'Grand bargain?' A missed opportunity is more like it
Oregon Legislature falls short of major priorities
At the start of the 2013 legislative session, when all things still seemed possible, the people behind the Oregon Business Plan had three very sound pieces of advice for lawmakers in Salem: Fix PERS, invest wisely in education and build the bridge.
Those big-three initiatives, if accomplished, would have placed Oregon on a more prosperous path for the future. Reform of the Public Employees Retirement System would have freed millions of dollars for schools and other public services. Investments in education eventually would have improved Oregons economic standing. And construction of a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River would have meant thousands of jobs both in the short and long term.
Now that the 2013 session has stumbled to a close, its time to consider just how far legislators were able to travel toward a better economic future for Oregon. The answer is not far enough and the blame must fall on a modern-day inability, or unwillingness, to compromise.
One legislative failure, however, cannot be assigned to Oregons lawmakers. Thats because it was partisan intractability in Washington state that killed this regions top transportation priority the Columbia River Crossing. Some Republican legislators in Washington refused to approve a project that included light rail. Their stubbornness means no new Columbia River bridge will be built for decades. They may dream of reviving the project, minus light rail, but that will never be accepted by the governors of Oregon and Washington, by the federal government, by key members of Congress or by Portland-area officials.
So the crossing which flew through the Oregon Legislature is gone, along with the $3.6 billion it would have injected into the regional economy.
Meanwhile, back in Salem, Oregons version of a grand bargain to trade modest tax increases in return for deeper PERS reform also tumbled into the partisan divide that so few lawmakers are willing to bridge (other than Republican Sen. Bruce Starr of Washington County). Without this tax-and-PERS tradeoff, which would have produced $1 billion in PERS savings in this biennium, Oregon can make only modest progress on its other big goal: investing wisely in education.
Oregons K-12 school districts will receive a hefty increase in funding for the coming biennium, but much of the increase will be devoured by escalating PERS costs. In essence, a vote against larger changes to PERS was a vote to see just how many more children Oregon can pack in the average classroom.
The 2013 Legislature made progress on important matters, including a health care budget that promises to hold down costs. It also made efforts to better target education spending, and it allocated as much as it reasonably could to schools, considering the confines of the overall budget. The PERS reform that did occur is helpful, even if it falls woefully shy of what is needed to keep retirement costs truly affordable for taxpayers.
Still, many people will be disappointed by the incremental progress made in Salem. Theyll hold out hope for additional actions in 2014 and beyond, but grand bargains in politics may well be a thing of the far-distant past. After all, they require a willingness to do whats right for Oregon even if it endangers your next election.
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