The Grand Bargain: What's the alternative?

Oregon legislators are hearing it from all sides as they prepare for Monday's special session on the "Grand Bargain" created by the governor and political leaders from both sides of the aisle. They'll all have to prove they're made of stern stuff to withstand the tide of criticism.

But they should consider the alternative: continuing down the same path that has led to furloughs, layoffs and reduced services at every level of local and state government — especially schools — in Oregon. If the Grand Bargain fails, we're left with the same old bad deal.

To no one's surprise, a hearing on Friday in advance of tomorrow's session produced a lineup of critics who continued to focus on their own interests over the larger and more long-term interests of the state's residents.

Public employee unions are, of course, leading the charge. They oppose the fairly modest changes in cost of living increases for current, mostly Tier I, retirees, while seemingly ignoring the fact that eliminating $4.8 billion in unfunded pension costs would create more public employee jobs, and serve the public better.

The COLA cuts are graduated to affect high-earning retirees the most, so this proposal is hardly going to put anyone on the street. This is not asking for the massive sacrifice it's being painted as by union leaders; it's asking for former public servants to do their small part in supporting public service.

The unions are joined by opponents to various pieces of the bargain, including a ban on local GMO measures, tax breaks for small businesses, tax increases on the well-to-do and major corporations and reductions in medical deductions for high-income seniors.

But legislators should not overlook the counterbalancing list: more long-term stability in the state's pension fund, more money for schools, senior programs and mental health, a tax break for small businesses — many of whom are struggling to keep their doors open — and an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor.

Nothing comes easy these days, but for too many years political leaders have allowed the voices of special interest groups to guide them.

The general public has no lobbyists to ask for smaller class sizes and more school days, more job opportunities in small towns that depend on small businesses and, most important, a sense that our leaders are really trying to deal with pension costs that are slowly strangling public services.

The Grand Bargain is an up or down deal. Legislators will be asked to make choices that are unpopular among some of their supporters in order to do what's best for the state at large.

They have to ask themselves, is the status quo what we really want?

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