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Ways and Drones

What can Devin and Buckley get done?

When we did PERS reform in 2003, we didn’t attach it to the budget as severely as you’re seeing in this 2013 version of the Hot Air Society. It’s stunning to see both parties and two branches of state government simultaneously tying the funding of education, public safety and human services so tightly to one target. 

Gov. Kitzhaber linked his proposed budget with $850 million in PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) savings directly to K-12 spending. The Republicans, through the Oregon School Board Association, proposed reforms totaling $1.5 billion in PERS savings, gutting benefits for their main whipping boys and girls — teachers and public employees. You’ve got to hand it to those school board association folks, though; thank God we have all 197 Oregon school districts’ boards looking out for students’ self interests and not their own. I wonder if they’ve even contemplated the savings that could accrue to K-12 if we simply agreed as a state to go to 36 county-based school districts? Think about it; do we really need 197 school districts with their redundant superintendents and redundant administrative staff? But I can hear the cacophony of yelping already: That’s a third rail of Oregon politics! Drain and Yoncalla, for example, could never merge: What would happen to the football programs?! 

I agree with the teachers, firefighters and cops that there are other equitable ways out of this economic mess: Place more responsibility on the shoulders of the big banks and corporations that caused it, not on the overburdened backs of working and retired Oregonians. I agree with their unions that before the rug is pulled out from under a single retiree, we need to make sure that every corporation pays its fair share. Before our teachers, firefighters and personal support workers are asked yet again to do more with less, we need to make sure that our leaders are being as responsible and efficient with our tax dollars as possible. It’s the Oregon way. Take that, you school boards, you! 

The guys in the middle of this negotiation are the Democratic co-chairs of the joint Ways and Means Committee, Sen. Richard Devlin and Rep. Peter Buckley. Devlin is one of my heroes. The former Marine drill instructor defeated then Public Enemy #1 of the Oregon public employee unions, Bob Tiernan, for his first election victory. Buckley is also a great guy. He should have gotten the Hot Air Perseverance and Perspicacity Award last session, when the House was evenly divided. Buckley was stuck in a room for six months as co-co-chair of House Ways and Means with Dennis Richardson, who was a coconut. Peter had to spend an entire session with that guy, and he still came out of it with his sanity and a grin.

The co-chairs’ initial proposal depends on about $450 million in PERS savings, using a variation of the reforms suggested by Kitzhaber. Granted, it’s light, but this is just a starting point. Buckley makes a good point; to any extent the Legislature is going to rely on PERS fixes, those fixes are at risk in the courts. Without a reasonable discussion of new revenue, that reliance alone could be devastating to future agency budgets if the courts don’t sustain the changes.

While Devlin and Buckley are the co-chairs of the joint Ways and Means Committee, they don’t operate exactly jointly. Because all revenue bills, anything having to do with a tax increase, must originate in the House. All revenue bills require a 60 percent majority to pass. There are 34 House Democrats and 26 House Republicans. Ergo, no percent partisan majority. Granted, the D’s could pull off an R or two — if they could find brave Republicans who were never running for office again in their lifetime or who are already expected to be defeated by a know-nothing Tea Party knucklehead in the primary. But then you’d also have to have all your Democrat votes lined up as well. Good luck with that one.  

You have the same problem in the Senate. And the Senate, even though it has a 16-14 Democrat edge, also got more conservative. Three of the relatively moderate Republicans left the Senate. Democrats no longer can negotiate with reasonable folks like Frank Morse, Dave Nelson or Chris Telfer; they were replaced by remorseless righties.

But, there’s always hope. Guess who the chair of the House Revenue Committee is? I’ll give you a hint: He’s from Lane County and he’ll tax anything that moves — as Grattan Kerans used to say.