Seaside - Gov. Ted Kulongoski appealed to his fellow lawyers to help support "the rule of law" as Oregon continues its fiscal and economic struggles.
Kulongoski spoke Friday at the Oregon State Bar's annual conference, held last weekend in Seaside.
The governor asked the bar to lend in voice in support of the three-year income tax surcharge approved earlier this year by the Oregon Legislature.
Opponents of the temporary tax hike are gearing up to take the issue to the voters next spring, and Kulongoski said he needs the help of the state's lawyers to "be a voice for fiscal sanity.
"You can be a voice for fiscal sanity," he said. "I am here to challenge you, that the risk to our economy and our future is tremendous if this referendum succeeds. Oregon schools and businesses cannot function in a perpetual state of uncertainty.
"I am a born optimist, but I am also a born realist, and I know we have a fight on our hands," he said. "Our opponent has a big purse, and a very mean right hook."
The 2003 Legislature came in for particular criticism from many sides, beginning with the length of the session, the longest in state history.
But Kulongoski called the session "one of the most successful in two decades" and said lawmakers were productive in those long months, producing a balanced budget and adopting reforms to the troubled PERS pension system.
The legislature also produced a transportation bill that will provide for $5 million in projects over the next 10 years, and a statewide room tax to promote tourism.
The governor, who was criticized by some for a lack of firm leadership during the long budget battle in Salem, said he stood firm on his requested $5.3 billion education funding request, to make sure that schools could operate for the entire year.
"I am not a 'line-in-the-sand' type of leader ... but I will draw a line in the sand when I think it's critical to the future of the state," he said.
Education funding, and the rest of the approved 2003-05 budget, relies on a three-year income tax surcharge that opponents are already planning to take to the voters next year. Kulongoski asked the state bar, as "one of the most powerful, respected voices in the state," to take a stand in support of the temporary tax.
The 2003-05 budget also hinges on the PERS reforms, which reduced some of the system's unfunded deficit with cuts in benefits to many public employees. Those changes are being challenged in court.
Kulongoski said "we will see some good law-yering from both sides" when the issue gets litigated, but added that in the end he thinks the courts will find the reforms constitutional.
Providing a sound budget is also critical for the state court system, which was forced to close one day a week and lay off staff earlier this year because of funding shortages. Cutbacks like those hurt the legal process, particular for civil cases, which are usually the last priority when services are reduced, Kulongoski said.
The budget crunch is also hurting support for legal services to the poor, and Kulongoski asked bar members for support for the Campaign for Equal Justice, a program to provide legal resources to those who can't afford them.
"We can't have the rule of law if it is a tool for some and a pipe dream for others," he said.
Kulongoski, a member of the state bar for more than 30 years, said his legal background has been a key to his long public service, as a state legislator, state attorney general, Oregon Supreme Court justice and finally governor.
"Lawyers are uniquely qualified to understand, interpret and apply the rule of law to an ever-changing world," he said.
Attorneys' "collective allegiance to the rule of law" is critical to facing the state's challenges, including legal ones, Kulongoski said, even if many citizens are bewildered and frustrated at the often arcane fights over public policy.
"The law is complex, ambiguous and time-consuming, and for many citizens a mind-numbing way of settling disputes," he said. "The public wants a quick fix to our problems."