Focus in Salem

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board January 20, 2012 04:42 pm

Oregon’s Legislature won’t have time to dawdle during the session that starts Feb. 1.

Voters decided two years ago that state lawmakers should convene every year, rather than every other year as was the tradition.

However, the measure that voters endorsed also limits legislative sessions during even-numbered years to 35 days.

(The limit for odd-numbered years is 160 days.)

The 35-day threshold could be a pesky deadline this year because lawmakers have a tough task facing them in Salem.

Oregon’s most recent forecast for state revenue, issued in November, slashed $107 million from the prediction. That brought to $306 million the forecast shortfall just since the Legislature, in 2011, approved the budget for the two-year cycle that started July 1, 2011.

It’s possible that better news will come when the state budget office issues the next forecast, on Feb. 8.

But we’re not confident.

The bottom line, then, is that lawmakers need to avoid extraneous, and typically contentious, debates next month and focus instead on making sure the state can pay its bills.

Rep. Vicki Berger, a Salem Republican, told the Salem City Club recently that she expects lawmakers will do so.

Rep. Jefferson Smith, a Portland Democrat, agreed.

“I think you will hear more often the talking point: We don’t have time for this in a short session,” Smith said.

We’d like to share the lawmakers’ optimism.

But we’ve had a look at the pre-session agendas from both the Republicans in the state House, and from Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Neither could fairly be described as short.

Or simple.

The GOP has unveiled its “50,000 Jobs In Five Years” and “Reform Oregon” packages.

Each contains intriguing ideas that the Legislature should give serious consideration.

But it’s folly to think that lawmakers, notwithstanding their relatively cordial work in 2011, will agree, in barely a month’s time, on matters as controversial as cutting capital gains taxes, increasing logging on state forests, and diverting massive amounts of water from the Columbia River to irrigate farmland, to name just a few from the GOP list.

Nor does an abbreviated session seem the proper forum for a couple of Kitzhaber’s main initiatives.

The governor wants to revamp the early-childhood education system and create something called “achievement compacts” with school districts. These compacts, according to the governor, will help Oregon succeed in its bid for an exemption to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

That might be a wonderful plan.

Yet even Kitzhaber acknowledges that his proposal poses a risk. He contends, though, that “there’s a lot more risk with the status quo.”

But the constricted schedule for this year’s session simply doesn’t give lawmakers time to reasonably weigh those risks.

And although we’re intrigued by aspects of the GOP platform — in particular the idea that tax cuts and incentives will result in job creation by way of injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy — the short-term effect would be to deepen the state’s deficit.

Lawmakers need to spend February balancing the budget, not pondering experiments that could throw it even further off kilter.