Senate fight it out in the last session and then come in as a
referee later. When the state is in the position that it is in, do you think
Walden’s criticism of Kulongoski’s leadership style is fair?
Minnis: I think that what he did (Gov. Kulongoski)
was take a low profile initially. First we had to rebalance the current budget.
We had to cobble together a few dollars—people didn’t have their
medicine—seniors. We did that early and that worked out relatively well after
some discussion with our counterparts in the Senate. But we got that together.
It took us some time before we got into the real budget stuff. What was
surprising was when you are $650 million down, based on your own economic
forecast, and somebody (the Governor) comes in and wants to add $250 million on
top of that, which is why we were $1 billion short. I had a hard time getting
my arms around that. The Governor wanted the money for K–12.
BrainstormNW: That seems to be like pouring
gasoline on a fire. The state’s economy is in decline, you are already $650
million short and the Governor says, too bad, I want to spend another $250
million that we don’t have on K–12 education. Is that leadership or just
pandering to the teachers unions?
Minnis: In the Capitol Building, the temptation is
that if you’re going to go to the voters and ask for more of their money, to
shoot for the moon rather than be prudent and ask for a smaller amount. They
BrainstormNW: Do you foresee a similar
situation from the governor this session? You have already said that the state
has $1 billion more for the next biennium than it did the last year and yet we
keep hearing from the pundits that you are $1 billion in the hole based upon
the Current Service Level budgeting process. Are you expecting the Governor to
look the other way when the public employee unions start asking for additional
Minnis: My hope is that his rhetoric will be
consistent. But, he has said that he won’t sign a tax increase. Remember, he
can let one become law without his signature. As for the House, voters have
made themselves very clear on this issue and I’m going to respect the will of
BrainstormNW: To the person reading the newspapers
what it looks like is that the state’s thinking conservatively on economic
issues. But there doesn’t seem to be any accountability when officials like
Bill Bradbury and Dianne Linn are reelected with such big numbers. Agree?
Minnis: Again, it is because of Multnomah County.
BrainstormNW: Do you think Kevin Mannix should
be running for governor and be chairman of the Oregon Republican Party at the
Minnis: I think they are both very big jobs.
BrainstormNW: Are you surprised that the Governor
is at times not talking to the press—not talking to the Oregonian, not
talking to the Salem Statesman Journal, not talking to Willamette
Week, and not talking to BrainstormNW? Does it concern you as
Speaker, the Governor not talking to the press?
Minnis: This is one thing I have learned: I used to
be pretty uncomfortable with the press and admittedly I still am, because what
you say has an impact on what people think about you. So it is always a little
bit intimidating to sit down and talk to the press particularly if they are
really critical. But I think that putting yourself out there (public life), if
you’re going to do that then you’ve got to be willing to talk about it.
BrainstormNW: Bill O’Reilly was talking about
John Kerry complaining after the election about how he was treated by the
press. O’Reilly made the point that Kerry had 80 percent of the press on his
side. Is it fair to say that the Governor has 80 percent of the press on his
side in Oregon?
Minnis: I think he does enjoy a lot of support in the
BrainstormNW: What kind of a message does it
send when he has 80 percent of the media on his side and won’t talk to the
press? You have 20 percent on your side and you’re talking to everybody.
Minnis: That’s the only way you get your message out.
BrainstormNW: Is there anybody in the media
you won’t talk to in this state? Will you talk to Willamette Week?
Minnis: I talk to them.
BrainstormNW: So you will talk to anybody in
the press even though you know that sometimes the presentation of your views is
not quite as accurate as it should be?
Minnis: I think that is the only way we are going to
communicate. You try to get your message across. Give reporters the facts. Be
BrainstormNW: At what point in the session
will you say, if it is not working, we will see you at the Governor’s race in
Minnis: I think you have asked your last question.
BrainstormNW - February 2005