Election has big implications for Oregon

Election has big implications for Oregon
FILE PHOTO - The Oregon State Capitol (Photo courtesy: Flickr user cursedthing)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — It all comes to an abrupt end this week: The attack ads will come down, the mail will stop piling up and the telephone will get a rest. The ballots will be cast and counted. And then the real work begins.

The presidential election will be decided elsewhere, in Cleveland and Toledo and Cincinnati. But in Oregon's state and local contests, much is at stake. Republicans have decent chances of winning statewide offices for the first time in a decade. Control of the state House and Senate is up for grabs, and the outcome will guide the agenda in Salem.

The new Legislature is likely to confront another tight budget, rising public pension costs and tense decisions about the future of criminal sentences. The health care and education systems will require some attention. And all of that is on top of the myriad promises lawmakers have issued over the past year.

"I think it is an unusually large number of really, really big issues" that will be on the table next year, said Gary Conkling, a veteran lobbyist in Salem.

Republicans have struggled for a decade to assert their political significance, and this could be the year they get it done. Polls show Bend surgeon Knute Buehler and state Sen. Bruce Starr within striking distance of taking out Democratic incumbents as secretary of state and labor commissioner, respectively. If Buehler or Starr win their races, they'll be well-positioned to increase visibility for GOP ideas — and to run for higher offices down the road.

In the Legislature, all 60 House seats and half of the 30 Senate positions are on the ballot. The parties have set their sights on about a half-dozen close races that could go either way and tip the balance of power.

In the tied House, either party can win the majority by flipping a single district controlled by the other. Democrats have a slim 16-14 edge in the Senate, which could become tied if Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson of Gresham loses a tough challenge from the GOP.

Whichever party runs the House and Senate will help shape the state's response to an economy still recovering at a sluggish pace.

Republicans have promised to roll back pension benefits for public employees and create jobs through tax changes and promoting natural resources. Democrats have said they'll promote jobs by funding infrastructure improvements and job training.

The agenda looks to include a number of politically perilous issues: government employee pensions, taxes and criminal sentences.

Gov. John Kitzhaber has convened closed-door meetings with the business groups and unions in hopes of redesigning the state tax structure in a way that voters would approve. The governor has long complained that Oregon's significant reliance on the personal income tax makes the state especially vulnerable to economic downturns.

The governor also has created a public task force to study the public safety system and recommend changes that could reign in the rising cost of prisons. The panel is considering whether it's possible to shorten certain crimes without endangering public safety — an idea that prosecutors and tough-on-crime groups could vigorously fight if they don't like the group's recommendation.

With their employee pension costs jumping 45 percent — $900 million during the next two-year-budget period — school officials and local governments have begged the Legislature to the reign in costs.

"By addressing the areas like corrections and (pensions)...you're able to get money into the areas that are having results for Oregonians," said Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association. "And you can't continue to double your corrections budget and let it grow or those dollars aren't going to be in the education arena."

Even as tax revenue grows, the costs of providing government services are growing faster, so years of tough budget cuts probably aren't over. Even if the Legislature finds ways to lower prison costs, they wouldn't affect existing prisoners and their impact wouldn't be felt immediately.

There's high demand for food assistance and state-funded health care, yet the workforce that delivers those services has shrunken, said Arthur Towers, political director for the Service Employees International Union in Oregon, a powerful voice in Salem that represents thousands of state workers.

"The Legislature's going to have to figure out how to protect vulnerable Oregonians and provide the services that the middle class relies on," Towers said. "The overarching issue is that you still have this relentless record demand for public services."

Other topics likely to come up include Kitzhaber's health care and education initiatives, which were approved by the Legislature in each of the last two years but will probably be need more refinement, said Paul Cosgrove, a longtime lobbyist. The state also will have to decide whether to chip in for a new bridge carrying Interstate 5 over the Columbia River.