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Kitzhaber Starts Push For PERS Deal

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber started a road trip Friday aimed at persuading at least a couple of Republican legislators to accept the so-called “grand bargain” that died in the recently completed legislative session.

The deal that failed in a party-line vote would entail Republican lawmakers accepting tax increases in exchange for Democrats agreeing to curtail retirement benefits for public employees. The actions would provide additional money for education.

If the sides can reach a compromise, the governor will call lawmakers back to Salem for a special session, likely this fall.

Kitzhaber began the tour in Hillsboro, home to Intel — Oregon’s largest private employer and one that craves skilled workers — and a school district that has faced persistent cuts. He was joined by Sen. Bruce Starr of Hillsboro, seen as the likeliest Republican to vote for the deal.

Both men said the intensity of the Legislature’s final days contributed to the bargain’s collapse, and getting away from the Capitol will help stimulate a compromise.

“I don’t think it was anybody’s fault,” Kitzhaber said of the failure. “It was an issue that was sort of percolating at the end of the session. There was a lot stress and challenges at the end of the day. But we’re still committed to try and figure out how to do it.”

Starr initially voted “yes” on a bill that called for a $215 million package of tax increases, but changed his mind when it became apparent that no other Republican would join him. Even if every Democratic senator supports a tax increase, at least two Republican votes are needed for passage.

“I believe the need to reform our public employee retirement system is great enough that we will find the votes that are necessary on both pieces of the bargain,” Starr said.

The governor’s tour is expected to include visits to Hood River, northern Clackamas County, Salem and other locations. The dates have not been finalized.

In Hillsboro, Kitzhaber and Starr listened to education leaders lament shortened school years, outdated technology, libraries without librarians and class sizes that have ballooned to 40 students.

“Parents in our community have lost hope,” said Kim Strelchun, who chairs the Hillsboro School District board and recited cuts that have occurred since her daughter started school.

“When I used to start doing advocacy work, I had a little wish list of the top 10 things I would add back,” she said. “I don’t even dream of that add-back list anymore, because the add-back list is just: ‘Can we have a full school year?’”

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