A Day for Pomp and Circumstance

There were a number of high-sounding speeches, a 19-gun salute, music from a Central Oregon choir, a reading by Oregon's poet laureate, an opening prayer and a number of other activities on the first day of the 76th Legislative Assembly in Salem yesterday.

In other words, nothing unusual other than the policymakers who showed up at the Capitol face a daunting task -- balancing the budget for 2011-13 -- and doing so in only six months.

Legislators, new and old, were sworn in to their offices and, in a joint session, they watched as the new governor John Kitzhaber took the oath of office for an unprecededented third term after an eight-year sojourn in private life.

In his inaugural address, Kitzhaber used two analogies -- one involving his beloved salmon and another focusing on re-building a house -- to underline the most important assignment for the new legislature, which is to balance the 2011-13 budget in the face of a huge $3.5 billion projected revenue shortfall on a $16 billion base.  He said Oregonians needed to express the commitment of Oregon's salmon who are born in the upper reaches of rivers on the slopes of the Cascade and Coast mountain ranges, then make their way out to the ocean to live for a time before enduring the tough climb back up those rivers to spawn where they were born.

He called on Oregonians to have the same interest in taking action to preserve a quality of life for future generations.

In the other analogy, Kitzhaber said Oregonians built a house 20, 30 or 40 years ago, a house that now is no longer right for a different family -- too many rooms, rooms that aren't the right size, a roof that needs to be repaired or spaces that aren't weatherized.  He said Oregon faces a similar challenge to re-build state government for today's economy, not for the past.
It's not enough, the new governor said, simply to cut back; what's needed is a restructured state government.

"In the past, when money was tight in a recession, we cut budgets," he said.  "Then, when there was a recovery, we restored the cuts.  That will no longer be the best way to operate, both for us and for future generations."

At the same time, Kitzhaber and the 90 members of the legislature face a stark and harsh reality -- they must balance the state budget by the start of the new biennium on July 1 and that will almost certainty deep cuts in K-12 education, higher education, social services and public safety programs.  It will be tough to gain the benefits of new ways of delivering services by the end of June.  It will take longer to reform the K-12 system, longer to gain the benefits of higher ed reform and longer to find new ways to deliver health care services that are both better and less expensive.  However, on the opening day of the new legislature, there was not much talk of the balance between forward-looking rhetoric and the pressure of time.

Before hearing the new governor, members of the Senate ratified their leadership positions, including Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Keizer, who is entering his fifth term at the top of the 30-member Senate.  In the House, for the first time in history, the 60 members installed co-speakers, Rep. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, and Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, because the November elections produced a 30-30 split between Republicans and Democrats.  They followed later in the afternoon by announcing rosters of all committees, which will include co-chairs, one from each party, and vice co-chairs, one from each party.

In those rosters, there were no major surprises.  The list included a mix of veterans who have experience chairing or serving on committees, as well as newcomers who will carry co-vice chair gavels in their first session in office.

The first three days this week will be busy as legislators meet on the floors of the House and Senate to introduce bills.  There were more than 1,000 published on the first day, which resulted both in large heaps in the recycling bins, as well as lobbyists enduring the usual early-session ritual of plowing through mounds of paper.  It is possible to go "paper-less," with bills available on-line, but many of the old-hand lobbyists like to see, touch and feel the paper. 

The legislature will adjourn on Wednesday this week, then return on February 1 to begin work in earnest.  On that day, they will have the "Governor's Recommended Budget for 2011-13" waiting for them on their desks.