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Lawmakers put new I-5 bridge at top of priority list

Prospects look good for Oregon lawmakers to approve funding for the Columbia River Crossing project this year, a panel of lawmakers said Wednesday.

Incoming House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and three other legislators previewed the 2013 legislative session at the Portland Business Alliance’s weekly breakfast forum.

All the Oregon components of the multibillion-dollar project, including Interstate 5 improvements and a new bridge and light-rail line to Vancouver, Wash., would be in Kotek’s House district, and she called it one of her top three priorities for the 2013 session.

“We need to have this project started,” Kotek said, “We’re going to do that.”

State Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, who has carved out a legislative specialty in transportation improvements, said he’s never been so confident about a transportation project’s chances at the onset of a legislative session. Everything is “teed up,” Starr said. “I believe it is something that we can get done relatively early in this session.”

If Oregon lawmakers approve the state’s funding share early, he said, that could nudge their colleagues in Washington state to do the same.

Kotek, Starr and Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, said boosting public school funding should be a high priority this session. Starr, whose district includes Hillsboro and Forest Grove school district schools, said he’s never seen teachers under such stress, partly due to larger class sizes and layoffs among their peers.

The 2013 session will be the first in awhile where lawmakers aren’t returning to Salem facing a huge deficit, Hass said.

However, the prospects for increasing school funding may rest largely on reforming Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System benefits. And the outlook for PERS reform isn’t as solid, at least from Kotek’s perspective.

Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposal to reduce future cost-of-living increases for many PERS retirees, a move that could save a whopping $800 million in the next two-year budget, could be tied up in courts until 2017, Kotek said. That’s hardly money that school districts should be banking on next school year, she said.

Hass said the governor’s proposal appears to have a better chance of passing court muster than some of the 2003 PERS reforms enacted by the Legislature, some of which were nullified by the Oregon Supreme Court.

“When we do it, it will save jobs, and it will put more teachers in the classroom,” said state Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn.

But Starr said PERS reform will be driven by Democrats, who control both chambers next session, and it will require bipartisan agreements.

Kotek said another top priority is stemming the need for more prison space. That also could free up money for the next two-year state budget.

When the subject of gun control came up, in light of the two grievous shootings in Connecticut and Clackamas Town Center, Kotek was cautious, saying it’s very difficult to pass such legislation. That will require support from Republicans “before we go up that hill,” she said.

Kotek, whose background is in human services, said she prefers to address the two recent shootings with another tack. “For me, it’s really about the mental health side of things.”