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Lawmakers should focus on jobs and schools

Bruce StarrThis week, the Oregon Legislature began the business of the 77th assembly. In order for the session to be considered a success, I believe a number of important issues must be addressed. Oregonians are looking to the legislature for leadership on those issues and for a roadmap that can chart a path to long-term prosperity for all Oregonians. And just as important as what the legislature does is how they do it. Sometimes the manner in which you lead is just as influential as where you are leading. With that in mind, here is a checklist you can use to measure the success of this session upon adjournment in five months:

Jobs

While a slow economic recovery has begun, most Oregonians recognize that more needs to be done for Oregon’s small businesses and the thousands that still can’t find a job. What is more, recovery can’t just be extended to specific geographies, demographics and income levels, but needs to reach to the most marginalized. This legislature should work to offer certainty to companies willing to make a big investment in Oregon’s economy. They should also provide tax relief to lower- and middle-income families and pass legislation that nurtures Oregon’s export sector economy.

PERS

Rising costs in the Public Employee Retirement System are siphoning money away from core services, like classrooms, fire departments and police forces. For too long this looming issue has been ignored, and now services are suffering for it as more and more dollars are requisitioned to pay for benefits. This session the legislature must put aside the demands of special interests and do what is good for Oregon’s long-term fiscal health. The governor’s proposed PERS changes (capping cost of living increases and ending the compensation of out-of-state retirees for Oregon income taxes they don’t pay) are a good place to start, but more needs to be done.

Education

The legislature should start seriously investing in K-12 education, so local districts can add teachers and reduce class sizes. The legislature should increase the percent of Oregon’s budget that goes to education funding. State spending on K-12 education has gone from 15 percent of the total budget in 1999-01 to 9 percent in 2011-13. This is the wrong trajectory. The legislature should set a floor for education funding so that no less than 15 percent of total state spending would go towards classrooms and teachers.

Columbia River Crossing

The legislature must act to build a new bridge across the Columbia River. The current bridge is one of the worst bottlenecks on the West Coast, costing businesses, consumers and commuters millions of dollars. This is an investment in infrastructure that offers a long-term return in terms of jobs. The legislature must ensure that the project is based on accurate assumptions and is fiscally sustainable, but the bridge needs to be built. Inaction will set the project back 10 years and flush away millions of dollars already invested.

Collaborative leadership

Last session we saw the kind of quality dialogue and reasonable legislation that can come from a truly bi-partisan approach to governance. Last session it was a necessity because of the tied House chamber (with 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans). This session Democrats are back in control of both chambers. But Democrats would be wise to follow last session’s model and allow representatives from both parties input into the big decisions facing Oregon. No one should be left without a seat at the table.

State Sen. Bruce Starr, a Republican, represents the 15th District, which includes Hillsboro, North Plains, Cornelius and Forest Grove.




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