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Kulongoski packs 'em in

The governor-elect takes a crack at boxing pears as a Bear Creek Corp. 'temp' worker Tuesday while discussing plans for revitalizing the state's shaky economy

Like anyone starting a new job, Oregon Governor-elect Ted Kulongoski found himself making a few mistakes on his first day on an assembly line boxing Royal Riviera pears.

Kulongoski decided to try out a temp job at Bear Creek Corp. Tuesday as he swung through the state after an economic summit in Portland Monday to find ways to pull Oregon out of its recession funk.

At one of many stops to discuss the economy and its impact on the state budget shortfall, Kulongoski and his wife, Mary Oberst, spent about a half-hour packing gift boxes of pears.

I made a couple of mistakes in the beginning, admitted Kulongoski, who sometimes placed a pear in the box before putting in the decorative paper.

While some onlookers agreed Kulongoski's wife had a slight edge with her packing abilities, Marshall Sellars, director of consolidated fruit packing, said Oregon's new governor was a quick study.

Still, Bear Creek gave Kulongoski a small handicap, letting him get his feet wet on one of the easiest lines.

We didn't want to get him involved in anything you've got to wrap, said Sellars, who's been with the company for 43 years.

Other workers and a phalanx of photographers looked on as the Kulongoski family busily packed box after box, which will feature a little card stating: Personally packed by Theodore R. Kulongoski.

Shirley Deaville, swing shift supervisor in pear packaging, said she was particularly nervous about getting a visit from the new governor. It kind of feels like when you're going to the dentist and your stomach hurts, she said.

Kulongoski and legislators are feeling their own stomach pains as they get ready to tackle a looming &

36;1 billion shortfall in the 2003-05 budget.

It's a very, very difficult time, Kulongoski said. We're looking at a revenue stream that you had in 1999. It's probably somewhere around &

36;11.4 to &

36;11.5 (billion).

With so much on his plate, Kulongoski said he's going to leave it up to current Gov. John Kitzhaber to find a way to plug the remaining &

36;450 million shortfall in the 2001-03 budget.

One major problem Kulongoski said he's leaving for Kitzhaber is planning for the likely defeat of Measure 28, which would increase income taxes to pay for &

36;312 million of the current budget shortfall.

Kulongoski is not ready to concede the ballot measure's failure, although he admits it will be difficult to pass.

Since schools would be one of the biggest losers if it's rejected, he urged school officials to step forward and offer the public a deal that would make them vote for the measure.

They should say, 'If the voters vote for this measure, we will guarantee and promise that there will be no reduction in the school year, for this school year or next school year,' he said.

Kulongoski said his energies are going into preparations for the next budget, with almost daily meetings in which he is attempting to develop strategies and proposals.

We don't want a repeat of the special sessions, said Kulongoski. We've been meeting with legislators for the past two or three weeks.

He anticipates finding a resolution to some of the more difficult problems that will come to bear on any budget, including the potential &

36;15 billion shortfall in the Public Employees Retirement System.

Rep. Rob Patridge, who showed up to greet Kulongoski but had to leave before the governor-elect's fog-delayed arrival, predicted a tough battle over the budget, particularly if strong measures aren't presented to address the bigger issues.

The Medford Republican said PERS is obviously one of the issues, but the governor and the Legislature also will have to tackle collective bargaining with teachers because salaries are one of the biggest expenses driving up the state budget.

He also said many legislators are interested in a discussion of sales taxes if there is some kind of cap on property and income taxes.

We also need to rebuild public confidence in government as we try to get through some grim times, he said.

Governor-elect Ted Kulongoski jokes with the press while packing pears at Bear Creek Corp. Tuesday. The plant was one of his many stops on a swing through the state to discuss Oregon's budget woes. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven