Kulongoski the comic

By Jayson Jacoby, The Baker City Herald

"Comedian" is perhaps the job least likely to be associated with Oregon's outgoing governor, Ted Kulongoski.

But last week's announcement from our usually laconic governor seemed to us positively Seinfeldesque.

Kulongoski's timing was exquisite, and he made us laugh.

The topic, however, is utterly serious.

Kulongoski proposed drastic changes in Oregon's budget - most significantly in the compensation package for state workers.

What elicited our chuckles is the governor's ability to unveil his plan with a straight face.

Anyone who has paid even scant attention to Oregon's fiscal quandary

over the past few years understands that the overhaul Kulongoski

suggests has been in order at least since the midpoint of his second

four-year term.

State leaders have failed to rein in spending even as the recession

caused income tax revenue - a vital source of the money that pays for

schools, public safety and health and human services - has dropped.

The result is a budget shortfall, for the two-year budget cycle

starting July 1, 2011, estimated at from $2.7 billion to $3.5 billion.

Yet only now, a month before he turns over the keys to Mahonia Hall to

John Kitzhaber, does Kulongoski in essence admit that the ledger he has

presided over can't be sustained.

Yet Kulongoski acts as though the crisis arose too late for him to wield his dollar-slashing scalpel.

He even had the temerity to cast himself as the victim.

"No governor before me has had to hand off a more difficult fiscal

challenge to his successor," Kulongoski said on Wednesday. "But I am

able to do so with a roadmap that identifies some next best steps that

meet that challenge more than half-way."

Where was that roadmap two years ago, governor? Tucked into the glove box beneath the owner's manual and a bag of chips?

Belated though they are, Kulongoski's ideas are good ones.

He wants state workers, not the state, to pay their 6 percent required contribution to their retirement accounts.

Kulongoski also suggests the state set up a less-expensive health

insurance plan for state employees, and require that they pay a share

of the premiums (the state picks up the whole tab now).

State officials estimate those changes would save $259 million in the two-year budget cycle that starts July 1, 2011.

Oregon could save even more - an estimated $400 million over two years

- by limiting total compensation increases for state and school

employees to no more than 6.5 percent during that period, according to

a state report.

We're not brimming with confidence that all, or even any, of these proposals will actually happen.

Certainly the unions that represent most state workers won't capitulate

when it comes to contract negotiations, which begin this month.

But if Kitzhaber and the new Legislature succeed where Kulongoski and

the previous group of lawmakers failed, we'll not give Kulongoski any

of the credit he seems to crave for his brave confrontation of economic

reality.

So what if he has a roadmap.

Those are a lot handier before you get lost than after.

13108677
The Baker City Herald
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