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Schools top list of familiar challenges

The 2005 Legislature holds Oregon's future in its hands. Will it allow the state to remain mired in mediocrity, or will it address the toughest challenges and pave the way to a more prosperous future?

Here are the six most important issues this Legislature must tackle.

K-12 education: Oregon has become the national poster child for growing class sizes, shortened school years and unreliable funding. The Legislature must adopt a plan to guarantee that Oregon's schools will have a full school year and reasonable class sizes.

Strengthen public universities: A healthy resource economy and a strong 'knowledge' economy are the key to generating well-paying jobs in the next generation. For the knowledge economy, a partnership with strong high-tech university programs is essential.

Sound state fiscal structure: Oregon's fiscal frailty is obvious. We rely on the most volatile revenue source Ñ income tax Ñ while being one of the few states without a rainy day fund, a situation that guarantees fiscal crises. The Legislature should enact a rainy day fund and adopt a constitutional spending cap based on total personal income.

Business: Businesses cannot thrive in Oregon if they can't gain access to appropriate manufacturing and office sites. Gov. Kulongoski has led the way in easing shortages and reducing red tape, and we need to work with him to make additional improvements.

Health care: The Oregon Health Plan is in disarray. We must explore every strategy for providing access to affordable health care: eliminating redundant services, controlling insurance and drug costs, and expanding public clinics.

Government integrity: Oregon's reputation for public access has been severely tarnished. To restore public confidence, we should provide 72-hour notice for committee hearings; fully disclose lobbying expenditures; end the revolving door between the Legislature and the lobby; strengthen and clarify rules for gifts to legislators; guarantee that a majority of legislators will never meet behind closed doors; and restore the Ethics and Practices Commission to full strength.

If the 2005 Legislature puts forth its best bipartisan effort, it can greatly strengthen our state, maximizing our effort to attract and keep good jobs and improve the quality of life for all.

Rep. Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, is the House minority leader. Merkley has served in the Legislature since 1999; he became House minority leader last year.