Hard work ahead

The 2013 session brings PERS funding, health care, prisons to the forefront

Gov. John Kitzhaber's State of the State address Monday sounded an upbeat note as lawmakers began preparing for the 2013 session early next month. Certainly there is more reason for optimism this year than at any time since the Great Recession hit, but Oregon is not out of the woods yet — or back in the woods, for that matter.

The governor got one major point right as he noted the state has the second-fastest-growing economy in the nation. If you're wondering when that growth rate will show up anywhere but the Portland area, Kitzhaber is wondering the same thing:

"We cannot settle for an uneven, unequal and hesitant 'recovery,' the governor said in his prepared remarks. "The word 'recovery' loses any useful meaning if it describes a state where the Portland metro area returns to pre-recession employment levels, while much of rural Oregon continues to suffer the economic and social consequences of double-digit unemployment, outdated infrastructure and an aging workforce."

Jobs were a main thrust of Kitzhaber's speech, along with steps he says will help shore up the state's schools, reform the health care system to save $700 million over the next three biennial budget periods, and reduce the prison population to avoid having to build new ones.

Kitzhaber stressed his proposal to cap the cost-of-living increase in state employees' pensions, acknowledging it is controversial. It's also not a major overhaul of the PERS system. That has already happened to the extent it can be accomplished under existing court rulings. What's left is nibbling around the edges — still useful, but not the complete answer to the state's school funding woes.

Heading off a projected need for 2,300 new prison beds over the next 10 years will require changing how the state punishes nonviolent offenders. If changes are implemented in the right way, it should be possible to reduce the rate at which prisoners reoffend while saving money that would have been spent to lock more of them up.

The governor noted that will require lawmakers to stand up to charges that they are "soft on crime" — always a tough stand for an elected official.

After two years with a state House evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers are returning to a chamber where the Democrats are back in control, having picked up four seats in November for a 34-26 edge. The Senate remains in Democratic hands, although more narrowly.

Kitzhaber has laid out an ambitious agenda, but it should be doable if legislators can still find ways to work together rather than at cross-purposes.

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