Political Pot Continues to Boil

Treasurer Ted Wheeler may be the lynch pin on the decision to call is a special session to consider an Oregon-led approach to replacing the I-5 Columbia River bridge.The September 15 deadline is creeping up for Governor Kitzhaber to decide whether to move forward with a legislative special session to consider further cuts to public employee pensions, business tax cuts and an Oregon-led approach to building a replacement I-5 Columbia River bridge.

The path to all three is littered with political obstacles. One thing is clear, however. If there is a special session, it will be by September 30, the date that Oregon's offer expires to share the state costs on the bridge with Washington.

The Kitzhaber camp isn't saying whether he has lined up the votes for the grand bargain or bridge funding. The pieces may not fall into place – or fall apart – until Treasurer Ted Wheeler releases his financial analysis of the risks involved in Oregon leading the way on replacing the Columbia River bridge. When the Oregon-in-the-lead strategy was unveiled last month, Wheeler questioned whether there was enough time for an analysis before a special session would be called. Now he has until September 15.

Bridge financing is not a new subject for Wheeler, the former Multnomah County chair who pieced together the bucks to replace the aging Sellwood Bridge, which is now under construction. But the timing of the Columbia River bridge financial analysis couldn't have occurred at a stickier time for Wheeler, who might be the odds-on favorite to succeed Kitzhaber as governor if he decides not to seek re-election.

As it turns out, Kitzhaber is fundraising, presumably for his yet-to-be-announced 2014 gubernatorial re-election campaign. The three-term governor also showed his political flag at a Labor Day union function, declaring firm opposition to an initiative that would ban mandatory payments by public employees to public unions. The Oregonian speculated his comments – which caused Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain to quip: 'Damn, Governor, you sounded like the president of the AFL-CIO" – were aimed at politically defusing political opposition caused by his continued support for deeper cuts in public employee pensions.

A Kitzhaber re-election bid could ease pressure on Wheeler's decision. It also might help galvanize support for the grand bargain by convincing legislative Republicans it is better to get something now instead of something less later. Public employee retiree spending cuts combined with tax cuts tailored to small businesses may be too tempting for them to pass up.

As the political machinery continues to churn, negotiators wrapped up the final of three mitigation agreements with manufacturers that are located upriver from the new Columbia River bridge and would have operations impacted by its height. All told, the three mitigation agreements total close to $100 million, which wasn't included in the original bridge cost estimates. If Oregon pursues the bridge, even on a more limited scale, state taxpayers would be on the hook for at half of those mitigation costs, with Washington bearing the other half.

Another pending development is a decision by the City of Vancouver and C-Tran, the Clark County transit agency, to assume financial responsibility for operation and maintenance of light rail once it is extended from Portland over the new bridge. Vancouver and C-Tran have scheduled crucial meetings next week to make those decisions, which also may be a prerequisite for Kitzhaber to move forward. Failing to tie up this loose end could unleash opposition from Portland-area businesses that pay a payroll tax for public transit and from public transportation advocates already upset at service cuts enacted by the transit agency.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee is on board with the Oregon-only approach to the replacement Columbia River bridge and apparently is confident enough it will pass that he is talking up a possible special legislative session in November. He wants lawmakers to consider a transportation funding package, minus the Columbia River Crossing project, which scuttled the package in the regular legislative session earlier this year.