Legislature closes book on '07 session

Legislature closes book on '07 session

SALEM — As expected, the two Democrats in the six-member Jackson County legislative delegation had high praise for the accomplishments of the 2007 session of the Legislature.

The four Republicans — one senator and three House members — were less enchanted, although they conceded, albeit grudgingly, that the majority Democrats were remarkably successful in pushing their agenda through.

Democrats held a 19-11 edge in the Senate, but a slight 31-29 majority in the House.

The assessments came as the Legislature wound up its work and adjourned on Thursday, one day before a self-imposed deadline.

"The most important thing we did was put together a rainy-day fund," said Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland. "And we put money in it."

He said this will protect the state from the next recession, "which we know is coming."

He also cited passage of the domestic partnerships law for gay couples — "not marriage, but domestic partnerships" — a reasonable higher education budget, improved funding for kindergarten through 12th grades, and the governor's renewable energy bill, among other successes.

Most state programs were adequately funded, the Ways and Means member said, with one notable exception — human services.

"We didn't expand care to Oregonians as we should have, and we didn't take care of our mental health people," Bates said. The Medford physician had pushed for four stand-alone mental health treatment clinics around the state, including Medford.

Bates also cited his and Tumalo Sen. Ben Westlund's proposal creating the framework for universal health care for all eligible Oregon residents. Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed the bill Thursday. The plan will be drafted during the interim for submission to the 2009 Legislature.

The Legislature's biggest failure? "Tax reform," Bates said. "It's time to get rid of property taxes and replace them with a sales tax," he said.

"Personally, it's been a wonderful experience," Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, said of the 2007 Legislature. But on a political level, he added, "it's been less than I desired."

"There were real philosophical differences between where I am and where the majority party is," the conservative Jackson County legislator said. "I think this Legislature and the governor's policies have had a tremendous payback for the unions."

Among bills he sponsored that faltered were extending political tax credits to individuals who donate to charity, funding for two velodromes in Jackson County and the Portland metro area and his call to approve the K-12 budget by the 81st day of the session.

Neither Bates nor Atkinson is up for re-election in 2008. Bates is toying with a run for the U.S. Senate against GOP Sen. Gordon Smith, but this week he said, "I think it's a long shot that I will get in."

"It's hard to beat an incumbent."

Bates said he plans to discuss it with his family then announce his decision in about a month.

Atkinson all but ruled out running for either secretary of state or state treasurer in 2008 — both incumbents are term-limited — but he is considering a second run for governor in 2010.

"I'm partial to that second-floor office," he said, referring to the governor's chambers. Atkinson ran last year, losing the GOP nomination to Ron Saxton, a Portland attorney.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, rated the session as "excellent" for education, consumer protection issues, energy and health care.

The cohesiveness of the caucus under the leadership of House Speaker Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, was aided by the fact the Democrats met prior to the session and agreed on a "very specific" agenda, he said.

He regrets the failure of Democrats to get the GOP minority to find common ground.

"The one thing they signed up for was the rainy-day fund. But it ended there," Buckley said, as Republicans united against a cigarette tax increase to fund health care coverage for children and against a hike in corporate minimum taxes.

"There was an ideological roadblock," he said.

His biggest disappointment was the failure to fund community colleges and higher education at a higher level and failure of his bill to revise the community college formula that now penalizes Rogue Community College.

Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, was probably the most critical of the Jackson County delegation. "Unions, the teachers association and radical environmentalists and conservationists got what they wanted on issues and funding, and in gutting Measure 37," he said.

Added Richardson, "It's all been about expanding government and spending every dime without any considerations for the adjustments that will be made when we have the next recession."

He said Democrats spent every dime coming into the state coffers — $1.2 billion more than this biennium, thanks to a healthy economy.

"The only leverage we had against new taxes is the 36-vote majority that is required to refer to the voters," Richardson said.

Despite his criticism of the Legislature, Richardson said he plans to seek a fourth term.

Rep. George Gilman, R-Medford, called it a "pretty good session" and said he was able to work well with the Democratic leadership. Gilman's passion is transportation issues, and he said his major disappointment was the Legislature's failure to address highway needs.

Gilman said he was "ecstatic" at passage of the rainy-day fund and pleased with increases in K-12 and higher education funding. "But boy, we borrowed a lot of money," he said, primarily bonding for programs financed by lottery dollars.

"We did some good things," said Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford. But his major priority to hire additional state troopers financed by a beer tax increase and liquor revenues failed to go anywhere.

"That was a travesty. People should be ashamed," he said. He said he was caught in the middle, with Republicans locked up against any new taxes and Democrats reluctant to refer too many money issues to voters.

Esquivel said he will try again in the February 2008 special session to float his proposal.

Buckley is running for a third term and Gilman and Esquivel said they, too, would probably seek re-election.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem. Reach him at

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