Local lawmakers look ahead

All-GOP Central Oregon delegation now in the minority in Salem

By Lauren Dake / The Bulletin

SALEM — Oregon voters tipped the scales Tuesday, giving Democrats a majority in the state House of Representatives and leaving Central Oregon's all-Republican delegation in the minority.

The election results ended the historic power-sharing agreement between the two parties. Now, Democrats, in addition to their two-seat advantage in the Senate, will have an eight-seat edge in the House, which was formerly balanced at 30 seats apiece.

Former Oregon House Majority Leader Tim Knopp, who won his bid against Democratic challenger Geri Hauser to represent Bend in the Senate, knows the feeling of being among those in control. The political party that holds the speaker's gavel also sets committee assignments and has a stronger say in what legislation garners attention and votes.

And Knopp has been around long enough to know that the minority party must do some political maneuvering to attain any of its goals.

“It makes it more challenging to get priorities through when the opposing party is in control,” Knopp said.

But he said goals in the upcoming session — job creation and increased funding for education — seem to appeal to both sides of the aisle.

“I believe ultimately people will do the right thing,” Knopp said.

One of the hot issues Republicans campaigned on was reforming the state's pension program. Democrats have been open to discussing reforms to the Public Employees Retirement System, but more cautious. PERS is saddled with unfunded liability, about $16 billion worth, which pushes higher the rates paid by public agencies, like school districts, to cover PERS obligations to retirees. The higher rates cut into dollars that school administrators, for example, say could go to hire teachers.

For Central Oregon's delegation, in both the lower and upper chamber, PERS reform has been a high priority.

“Since Democrats control everything, they will get the lion's share of the blame for all the cuts they are going to have to make should they not reform PERS,” Knopp said.

Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, who won re-election Tuesday night against Democratic opponent Nathan Hovekamp, pushed for PERS reforms in the last two sessions. It is, he said, one of the more divisive issues that seemed to break down along party lines in the past.

“I would say it's too soon to tell how that plays out given the new dynamic,” he said. “I don't know, for example, some of the new members and where they might stand.”

Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, who also won re-election, said he will continue to push to leverage the state's natural resources, including an effort to draw more water from the Columbia River — an effort that failed last session.

“I believe good ideas still have merit, and that's not dictated by which party is in control of the House or Senate,” McLane said.

The optimism for the delegation's No. 1 priority, however, remains intact: to obtain enough funding to turn Oregon State University-Cascades Campus into a four-year university.