The Oregon Legislature has an opportunity to make a significant dent in the state's ongoing fiscal issues, but only if all parties involved in next Monday's special session can set aside their partisan priorities and engage in some long-term thinking.
And that would be no mean feat.
It took some high-wire balancing, some nose-holding and something that's been in short supply lately — trust — to get to the point of a special session. Gov. John Kitzhaber and the leaders of both parties deserve credit for moving forward despite their obvious discomfort with parts of the final package.
The tentative agreement, which is by no means certain, calls for the Legislature to enact several bills, which would:
- Cut $4.6 billion in long-term costs in the state's Public Employees Retirement System. Among other things, the bill would reduce cost-of-living increases, remove legislators from the PERS rolls and remove insurance payments from the "annual final salary" calculation that determines benefits.
- Set a new rate for corporations of 7.6 percent on income above $1.5 million, with some proceeds still earmarked for the state Rainy Day Fund.
- Eliminate a $183 "personal exemption" for individual filers with taxable incomes of $100,000 or more and married or joint filers with $200,000 in taxable income.
- Increase the state cigarette tax by 10 cents per pack.
- Limit the availability of Oregon's one-of-a-kind — and extremely expensive — senior medical deduction.
- Reduce taxes on some small businesses by allowing owners of "S corporations" to separate their business income from their personal income when paying Oregon taxes. It also would reduce some taxes on some export businesses.
- Prohibit local governments from banning genetically modified crops. This bill would not affect Jackson County's May 2014 vote to ban GMOs, which has already qualified for the ballot.
The measures would save the state billions in the long term, primarily through the PERS changes. For the current budget cycle, it would also allow the Legislature to put $140 million into education, $41 million into senior programs and $20 million into mental health funding.
But the proposals also have raised hackles across the state, from the state employees unions, seniors and, of course, anti-GMO advocates.
In our mind, the anti-GMO advocates have the most to complain about. They were thrown into the mix to gain enough Republican support to move the package forward to a special session. The issue has little to do with the fiscal thrust of the rest of the legislation.
But politics is the art of compromise, an art that has been all but lost in recent years. If that's the compromise Oregonians have to accept to make a real stab at controlling spiralling PERS costs and increasing support for education, we can live with it. The measure does not, by the way, prohibit the Legislature from banning GMO crops on a statewide basis.
The state employees unions say they will go to court to overturn the PERS changes. Even if they do and succeed, the effort by the Legislature to control the pension costs will help take some of the steam out of the anti-public-employee movement.
This is an all-or-nothing deal: Kitzhaber says he will not sign any of the laws unless they all are approved.
There is a lot to like and at least a few things to dislike about the proposals, but we encourage the state's legislators to step away from their own personal fault lines and choose all over nothing.