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Legislators cooperative effort noted, appreciated

Before the partisan daggers fully re-emerge for the 2012 elections, it's appropriate to take note once again of the positive advantage that legislative cooperation is bringing to Oregon government.

The Oregon Legislature, which last week concluded a 35-day annual session, has for the second session in a row turned in a performance that was impressive for its relative lack of rancor, but even more so for its productivity. These legislative successes, in our view, are proof that a divided House - at least in this case - can lead to improved relationships and decision-making.

The Oregon House is exactly split between Democrats and Republicans. And in the Senate, the Democrats hold the slimmest of majorities. The result of this balance of power - which, by the way, fairly reflects the Oregon electorate - has been a forced cooperation between the two parties. Neither party can accomplish anything without support from the other side, which means every topic of importance is subject to negotiation.

In this session - the first voter-mandated annual session in Oregon history - those negotiations led to some very meaty legislative advances. Among them were:

n A mid-biennium adjustment to the 2011-2013 budget that closed a projected shortfall, but left all-important K-12 school funding mostly intact.

n A foreclosure reform bill that could help some homeowners avoid foreclosure. This legislation was much improved in the House after Republicans insisted on changes to the original bill.

n An expansion of enterprise zones - which offer tax incentives to new or expanding companies and have proven to be an effective economic-development tool in Oregon.

n Passage of a health care transformation bill proposed by Gov. John Kitzhaber that promises to save the state bundles of money while also delivering better care for people on the Oregon Health Plan.

n Approval of state Treasurer Ted Wheeler's Oregon Investment Act, which is intended to improve how the state spends the limited dollars it has available for economic development.

n Approval of Kitzhaber's request to require school districts to sign achievement compacts with the state - compacts that could help free districts from the counterproductive effects of the federal No Child Left Behind law. 

These accomplishments were important ones, but the Legislature also left some business unfinished. In one respect, that's a good thing, because the short legislative sessions that voters approved for even-numbered years weren't intended to be forums for heavy matters of policy. Rather, the short sessions should be an opportunity to tweak the budget in the middle of the biennium and take care of any pressing matters that arise in the interim between sessions.

Yet, some of the issues deferred by the 2012 Legislature were of equal significance to bills that did clear both houses. Plus, a fuller discussion of those issues would get to the heart of a topic that Oregon's legislative process must address: The ongoing imbalance between urban and rural economies in Oregon and the damage that imbalance does to the state as a whole.

In particular, we would like to see a greater willingness to allow an enlarged, but prudent use of water from the Columbia River for agriculture. We also would support additional steps to free up the timber supply for small-town mills.

These issues may seem irrelevant to metro-area residents, but they aren't. Agricultural products are vital to the Portland-area economy, as they support jobs in trade, manufacturing and numerous associated industries. Beyond that, when rural communities can be self-sustaining, they contribute more toward the state's overall tax receipts and take some of the burden off urban and suburban Oregon.

We're disappointed that bills related to timber and agriculture didn't get the same level of attention as other legislative priorities. When the legislative deck is reshuffled in November, the House could fall to one party or another. But even if that's the case, whoever is in charge must make sure that matters of concern to all of Oregon get more complete consideration when the Legislature meets a year from now.



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