The 2013 session of the Oregon Legislature holds promise for extraordinary progress. Democrats, holding the governorship as well as control of both chambers of the Statehouse, are a force to be reckoned with, and Deschutes County's Republican representatives—Sen. Tim Knopp and Reps. Jason Conger and Gene Whisnant—owe it to their constituents to reckon with the majority constructively.
Central Oregonians have one overarching priority for this session—expanding OSU-Cascades into a four-year university. Gov. John Kitzhaber wants the state to cover $16 million of the estimated $24 million cost of expanding the campus over the next two years. With Knopp and Whisnant serving on their respective education and workforce development committees, the delegation is well-positioned to win support for the cause. But legislators are weighing pressing needs, and the delegates need to make allies on both sides of the aisle if they're going to bring home those bucks. That may mean yielding occasionally.
Take PERS. Improving K-12 education requires holding down the sums government agencies pay to offset the $16 billion unfunded liability of the Public Employees Retirement System. To reverse the trend of teacher layoffs, Kitzhaber wants to reduce PERS spending by limiting cost-of-living increases and ending a tax payment reimbursement provision. Some Republicans want bigger changes, but given Democrats' long reluctance to alter the program, this is an opportunity to help do what's clearly doable this session.
Kitzhaber also wants to rein in spending on corrections—in part so he can shift money to education. In his State of the State address, the governor acknowledged that lawmakers are reluctant to cut the corrections budget for fear of being labeled soft on crime, but added that refusing to do so means "choosing prisons over schools." Kitzhaber wants to hold down the prison population by spending more on community corrections programs and providing more flexibility in sentencing and release decisions. Republicans who vow to preserve Oregon's minimum sentencing laws—and to fight any transfer of funds from the prison system—need to weigh the costs of such rigidity.
This year's legislative powder keg is gun control. As Congress ponders a proposal to do as Oregon did in 2000 by requiring background checks for purchases at gun shows, state Sen. Ginny Burdick wants to go further, requiring a background check for any sale between private individuals. She and other Democrats also want to ban semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammo magazines—and bar handguns on school campuses. Since the most fanatical opponents of gun control vote Republican, a GOP legislator needs to summon an extra measure of courage to get behind a control measure. Conger did just that recently when he stood up for Oregon's "reasonable" background-check law and dismissed the NRA's appeal for more guns in schools while speaking to sport shooters here. He and his GOP colleagues are unlikely to support any new restrictions, but they might consider whether fiercely defending the liberty to fire off 45 high-powered rounds a minute is politically prudent this year.
All of these legislators told us this week they are determined to work across the aisle. We're confident they'll live up to their word, we are awarding them a glass slipper for their collaborative ambitions. Gentlemen, please don't disappoint.