Oregon's agenda

— John Costa / The Bulletin /


Published Jan 20, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

A rite of journalistic passage in Salem is a briefing by legislative leaders and the governor on what they see coming up as the Legislature approaches a new session.

That new session is upon us and Gov. John Kitzhaber, along with the minority and majority leaders of the state House and Senate, spoke to the assembled press corps Tuesday.

At this early stage, it is difficult to identify which issues really have legs, or which will simply fade from view.

And it is important to keep in mind that the Democrats have control of both houses of the Legislature as well as the governorship.

But the need for a three-fifths majority in both houses for any revenue-enhancing measure gives Republicans a fair amount of bargaining power.

The House is split 34-26 and the Senate 16-14 with Democrats in control of both, but short of three-fifths majority.

That said, what impressions were left after the briefing?

As in any representative body, there are agreements and disagreements between the parties. And Salem is no exception.

One agreement seems to be over the issue that is dominating the news — gun control. It is so polarizing that the leaders — on both sides of the aisle — seem to believe that the downside of a debate is not worth the possible upside of incremental changes.

Besides, the action is really with the federal government.

As Speaker Tina Kotek said, “I can't think of a proposal that has the legs” to get out of the House.

If there is a single unifying agreement across the aisle, it is that the state has to find ways to create jobs and improve the economy.

While the challenge is agreed upon, the answers are divisive.

One fight appears to be over new revenue, the arena in which the Republicans have some voting clout even as a minority.

Kotek and Kitzhaber say progress requires new revenue, though they suggest different approaches.

Kitzhaber believes reforming PERS and criminal sentencing will free funds to build the physical and intellectual capital of the state.

The governor believes that unless the state can get control of the costs in those two areas, there will not be additional funds for other needs, particularly education, which most leaders identified as a top priority.

Republican Mike McLane of Powell Butte, the House minority leader, said that even with Kitzhaber's suggested PERS reforms, governments would have an increased cost in public employee benefits.

“It doesn't cut costs in this biennium,” he said.

Kotek suggested that the elimination of tax exemptions and perhaps the addition of selective excise taxes should be on the table.

But McLane said the cost of delivering services has to be brought under control.

With so much state revenue dependent on income taxes, it is critical, he said, to increase Oregon's workforce.

And, he added, if taxes did not affect corporate conduct, Kitzhaber would not have called a special one-day session to give Nike special tax treatment to keep its expansion in Oregon.

“Companies are mobile,“ McLane said. He could have added: so are workers.

Still, there was at least a sense that the existing relationship between revenue and public purpose was discussable, if not agreeable, to both sides.

Maybe that's just the necessary pose at the beginning of the session, but you never know.

One tax reform is clearly off the table by both parties.

That's a sales tax, and that's too bad.

One issue that was conspicuous by its absence is the state of our court system.

Affected by all the necessary cutbacks and furloughs that state agencies are operating under, courts are now swamped under the burden of judicial foreclosures.

That has to be fixed.