Legislators who supported the so-called grand bargain this week in Salem showed a willingness to risk their own political futures in order to do what is right for Oregon.
That kind of courage is rare in modern-day politics, when lawmakers are so concerned about raising money for re-election that they shy away from difficult compromises that might anger their core supporters.
In this case, the compromise forged during a three-day special session will place Oregon on a more sustainable financial path for years to come. Legislators agreed to reduce the cost of the Public Employees Retirement System, while also raising taxes on high-income earners, cutting taxes for small businesses, dedicating a cigarette tax to mental health services and approving a controversial bill regarding agricultural seeds.
The grand bargain doesnt solve all of Oregons financial problems forever. And the new caps on cost-of-living increases for PERS retirees still must survive court challenges. However, the package of bills passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor will break loose millions of dollars for Oregon schools this year. To take just one local example, the Gresham-Barlow School District expects about $2 million more in revenue or PERS savings this year as a result of the Legislatures action.
In a state with some of the largest class sizes in the nation, that extra money can have an immediate beneficial impact. In the longer term, the PERS reforms will save hundreds of millions of dollars for schools and other public agencies.
All sides had to give up something which is the definition of compromise. Business groups were willing to absorb new taxes in return for getting breaks for small businesses and gaining the stability that will come from PERS reform. Public employees will have smaller cost-of-living increases when they retire, but in the near term, the agencies they work for will gain some budget relief. The PERS reforms also should put the retirement system on firmer financial ground, ensuring it will survive for the employees who one day will depend on it.
The legislative process was messy and the votes hardly unanimous. But the legislators who prevailed in the end also sent a clear message that Oregon can still solve big problems despite partisan divides. As Gov. John Kitzhaber noted after the bill-signing ceremony, the Legislatures accomplishments this week stand in stark contrast to whats occurring in Washington, D.C.
In Oregon, it is still possible although quite difficult to attain bipartisan solutions for long-running problems.