Early progress calls for more

Our opinion

Gov. John Kitzhaber is making promising early moves to change the tone, immediacy and direction of state government. Several decisions Kitzhaber has made so far, including the wise selection of Metro's Michael Jordan as Oregon's first chief operating officer, are positive moves to require greater effectiveness in state agencies.

These decisions are just the initial, incremental steps on the road toward a better economy and a more sustainable long-term balance between state government revenue and the need to fund essential services.

News this week that Oregon's unemployment rate is still stuck above 10 percent - significantly higher than the U.S. average and state of Washington average - is a reminder that this state has made insufficient progress in the economic recovery arena. While too many people remain jobless, revenue for vital state services continue to lag, meaning that the governor and Legislature have monumental work ahead to fashion a state budget for the coming biennium.

With the public's needs and expectations growing, important issues are surfacing that require not just discussion, but also decisive action. Among them:

• An effort to reorganize the state's higher education system to give Oregon's universities more autonomy from the Legislature under the direction of local boards. This independence, in turn, will give universities the nimbleness to teach more students and engage in research and invention to propel the economy.

• An immediate need to increase the number of industrial land sites throughout the state that are able to quickly serve new or expanded industries.

• A recognition by everyone that the future course of government service in Oregon will be greatly shaped by public employee labor contract discussions. Last week, Kitzhaber made an initial offer to state employee unions that included a cap on health-insurance benefits, an end to the state's 6 percent pickup for their retirement system, no step increases in salaries and acceptance of seven unpaid furlough days in each of the next two years.

It's not just the state that must gain additional concessions from workers. State contracts set an example for school districts, community colleges and other local governments to negotiate long-term changes that will slow the growth in total compensation for public employees and help preserve the ability to deliver services the public needs.

The challenges for Kitzhaber and other state leaders are many. So are the opportunities to improve.