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Kitzhaber: PERS reforms, education funding difficult but can be done

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber endorsed the top three priorities of the new Oregon Business Plan on Monday, but admitted that challenges remain for enacting them during the 2013 Legislature.

Kitzhaber spoke about the plan at the 2012 Oregon Business Leader Summit in Portland. It drew hundreds of business and political leaders to the Oregon Convention Center for daylong meetings and discussions.

“It’s extraordinary, probably unique in the country to have a forum like this,” said Kitzhaber.

The plan supported at the summit calls for reducing Public Employee Retirement System costs, investing in education and replacing the Interstate Bridge between Oregon and Washington.

Kitzhaber said his proposed budget for the next two years accomplishes those things, and he has been meeting with legislative Democrats and Republicans to gain their backing.

According to Kitzhaber, some Democrats are nervous about his proposal to reduce PERS costs because public employee unions question their legality. Kitzhaber promised an expedited review by the Oregon Supreme Court if they are approved.

“PERS costs are going to increase $600 million unless we do something. I’d rather put the money into education,” he said.

Kitzhaber said the savings — which he estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars — would be invested in education. Both parties support that, Kitzhaber said, and some legislators want to increase state school support even more.

Kitzhaber also said members of both parties support starting construction of the Columbia River Crossing project.

“It’s time to build the bridge,” he said.

Kitzhaber said the Legislature must approve a funding source for approximately $400 million in bonds for the project by March 1 so that the 2013 Washington Legislature will do the same. Kitzhaber said it was up to the Oregon Legislature to approve the source, but he did not think Oregon Lottery funds were appropriate.

Before Kitzhaber spoke, a panel of legislative leaders from both parties said they were hopeful the project would be funded.

Speaking to reporters after his speech, Kitzhaber said his ultimate goal of a measure to reform Oregon’s property tax system probably couldn’t be ready for the ballot until 2014. Among other things, he said state residents must realize the schools need more money and that the additional spending will make a significant difference.