The Might-Be, Could-Be Special Session

Decisions being made this week in Vancouver about financial responsibility for light rail could be critical to whether or not a proposed September 30 Oregon legislative special session convenes.The September 30 legislative special session is the picture of conjecture. It might happen. Then again, it might not. If it does, we know when. If it doesn't, we may never completely know why.

Governor Kitzhaber and Senate President Peter Courtney appear to be in roughly the same position as President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Kitzhaber and Courtney see a grand budget deal as tantalizingly close, but face reticence or outright opposition from the political right and political left. 

Obama and Reid got a sprinkle of fairy dust on the Syrian issue with a possible diplomatic breakthrough by Russia convincing its ally to surrender chemical weapons to international authorities. Kitzhaber and Courtney might not be so lucky.

Republicans aren't eager to support a tax hike, which some business supporters see as the best antidote to a divisive ballot measure on taxation next year. House Democrats aren't thrilled about another round of benefit cuts to public employee retirees.

And the special session has another major component — the plan for Oregon to forge ahead alone on a new I-5 Columbia River bridge. Kitzhaber strongly supports this idea, but some of his allies aren't quite so firm. Courtney doesn't want to act unilaterally and offend Washington. Portland-area Democrats want assurance Tri-Met won't be on the hook to pay for operations and maintenance of light rail once it is extended into Clark County.

A Portland Democrat said he attended a fundraiser this week where half his colleagues were confident there would be a special session and the other half were equally confident there wouldn't be.

A lot hinges on decisions outside the control of Kitzhaber and Oregon legislative leaders. The most important is the recommendation of Treasurer Ted Wheeler on the financial viability and risk of an Oregon-only bonding plan for the new bridge, secured by tolling revenues. The Treasury official assigned to run the numbers concluded the plan would fly, with some big "ifs." 

One of those "ifs" is a decision by either C-Tran or the City of Vancouver to assume financial responsibility for light rail. C-Tran adopted a resolution last night directing its staff to finish its financial analysis on how to pay for the operations and maintenance of light rail and continue hammering out contract deals with Tri-Met. C-Tran staff is scheduled to report back its findings to the C-Tran Board on a special meeting September 24. Whether their commitments satisfy Oregon officials will be decided within a few days, when Wheeler is expected to make his recommendation by Kitzhaber's promised September 15 deadline.

Experienced Salem hands know that the treachery of a special session is how to adjourn once you convene. In this case, the mystery may be in whether there is a good reason to convene in the first place.