State lawmakers delivered substantive accomplishmentsWe should remember two things in evaluating the Oregon Legislature that ended last week. We should compare it to recent sessions and should reiterate the basic axiom that politics is the art of the possible.
By those measurements, this was a commendable session. There was substantive accomplishment. There was bitter haggling, but it was diminished from prior sessions. There was an end-of-session acknowledgment that tax reform must move to the top of the agenda.
Reform of the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) happened so early in the session and was done so smoothly that it's easy to forget that huge accomplishment. Democratic legislators contributed to this landmark legislation, against the interests of their natural constituency of the public employees unions to make this breakthrough. In signing the statute, Gov. Ted Kulongoski similarly talked straight to organized labor, which has been his base of support for decades. Diminishing the financial burden of PERS was absolutely essential to the state of Oregon as well as to municipal governments and school districts across the state.
The transportation funding package was similarly historic. This is the largest public works campaign in decades. It will produce jobs as well as desperately needed improvements in our bridges and highways.
When it came to the final revenue package, some Republicans such as Sen. Charles surprised their conservative base by supporting the temporary income tax surcharge. That vote was historic, in that it marked the resurgence of the moderate, fiscally responsible Republican legislator.
On a smaller, but no less significant front, Gov. Kulongoski was able to save the Oregon Cultural Trust, an icon of the 2001 Oregon Legislature. That was accomplished by moving the cultural trust to the Oregon Arts Commission, which was given a survival budget. Rep. Betsy Johnson was a key player in that success.
All in all, this was a commendable session. We could wish for more. It was surprising, for instance, that a bonding bill for community colleges was snuffed out at the last minute. State Sen. Joan Dukes as well as Rep. Johnson worked hard for the bonding bill and were bitterly disappointed at its failure.
When compared with the three prior legislatures, however, this was a good show. We are naive if we grade lawmaking in the way we might judge a gymnastics competition. The business of legislating is inherently messy.
The end-of-session to put tax reform at the top of the agenda is exactly what we should expect of our lawmakers. That is the biggest piece of unfinished business facing Oregon.