The picture of Governor John Kitzhaber praising legislators for a productive session last week stood in stark contrast to President Obama admonishing Congress to cancel its holiday recess plans and embattled governors in other states. It even was a stark contrast to the last time Kitzhaber was governor and famously pronounced Oregon was ungovernable.
Oregon faced a daunting budget deficit and a politically dicey split House with 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans. Yet the 2011 Oregon legislative session proceeded without much bickering and with some notable results. Public unions weren't pilloried and wealthy Oregonians and businesses weren't bashed en route to balancing the state's budget for the next two years. The Republican and Democratic House co-speakers toured the state together and proclaimed after adjournment they were fast friends.
Sharply different images have emerged from other states. Members of Wisconsin's Senate skipped the state to avoid voting for a bill stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Minnesota's state government HAS shut down because of a budget impasse. Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a budget approved by a Democratically controlled legislature.
Looming large is the showdown on Capitol Hill over extending the federal debt ceiling before August 2, when Treasury officials warn the United States could begin defaulting on its debts. It has all the elements of a partisan food fight, with Republicans refusing to accept a compromise that closes tax loopholes and Democrats unwilling to budge on deeper spending cuts with more revenue.
Oregon must seem like a political fairyland to the rest of the country.
The just-completed Oregon legislative session answered a big question shadowing Kitzhaber when he declared for an unprecedented third term as governor. Could he get past the partisanship that plagued him in the past. Kitzhaber ran on what many observers called a post-partisan platform. By all accounts, he performed to that standard during the session.
Senator Larry George, R-Sherwood, who has clashed in the past with Kitzhaber over land-use matters, said it was if was a different Kitzhaber.
The governor was engaged and engaging. He invited legislative leaders to Mahonia Hall for critical negotiations that helped to reduce intractable differences into manageable ones. He sat in on legislative caucus meetings – for both Republicans and Democrats. Outgoing House Democratic Leader Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, said the close consultation helped align his caucus' agenda with the governor's.
The results are impressive. The governor will become the head of a newly unified board of education, which will play an instrumental role in looking at how to divvy up education funding from K-12 schools through universities. A health insurance exchange bill passed. So did a measure that aims to transform the way health care is delivered to low-income Oregonians.