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Uncertainty cannot create inaction in Salem

The two most important things the Oregon Legislature can do this year also happen to be two of the most difficult.

As they solicit expert opinions on fixing the Public Employees Retirement System and building an Interstate 5 bridge, legislators are gaining a more intricate understanding of the complexities awaiting them if they get serious about reining in runaway retirement costs and forging ahead with the Columbia River Crossing.

Both these issues present major challenges to lawmakers, but this should be seen as a chance to prove the Legislature is still capable of doing what’s right for the state, even when that task isn’t easy or universally popular.

Lawmakers are getting conflicting advice on the legality of potential PERS reform. Gov. John Kitzhaber's proposed 2013-15 budget includes an assumption that legislators will agree to cap cost-of-living increases for PERS retirees, only allowing such increases on the first $24,000 in annual PERS income.

In a letter to House Speaker Tina Kotek on Feb. 4, Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson casts doubt on whether such a cap would survive a court challenge. However, a Feb. 5 memorandum from the state Department of Justice to the governor’s office outlines possible arguments the state could use to prevail before the state Supreme Court on this matter.

Despite these dueling legal opinions, lawmakers should move the governor's reforms forward to a vote as soon as possible.

Just as no one is sure PERS reform will be upheld, lawmakers can't know whether their colleagues in the Washington legislature will approve their share of funding for the Columbia River Crossing, or whether Vancouver residents ultimately will accept light rail as part of the bridge project.

Earlier this month a legislative committee heard from people — including Gov. Kitzhaber — who believe the Columbia River Crossing is essential to the economic vitality of the entire state. Committee members also heard testimony from critics who, among other things, say the $3.5 billion bridge project already has squandered tens of millions of dollars on planning.

Both points of view have validity: the expenses incurred by the Columbia River Crossing project to date — more than $120 million without anything being built — are excessive. Yet it’s also true that without a new bridge, this region’s economy will remain impaired by a transportation chokepoint, slowing the movement of people, goods and services up and down Interstate 5 and hampering industrial growth in western Washington County.

The most wasteful outcome would be if the money already spent on the Columbia River Crossing doesn’t lead to full-blown replacement of this bridge, a portion of which is nearing 100 years of age. To get the project moving, the Legislature must approve $450 million in bonds that in turn will leverage the federal funding necessary to pay for the majority of the bridge construction.

We recognize that PERS reform and the Columbia River Crossing project are bedeviled by uncertainty. But that uncertainty is not justification for inaction.

Legislators cannot control all outcomes, but they can press ahead as leaders and make contingency plans in case their decisions must be revisited. There is more than one way to reform PERS and there is more than one way to build a bridge. What the 2013 Legislature must do for Oregon is act on these priorities and be ready to adjust if necessary.



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