Gov. John Kitzhaber’s “grand bargain” held on, by the skin of its teeth, in a three-day special session that wrapped up last week with the approval of all five bills in the bargain.
We were encouraged that the Legislature acted to curb the growing costs of public employee pensions – but less heartened to learn that Kitzhaber says he’s done with trying to shape additional reforms to Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System.
Further PERS reforms, Kitzhaber told reporters, are “off the table for this governor. We are done.” Later in the week, in fact, he told The Oregonian, with a bit of the showmanship that accompanies a magician announcing his next trick, that he now would focus on reforming Oregon’s tax system.
The pension cuts, which primarily reduce cost-of-living increases for beneficiaries, were part of a package that includes changes to the tax code and – in a bid to attract Republican support for the entire package – a prohibition against local governments regulating genetically modified crops.
Kitzhaber’s desires notwithstanding, there’s plenty of additional work to be done on PERS, even though the changes approved last week, when combined with reforms passed in the regular session earlier this year, will erase about a quarter of the system’s unfunded liabilities. That’s good. But it also means three-quarters of those liabilities still are lurking – even if this year’s reforms survive a court challenge from PERS beneficiaries and unions that represent public workers.
The special session also approved changes to the tax code: Some higher-income individuals and businesses will pay more in taxes. So-called “C corporations” will pay higher tax rates. Tax rates were trimmed for other types of businesses. Taxes on tobacco products will go up.
The package funnels an additional $200 million or so to schools and other programs.
Considering that the coalition Kitzhaber pulled together to push his grand bargain included business leaders, it would be nice if he acknowledged that support by publicly opposing a variety of proposed ballot measures to increase corporate taxes. The measures, being proposed by the advocacy group Our Oregon, may earn a spot on the November 2014 ballot – and almost certainly would produce a repeat of the vitriolic 2010 campaign over Measures 66 and 67, which pitted business against labor.
One last special session thought: Considering the sorry example being set by the federal government, it was heartening to see the Legislature reach agreement on tough issues.
But we remain unconvinced that a special session, with its brutally tight deadlines, is the best place to consider complicated legislation: As it turned out, much of the work on the bills in the grand bargain was tackled behind closed doors while rank-and-file legislators cooled their heels. In a state that likes to pride itself on transparency in government, these special sessions can be recipes for serious mischief.