Give thanks for a dull session
The legislative session that ended June 30 wasn't particularly memorable. And for that, perhaps we all should be thankful.
While intense budget-cutting pressure caused other legislatures across the nation to explode into partisan brawls, Oregon experienced a fairly typical session with only the mildest of political fights between the two major parties. In the end, the 2011 Legislature accomplished the things it was required to do - such as approving a biennial budget. But it still dodged a few of the toughest questions - including further reform of the Public Employees Retirement System.
The legislature's tone actually was improved by the fact that both the House and Senate were so closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. The House, with a 30-30 split, demonstrated that it's possible for two parties to govern in tandem, without attempting to continually scapegoat the other side.
Legislative leaders, along with Gov. John Kitzhaber, should be congratulated for the mature way they conducted business. Their peaceful relations contrasted sharply with places such as Minnesota, where a budget fight has led to a government shutdown, and Ohio, where thousands of public employees have paraded in the streets as they try to repeal a new law limiting their collective-bargaining rights.
The Oregon Legislature avoided those conflicts by steering clear of the most contentious issues. It still had some noteworthy accomplishments, including:
• Adopting a biennial budget that begins to ratchet state spending down to a more sustainable level.
• Pledging to reform the state's delivery of health care services, which - if accomplished - will save huge sums of money in the long term.
• Passing what we believe will turn out to be a modest education-reform package that makes the governor the superintendent of education and frees universities from state lawmakers' control.
• Expanding the iconic Oregon Bottle Bill to include more types of containers and more options for redeeming those containers.
• Agreeing on a redistricting plan that alters boundaries for legislative and congressional districts so that they align with population numbers from the 2010 Census (see the front page for more on that). In contrast to previous decades, legislators were able to accomplish the task in a remarkably bipartisan manner.
• Streamlining the approval process for development of significant industrial lands.
• Creating a program to weatherize public schools, an undertaking that will create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The legislature's victories are worth celebrating, but this was also a session that left important work undone. Lawmakers neglected the opportunity to address more fundamental changes in how Oregon spends and saves its money. No additional course corrections were attempted for a PERS program that remains underfunded.
Any changes to the state's kicker law - a law that drains the state of excess revenue that could be retained in a Rainy Day fund - also went nowhere.
Even some of the accomplishments, such as the promises of health care and education reform, remain quite thin until the governor and legislators decide to fill in the details. If the choice is between an overly ambitious agenda that leads to political showdowns, or quiet agreement among legislators about those items of greatest importance, we believe that most Oregonians opt for the latter.
The 2011 legislature's work wasn't especially glamorous, but that was appropriate for a legislative session that emphasized the nuts and bolts of government instead of the need for grandstanding or overt posturing.