What the Oregon Dem majority still needs to accomplish

Dan Lucas_July 2012_BW

by Dan Lucas

1 in 4 Oregonians is on Medicaid, the government health care payment system for the poor. That does not include older Oregonians who are on Medicare. Additionally, 1 in 6 Oregonians is on food stamps.

Last November Democrats gained even more seats in the Oregon Legislature and they held onto their decades-long control of all statewide offices, including governor. They returned to super-majority status in the Oregon Senate and moved to within one seat of super-majority in the Oregon House.

We are now more than half way through the Regular Session of the 78th assembly of the Oregon Legislature, which started in early February.

The session is taking place against the backdrop of an Oregon economy that’s continuing to improve. The most recent state revenue forecast noted “Oregon’s economy is experiencing full-throttle growth today. Jobs and income are increasing as fast, if not faster than during the mid-2000s.”

Oregon’s unemployment rate has dropped to 5.4%, almost back to when it was at 5% in 2007, just before the recession.

Although the eight-year recovery is continuing, there are still economic concerns. The same recent revenue forecast also warned “Oregon’s economy does not appear to be quite as healthy from an empirical perspective as it was a few months ago,” and it noted “Oregon is not yet fully healed from the Great Recession. The state’s labor market is nearly two-thirds of the way back to pre-recession levels.”

The one-third of Oregon’s labor market that’s not yet healed is mostly made up of people who became discouraged and gave up looking for work, who are not counted in the unemployment rate. It’s what the CEO of polling firm Gallup called The Big Lie about unemployment rates.

One in four Oregonians is on Medicaid, the government health care payment system for the poor. That does not include older Oregonians who are on Medicare. Additionally, one in six Oregonians is on food stamps.

So what has the Democratic majority accomplished so far this session and what do they still need to address in this last stretch of the session?

The Oregonian Editorial Board delivered a harsh assessment several weeks ago: “Unfortunately, [Oregon Democrats have] spent much of the current legislative session on a counterproductive, far-left policy bender.”

In addition to ethics reform, some of the larger areas that still need to be addressed are the economy, transportation, education and the looming budget crisis in two years.

Economy: After the recent PERS court ruling, the Oregonian Editorial Board wrote “If lawmakers can’t reduce pension costs, they’d better get serious about encouraging economic growth and job creation.” They went on to criticize the anti-business legislation the Democrats have pursued so far this session. It is important for Democrats to now focus on dealing with the Port of Portland container terminal losses, with the struggling economies in rural Oregon and on encouraging businesses to create good-paying jobs to lift more Oregonians out of poverty and for all the people who’ve given up on looking for work.

Transportation: Part of the Democrats’ “far-left policy bender” was to pass what amounted to a hidden gas tax in the clean fuels bill. Republicans let them know beforehand they wouldn’t support two gas tax hikes, and so now Gov. Brown is having to work to find consensus on a transportation package to fund needed road repairs. Additionally, despite the failed $200 million CRC project, there is still a need for a replacement to the I-5 Bridge across the Columbia River.

Education: Gov. Brown recently acknowledged “Oregon’s 2013 graduation rate was the worst in the country.” Despite that, Democrats passed an inadequate K-12 budget. The most recent revenue forecast will help to add some money to the K-12 budget, but it’s still inadequate. Additionally, there needs to be some plan for improving education results in Oregon – a plan that actually works. I haven’t heard that plan yet.

Looming budget crisis: The recent Oregon Supreme Court ruling striking down the bulk of the PERS reforms from the 2013 “grand bargain” will cause around a $319 million hit to the state budget in two years, as well as a $358 million hit to school districts. Sen. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg) is also raising the alarm about when the federal government will stop paying 95% of the Medicaid expansion costs next year, which will cost Oregon over $1 billion. Kruse further warns that tax provisions in Obamacare could cost Oregon an additional $1 billion in 2017, and that there are possible costs to repay the feds for the $300 million wasted on Cover Oregon.

There may not be enough time in the current session to address all these areas, but the Democratic majority should at least be laying the groundwork to get them taken care of in the next few years.

To read more from Dan, visit www.dan-lucas.com