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Bipartisanship must beget reform

If you did not get the news, the 73rd legislative session began last week. With government spending set to grow again, it is time to pay attention to what's coming out of Salem. But don't expect that anything will be done to rid our state government of waste and redundancy.

I bought all the clichŽs that came out of Salem during the last legislative session. I agreed with then-incoming Gov. Ted Kulongoski that there was a chance for true bipartisanship. I cheered the governor enthusiastically when he called on state bureaucrats to curb their plundering appetites. I applauded the legislators' promise to work collaboratively.

But with time my enthusiasm morphed into skepticism. The sensible voices in Salem that were bent on rolling back senseless government programs were swamped by the special interest groups lobbying and stumping for the status quo. Consequently, the state witnessed the longest legislative session ever. And those who sold us platitudes about no new taxes lined up to foist Measure 30 upon us.

Mind you, I am not against sensible taxation. My beef is that there is so much waste in government that no new taxation is necessary.

So last week as the gavel dropped to usher in a new session I held my applause in defiance.

Yes, I heard the speech from Kulongoski espousing the need for prudence and fiscal responsibility. It sounded good. And I heard the wisecracks from Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. They were refreshingly hilarious. And I heard the clarion call for action from House Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, peppered with optimism and foresight. But still I was not swayed by all the rhetoric and the high-sounding speeches about the nobility of bipartisanship. It's becoming increasingly difficult to take these pledges seriously.

Our legislators lack the political will to put aside their ideologies and truly embrace bipartisan efforts. They began this session talking about collaboration, yet still hold each other in suspicion.

For instance, just hours after the fanfare, the House Republican majority pulled a naive political move. The Republicans amended rules that allow the chief clerk of the House autonomy and independence. Traditionally, the chief clerk enforces the rules of the House and advises legislators regarding those rules. Since 1843, the entire House has appointed the clerk with a mandate to maintain nonpartisan, independent rules. The new rule gives Minnis the power to fire and hire the clerk and also tightens the use of so-called minority reports, which provide an avenue for the minority party to express its views on a bill before it comes out of a committee.

Democrats view this change as a power grab and say it undermines the credibility of the office. 'I will continue to work for bipartisan cooperation, but this action will make that much more difficult,' said Rep. Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene.

Minnis spokesman Charles Deister said the rule change was done to ensure greater accountability.

Regardless, all the talk about working together and restoring credibility are meaningless unless the legislators act on them once the TV lights are turned off. I am tired of the forced smiles and made-for-TV handshakes.

Legislators must do away with crass public policy to benefit special interests. They need to embark on a meaningful reform that looks at the way we fund education, public safety, health care, and economic and work-force development. They need to tell the unions, which have resisted reform, to knock it off.

The legislators also need to reassess whether the percentage of K-12 budget that is swallowed annually by administrative costs is realistic, and whether the cost of doing business here is competitive and attractive to the business world.

Then my skepticism might diminish.