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 personalities.

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 affairs.

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 voters.

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 look like?

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 stable.

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 respect that.

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, very angry.

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 pile on.


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 taxes?

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 the voters.

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 same time?

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 media.

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 consistent.

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 ’06.

Minnis: I think you have asked your last question.

BrainstormNW - February 2005

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