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Meeting with Gov. Kitzhaber, others leaves chambers unclear

SALEM — Members of three Southern Oregon chambers of commerce exchanged thoughts Thursday with 10 state legislators, the governor and secretary of state.

It was an educational experience, if not wholly satisfying for the nearly 50 business and industry leaders from Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties who attended Chamber Day at the Capitol.

After hearing from 10 legislators and Gov. John Kitzhaber, Dixie Hackstedde, a John L. Scott Real Estate agent, was less than satisfied. Hackstedde is chairwoman-elect for The Chamber of Medford/Jackson County.

"We don't have the answers yet, about how we are going to balance the budget and we're not going to see any votes for a while," Hackstedde said. "It's probably just as hard for the schools and public entities; they can't plan their budgets and we're not sure what's going to go on.

"There are so many bills out there," she said, "and if they go into effect it would change personal lives, business lives and government lives."

What the Chamber crowd discovered was that while Democrats control the Senate, House and governor's office, they haven't necessarily figured out how solve the Public Employee Retirement System and education funding woes.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle made it clear the path to a final budget is pockmarked with gaps and funding deficiencies. The governor and legislative leaders don't see eye-to-eye on ways to reform PERS, setting up a stalemate that's not easy for pragmatic business people to swallow.

"Obliviously, it's very complicated, but you're trying to find consensus among 90 people and most of them aren't going to get what they want," said Tom Walker of Adroit Construction. "Hopefully, they can find some middle ground that's going to put the state in a better position tomorrow than today. It doesn't seem daunting to me, but special interests have their say and particular groups are not willing to give it up. I think those special interest issues seem to be creating the roadblocks."

Most of the legislators talked about ideas they thought could plug the short-term billion-dollar-plus gaps in PERS, while others said they were looking for ways to produce more revenue.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said the over-arching aims of the session is to put more money into education and to put more people to work.

She favored increasing bonding capability that would provide more money to lend businesses.

"It takes a combination of effort to get there through efficiencies, streamlining state government, while looking at tax breaks and putting the money back in classroom."

Some chamber visitors found at least some answers to their liking.

Joel Ockunzzi, a member of the Technical Advisory Committee for a coordinated review of land use zones in Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties created by the governor's office, said he was happy be in the same room with the governor.

"It was the first time I've been able to directly address a governor of our state on topic important to our region — coordinated control over regional land use and rezoning," Ockunzzi said. "We're trying to create more opportunities for expected growth, enterprise and additional revenue creation."

The Medford chamber's chief executive officer, Brad Hicks, was disappointed there hasn't been more progress on the long-known major issues before the Legislature.

"We have a governor that has set the pace," Hicks said. "He's been willing step up and take the lead on some really tough issues. He's bucking what would normally be his constituency on issues, but can't seem to get the Legislature to go with him, mainly on PERS."

Dave Maentz, board president of the chamber, said he was surprised there weren't more partisan shots during the 15-minute interchanges.

"I was encouraged by the tone and tenor, it wasn't nearly as partisan as I expected," Maentz said. "If you are a pessimist you would say it was just an act. But if you are an optimist you would say it showed lots of promise. I believe it showed lots of promise. Mostly it surprised me, because I expected it to be mostly Democrats versus Republicans."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.