Oregon lawmakers weren’t able to reach a deal on deep pension reforms, but Rep. Bob Jenson said the failure of the “grand bargain” shouldn’t overshadow an otherwise productive legislative session.
That’s also the sentiment from Gov. John Kitzhaber.
“I think it was a very productive session,” Kitzhaber told the East Oregonian Friday. “When you look at the whole thing, we got a lot accomplished.”
Yet the failed bargain to get more money for schools and mental health services through tax increases and pension reforms is what made front page news. Jenson said it had little chance to pass in the waning days of the session, but Kitzhaber felt he had done enough to get it through.
“The sides had taken their stands, and they were pretty much unwilling to move off those stands,” Jenson said.
Kitzhaber said he was surprised he couldn’t get Republicans to agree to significant cuts to union benefits, one of their core principals.
“I don’t know why they got hung up on the (small business tax reductions),” said Kitzhaber.
That collapse aside, Jenson and Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, said legislators passed a number of good bills and kept some bad ones from becoming law. Smith, in a written statement, called Eastern Oregon a winner in the 2013 legislative session in part because of construction projects totalling $21 million.
The biggest chunk of that, $10 million, will be for Senate Bill 839, which will fund water storage and efficiency projects in the Columbia Basin. Smith, Jenson and Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, worked to ensure that bill and SB 5533, which funded it, both passed. And they did, in the final days of the session.
Jenson also said the revamped wolf management plan is a win. Lawmakers amended a small but vital portion of the state’s wolf management plan that now gives the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife the authority to use lethal force on a wolf that is a habitual killer of livestock. If the state is going to have a real cattle industry, he said, those livestock owners need to have the assurance they are not sustaining wolves.
Yet Kitzhaber said its the “suite of kindergarten through college” education bills that will have the most significant impact on the state moving forward. Local legislators agreed.
“We’re going to be able to add teachers back,” Smith said. “We’re going to be able to add school days back … we’re going to be able to invest in shop, music and agricultural programs.”
Smith also said he helped defeat anti-gun rights legislation. He said he worked to maintain the votes that kept the bills from proceeding to the House floor for a vote.
Smith, who sits as the ranking House member of the Joint Ways and Means Budget Committee, said he worked for more money for state agencies that are critical to eastern Oregon.
The $6.75 billion eduction budget, an increase of more than $1 billion, he said, means “we’re going to be able to add teachers back, we’re going to be able to add school days back, we’re going to be able to invest in shop, music and agricultural programs.”
But with no grand bargain, lawmakers will again have to deal with the Public Employee Retirement System. Jenson said the Republican Caucus called this latest reform “PERS-lite.” Revamping the pension system is complicated, he said, because each dollar cut from PERS is a dollar cut from the Oregon economy. And the Oregon Supreme Court or federal courts could decide on the reforms, and that could spell trouble.
“All of this means is that the very delicate budget that we’ve cobbled together could be placed in jeopardy by the action of the Oregon Supreme Court,” Jenson said.
Kitzhaber said he would like to a call a special session sometime this fall, but only if he thinks he has the votes to get the PERS legislation passed.
Contact Phil Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0833.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.