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Editorial: Three goals worth pursuing for Oregon

A simple message can be powerful, and Oregon business leaders exercised that power this week when they boiled this state’s legislative priorities down to three items: Fix PERS, invest in education and build the new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River.

Certainly, the challenges facing Oregon in 2013 and beyond are more complicated and far-ranging than the trio of goals unveiled and endorsed at the 10th annual Oregon Leadership Summit this week. But too frequently in the past, Oregon’s governors and legislative leaders have lost sight of what should have been their most important objectives while they tried to satisfy the many other interests that have a stake in the state budget.

The Oregon Leadership Summit, which attracted hundreds of business leaders and the state’s top politicians to the Oregon Convention Center on Monday, is helping to clarify priorities. During the past decade, this annual gathering — accompanied by the ongoing work of the Oregon Business Plan — has pushed the state in a more positive economic direction.

This year, the business plan lines up well with goals already identified by Gov. John Kitzhaber in his proposed 2013-15 budget. As the governor did in his budget message, the business plan explicitly links reform of the Public Employees Retirement System to better funding for education. Business leaders and the governor agree that modest changes to PERS can free up money that then can be spent directly in the classroom.

Kitzhaber has proposed slowing the PERS growth curve by reducing cost-of-living adjustments for PERS retirees who receive more than $24,000 a year. The governor also would stop the practice of reimbursing out-of-state PERS recipients for Oregon income taxes they don’t actually pay.

These changes would put money back into public schools right away — $253 million in the upcoming biennium. It’s a smart tradeoff that’s fair both to public employees and to children in school today.

Taming the growth of PERS would help the state’s economy because it would allow greater investment in those things — specifically education and training — that bring high-value employers and good jobs to the state.

Surprising benefits

Another issue of urgent concern to the economy is the Columbia River Crossing project, which was endorsed by Kitzhaber and U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley at the business summit. As Wyden put it, “You cannot have big league economic growth with a little league transportation system.”

These political and business leaders are correct that it’s time to move assertively forward with a new bridge that allows better movement of people, goods and services up and down the I-5 corridor.

It’s true that all of Oregon’s problems won’t be solved merely by building a bridge, altering PERS or incrementally increasing the money spent on schools. But if the 2013 Legislature agrees to do just those three things, Oregonians may be surprised to see in a few years just how much benefit can come from implementing simple strategies that are directed toward specific economic outcomes.