Kitzhaber, Courtney Legacies Grow

Senator Peter Courtney and Governor John Kitzhaber have worked together for a long time and both added to their individual and collective legacies in the special legislative session ending earlier this week.The successful five-bill, three-day Oregon special legislative session will enhance John Kitzhaber's legacy as governor. It also signals a constructive working relationship between House Speaker Tina Kotek and GOP Leader Mike McLane. And the session provided campaign platforms for Reps. Dennis Richardson and Jules Bailey.

Almost lost in the shuffle was Senator Peter Courtney's win in establishing a dedicated funding source for expanded community mental health programs, which was his top priority before the start of the 2013 regular legislative session.

News coverage of the conclusion of the special session Wednesday showed a beaming Kitzhaber. For good reason. He took the tatters of a budget deal left on the cutting room floor in the waning hours of the regular session and wove them into a complicated deal that will result in more money going to K-12 schools and higher education. 

Kitzhaber's unwavering confidence he could find common ground among skeptical House Democrats and legislative Republicans stands in sharp contrast to his defeatist views expressed at the end of his second term of governor. His third term has been an unbroken string of negotiating successes that prove Oregon can be governed after all. And he gets much of the credit.

The Oregonian's Friday edition challenged Kitzhaber now to turn his attention and political capital to comprehensive tax reform, a goal that has eluded him as well as many of his predecessors. Hopefully, The Oregonian will forgive Kitzhaber if he takes the weekend off before starting his new quest.

The Kotek-McLane tandem held together well and under extreme political pressure. To make the multiple-bill compromise work, all five bills had to pass for any to survive. Kotek and McLane knew it would take different cross-sections of lawmakers from both party caucuses to pass the most controversial measures dealing with taxation, PERS cuts and a local pre-emption on genetically modified crops.

Only 22 out of 90 lawmakers voted for all five measures. Kotek and McLane were two of them. More important, they showed they could deliver key votes when it counted. The tax measure, a combination of increases and cuts, began in the House and came up three votes short. Kotek delayed declaring the final vote until she mustered three votes — all from her Democratic caucus.

Senate Democrats and Republicans have worked in quiet collaboration for several sessions. There was noticeably more political tension in the House during Kotek's first session as speaker, which was, in part, inevitable as Republicans returned to the minority following co-governance in the previous two sessions. Still, the walk-up and special session collaboration between Kotek and McLane may open the door to wider collaboration in the short 2014 legislative session and perhaps even beyond that.

Richardson, who is running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, found plenty of fodder in the special session to heat up his political base. He talked about back-room deals, tax increases and excessive spending. Unfortunately for him, he may wind up running against Kitzhaber, whose popularity could skyrocket after a successful special session. Even if people dislike some of what the legislature passed, the skill Kitzhaber showed in bartering a deal stands in stark contrast to the gridlock in the nation's capital.

Bailey is planning a run for a soon-to-be-vacated Multnomah County Commission seat and the session was the perfect stage for him to defend local rights. 

Courtney, who is a new grandfather, can bask in his success in driving more financial resources to support community mental health programs. The $20 million to come from a tobacco tax increase will be enough, Courtney said, to bolster care for youth and adolescents. He added there is still a need for more resources to address adult mental health needs.