Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



At the start of Oregon’s 2013 legislative session, when all things still seemed possible, the people behind the Oregon Business Plan had three very sound pieces of advice for lawmakers in Salem: “Fix PERS, invest wisely in education and build the bridge.”

Those big-three initiatives, if accomplished, would have placed Oregon on a more prosperous path for the future. Reform of the Public Employees Retirement System would have freed up hundreds of millions of dollars for schools and other public services. Investments in education eventually would have improved Oregon’s economic standing. And construction of a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River would have meant thousands of jobs — both in the short and long term.

Now that the 2013 session has stumbled to a close, it’s time to consider just how far legislators were able to travel toward a better economic future for Oregon. The answer is not far enough — and the blame must fall on a modern-day inability, or unwillingness, to compromise.

One legislative failure, however, cannot be assigned to Oregon’s lawmakers. That’s because it was partisan intractability in the state of Washington that killed this region’s top transportation priority — the Columbia River Crossing. Some Republican legislators in Olympia refused to approve a project that included light rail. Their stubbornness means no new Columbia River bridge on I-5 will be built for decades. They may dream of reviving the project, minus light rail, but that will never be accepted by the governors of Oregon and Washington, by the federal government, by key members of Congress or by local officials in the Portland area.

So the crossing — which flew through the Oregon Legislature — is gone, along with the $3.6 billion it would have injected into the regional economy.

Meanwhile, back here in Salem, Oregon’s version of a “grand bargain” to trade modest tax increases in return for deeper PERS reform also tumbled into the partisan divide that so few lawmakers are willing to bridge (other than Republican state Sen. Bruce Starr of Hillsboro). Without this tax-and-PERS tradeoff, which would have produced $1 billion in PERS savings in this biennium alone, Oregon can make only modest progress on its other big goal: investing wisely in education.

Oregon’s K-12 school districts will receive a hefty increase in funding for the coming biennium, but much of the increase will be devoured by escalating PERS costs. In essence, a vote against larger changes to PERS was a vote to see just how many more children Oregon can pack into the average classroom.

The 2013 Legislature did make progress on important matters, including a health care budget that promises to hold down costs. It also made efforts to better target education spending, and it allocated as much as it reasonably could to schools — considering the confines of the overall budget. The PERS reform that did occur is helpful, even if it falls woefully shy of what is needed to keep retirement costs truly affordable for taxpayers.

Still, many people will be disappointed by the incremental progress made in Salem. They’ll hold out hope for additional actions in 2014 and beyond, but grand bargains in politics may well be a thing of the far-distant past. After all, they require a willingness by legislators to do what’s right for Oregon, even if it endangers the legislators’ chances in the next election.

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