Finding Budget Happiness

When back from the Himalayas, Governor Kitzhaber's zen will be required to restore happiness to a lot of unhappy legislative campers. (Credit: Salem Statesman Journal)When Governor Kitzhaber returns from his Bhutan sojourn to find the secrets to happiness, he will discover unhappiness engulfs his homeland.

A Democratic plan to raise taxes on wealthy Oregonians and corporations evaporated on the House floor for that pesky constitutional problem of too few votes. Two days later, labor-backed Our Oregon responded by filing six proposed ballot measures to hike corporate taxes from as little as $185 million to as much as $1 billion per year. All that has business groups howling about a reprise of the divisive Measure 66 and 67 tax battles.

The purpose behind raising revenue is to prevent more K-12 school cuts. Nervous about the legislature's ability to boost spending on schools, droves of parents in the beleaguered Beaverton School District took to knocking on doors to drum up votes for a special levy.

The governor stepped back to let rookie House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, have a go at the $275 million bill, which never even came to a vote. Now it may be time for Kitzhaber to invite legislative leaders to Mahonia Hall to find common ground.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, told reporters the failed House tax vote last week created an opportunity to find solutions in the political center. In his first two years of this term, Kitzhaber was adept at finding bipartisan support for major initiatives, in part because he spent time meeting with both Democrats and Republicans. That same skill set will be called on this session.

In reality, the 2013 Oregon legislative session has not been overly partisan. Going into the session, observers said it would be necessary for Democrats to recruit Republicans to support budget and revenue packages — as well as wise to sustain the bipartisan esprit that developed as a result of the unique power-sharing agreement in the 2011 and 2012 sessions.

Where partisanship has crept in to a noticeable degree is over taxation and reform of the Public Employees Retirement System. These are the high wires that observers predicted would define the session and lawmakers' ability to boost school funding. The options were stark — either Democrats and Republicans would spar on each or reach a grand bargain on both.

So far, it is has been a sparring match. 

Grand bargains are often preceded by political posturing. But grand bargains also require someone to figure out the political math of reaching a deal. How much deeper do cuts to PERS benefits have to be to satisfy Republicans? How much new tax revenue is palatable and how would it be raised? How much of either — deeper cuts to PERS and more revenue — can be done and still achieve the necessary votes to pass both chambers of the legislature?

This is the point in a legislative session when a lot still seems up in the air, including the path to adjournment. The next important milestone comes in mid-May with release of the quarterly revenue forecast that is the final "number" on which a balanced budget will be based.

When Kitzhaber hits the airport tarmac, he will need to exude all the happiness he absorbed abroad to address the unhappiness in his own backyard.

Governor Kitzhaber attended a conference to learn more about the happiness quotient.