Businesses should reach out to other side, but Democrats who control Legislature must act as well
Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney says he learned an indelible lesson from teachers and mentors early in life: You can tell more about people's character after they have won than after they have lost.
Courtney shared this particular insight Monday with a thousand or so business and civic leaders — many of whom celebrated an overwhelming victory Nov. 8 by defeating Ballot Measure 97.
Courtney, a Democrat, said it's now time for the same folks who crushed the opposition at the polls to reach out to public employees, school supporters and others to do what is right for Oregon.
Courtney's comments came at the Leadership Summit of the Oregon Business Plan, an annual event bringing together business leaders and key political figures to discuss how best to move Oregon's economy forward.
The backdrop for this year's summit was the lopsided defeat of Measure 97, and the looming state budget shortfall. When the Oregon Legislature convenes in February, the state will face as much as a $1.7 billion gap in its 2017-19 biennial budget. This shortfall is being driven by, among other things, spikes in the cost of health care and the Public Employees Retirement System.
Measure 97 would have papered over the problem by raising $6 billion or more per biennium. But voters correctly determined the massive corporate sales tax was the wrong way to solve the state's budget problems. Rejection of Measure 97 doesn't change the fact that Oregon's citizens and its economy will suffer greatly if the state doesn't find ways to maintain and improve public services.
Courtney's challenge to the business audience was to reach out — make the phone call to the other side, as he personally did recently to end a long-standing estrangement with his own brother. His advice is well taken, in that many opponents of Measure 97 — including this editorial board — repeatedly said more money is needed for the state budget.
Business leaders at Monday's summit did put forward a three-pronged approach to deal with the state's fiscal issues:
• Continue to expand Oregon's economy, which increases tax dollars available for education, health care and other services. A key element is passing a transportation funding package.
• Control costs for the Oregon Health Plan, corrections and PERS. These are difficult subjects, but the business plan provides specific examples, particularly for PERS.
• Reform the state's notoriously volatile tax system to give it greater stability and ability to raise more money. Business leaders did not commit to a specific approach, but noted the work done by state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, who has proposed modest increases in business taxes.
Ideas coming from the business groups won't align completely with what public employee unions want, or what Democrats who control state government are willing to support. Yet, the broad outline — a thriving economy, greater budget discipline and an infusion of new revenue — ought to be an acceptable conversation starter to everyone concerned about Oregon's future.
Gov. Kate Brown also spoke Monday and acknowledged the same voters who elected her in November also said no to the ballot measure she supported. Brown told business leaders they must help figure out the next steps.
We agree. Business people must be at the table and be willing to sacrifice.
But it's up to Brown to set the table by reaching out to both sides. She must make it clear that everyone has to compromise to reach a budget agreement that solves the immediate crisis for 2017-19 and lays the groundwork for longer-term stability and progress.
Business groups defeated Measure 97 only after both sides spent a combined $42 million. The victors should be humble and recognize the need to avoid another costly battle in 2018. At the same time, only Brown and other top Democrats have the credibility with supporters to bring about compromises necessary to solve Oregon's budget woes for good.