Legislature ignores the big issues

Besides the senseless loss of human life and the systematic destruction of America's reputation around the world, the most frustrating effect of the Bush regime's war in Iraq is the way it saps our political energy to deal with anything else.

This political paralysis is about to have a profound impact on thousands of Oregonians who live in counties whose land bases are dominated by federal timber land, where the federal government has made payments to local government in lieu of property taxes for decades.

Sens. Gordon Smith and Ron Wyden have tucked the money to resume those payments into the bill funding the Iraq War. President George W. Bush vetoed that bill because it included a non-binding "timetable for withdrawal" in it. The Democrats have now withdrawn any "timetable" from the bill — to the cries of "sellout" from the anti-war wing of their party — in an effort to get the bill passed with many of the other riders attached, including the county payments. Bush still opposes the bill, one suspects, because he is using the war as a diversion from the revelations of his administration's other failures and scandals.

In many of the affected counties, commissioners simply assumed the federal payments would continue indefinitely. When the money failed to materialize, commissioners warned of severe budget cuts and hastily put alternative means of funding on the ballot earlier this month. They all failed with the budget-baiters and government-haters prancing about crying "No means no!" Now reality intrudes on the ideologues and in hard-hit counties like Jackson, Josephine, Douglas and Lane counties, commissioners are closing libraries, laying off sheriffs' patrols and reducing public works, public health and other staff. In Curry County, arguably the county most dependent on federal timber payments, there is talk of bankruptcy or actually dissolving the county.

Although the end of federal payments to timbered counties has been predictable for some time, no one in Salem has taken the prospect seriously. Now that the wolf is through the door and standing, snarling, in the living room, there is still no sign of urgency about restructuring local government finances anywhere in Salem.

Oregon Democrats have their hands full picking up the pieces after more than a decade of the Republicans' reckless borrow-and-spend policies. At least the Democrats have established the long-discussed "Rainy Day Fund" to protect public schools against the next recession that pessimists insist is already here or not far off.

Most of the timbered counties are solidly Republican country. But Oregon Republicans are simply AWOL on the issue, having allied their party with national anti-tax organizations such as FreedomWorks that spend their time attacking Democrats for "the largest tax increase in history" and other focus group-tested slogans that Oregon voters ignored last November when they swept the Republicans out of both houses.

Oregon Republicans are so single-minded about winning just enough seats to gain control of one or both houses that they are ignoring just about everything else, which will only alienate the crossover voters who put them in the minority in the first place.

Oregon Democrats have established a modest list of incremental improvements this session. Modesty was to be expected. It took Oregon Republicans more than a decade to create this mess and no one is going to clean it up in six months.

But there is a strange lack of urgency about the severity of the remaining problems. The financial plight of the timbered counties is the tip of the iceberg.

Oregon's regional universities — Southern, Eastern and Western — are in perilous financial shape. Stagnant or declining enrollments are clashing with rising costs because high tuition has priced so many Oregon students out of the market.

The Oregon Department of Transportation's plans to create a widespread system of toll roads moves ahead like a robot despite public opposition every time a toll road project is unveiled. Toll roads have momentum because no one in Salem is discussing a practical alternative for financing the state's future transportation needs.

Measure 37 still threatens financial chaos and protracted litigation and the much discussed "fix" doesn't really solve the problem.

There are a host of other issues that need attention but there is as yet no talk of interim committees or other forums to discuss them between legislative sessions. The inability to form a bipartisan consensus on ways to deal with these issues is disturbing.

The lack of urgency over the pending crisis raises the question whether an entire generation has lost the skill and the will to govern effectively.

Russell Sadler has commented on Oregon politics for more than 30 years. E-mail him at russell@russellsadler.org.

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