The two most important things the Oregon Legislature can do this year also happen to be two of the most difficult. As it solicits expert opinions on the topics of building an Interstate 5 bridge and fixing the Public Employees Retirement System, legislators are gaining a more intricate understanding of the complexities awaiting them if they forge ahead with the Columbia River Crossing and the governors plan to reform PERS. Both these issues present major challenges to lawmakers, but this should be seen as a chance to prove the Legislature is still capable of doing whats right for the state, even when that task isnt easy or universally popular.
A legislative committee recently heard from people including Gov. John Kitzhaber who believe the Columbia River Crossing is essential to the economic vitality of the entire state. Committee members also heard testimony from critics who, among other issues, say the $3.5 billion bridge project already has squandered tens of millions of dollars on planning.
We believe both those points of view have validity: The expenses incurred by Columbia River Crossing project to date more than $120 million without anything built certainly seem excessive. Yet, its also true that, without a new bridge, this regions economy will remain impaired by a transportation chokepoint, slowing the movement of people, goods and services up and down Interstate 5.
The most wasteful outcome would be if the money already spent on the Columbia River Crossing doesnt lead to full-blown replacement of the old bridge, a portion of which is nearing 100 years of age. To get the project moving, the Legislature must approve $450 million in bonds that in turn will leverage the federal funding necessary to pay for the majority of the bridge construction.
While legislators absorb arguments on both sides of the Columbia River Crossing debate, they also are receiving conflicting advice on the legality of potential PERS reform. The governors proposed 2013-15 budget includes an assumption that legislators will agree to cap cost-of-living increases for PERS retirees, only allowing such increases on the first $24,000 in annual PERS income.
In a letter to House Speaker Tina Kotek on Feb. 4, Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson casts significant doubt on whether such a cap would survive a court challenge. However, a Feb. 5 memorandum from the state Department of Justice to the governors office offers a different perspective and outlines possible arguments the state could use to prevail before the state Supreme Court on this matter.
What both PERS reform and the Columbia River Crossing have in common is the uncertainty they create. but that is not justification for inaction. No one knows for sure whether PERS reform will be upheld. Likewise, no one can be sure if Washington state lawmakers will approve their share of funding for the Columbia River Crossing, or whether Vancouver residents ultimately will accept light rail as part of the bridge project.
Legislators cannot control all outcomes, but they can press ahead as leaders and make contingency plans in case their decisions must be revisited in the future. There is more than one way to reform PERS, and there is more than one way to build a bridge. What the 2013 Legislature must do for Oregon is act on these priorities and be ready to adjust if necessary.