Governor prescribes a healthy dose of reality
The core message in Gov. John Kitzhaber’s State of the State Address, delivered Monday as a blueprint for the looming legislative session, was one of the world’s enduring truisms — nothing comes free in life.
If you want to reverse Oregon’s recession-fueled disinvestment in public education and help revitalize its economy in the bargain, he told lawmakers, you need to embrace some politically perilous pursuits:
1. Reducing over-generous Public Employees Retirement System benefits, which are gobbling up an ever-larger share of funding for local government, state government and, most tellingly, public education.
That’s a tough sell for Kitzhaber’s fellow Democrats, because their campaigns depend on infusions of money and manpower from Oregon’s powerful public employee unions. It’s a sale that must be made, however, as both chambers are under Democratic control.
When he was elected to the Legislature from Roseburg in 1979, Kitzhaber noted, a local dropout could land a timber industry job that promised handsome pay and benefits the rest of his working life. As a result, the earning boost of a college degree averaged only 38 percent.
These days, dropouts are lucky to land dishwashing jobs, so the pay disparity is up to 75 percent. That puts a premium on education and makes Oregon’s education system the key driver in its economy, the governor said.
But it’s virtually impossible without reining in PERS. That’s because runaway PERS costs, on top of the pay and benefit increases that educators routinely enjoy, figure to add $930 per student to Oregon’s public education bill this coming biennium without producing anything in return in the classroom.
2. Reducing Oregon’s ever-escalating incarceration rate, which, if unchecked, promises to demand 2,300 new beds at a cost of $600 million over the coming decade.
This one’s a hard sell for Republicans. If there’s any label they fear more than “soft on taxes,” it’s “soft on crime.”
Kitzhaber makes a compelling case, though. As he notes, a year of incarceration costs the state three times as much as a year of education. So, if carried out with sufficient care, diverting nonviolent offenders promises a big payoff.
3. Getting a handle on rising health care costs, one idea being to move public employee health coverage from private carriers to the state’s new coordinated care system.
According to the governor, a former emergency room physician, that change could result in $5 billion worth of savings over the next 10 years. But it’s an anathema to public employee unions and their foot soldier members, which Democrats rely on at election time.
4. Weeding out some of Oregon’s more generous tax credits, incentives and deductions on a “progressive” basis, meaning higher taxes for the better-heeled. The rub here is that taxes represent the third rail of politics for Republicans, and Democrats are skittish about trimming tax breaks themselves.
The governor’s pitch is the essence of simplicity: Make the tough cuts, and you free up enough to make a real difference for education and the economy. Fail, and you settle for muddling along in the grip of a perilous post-recession hangover.
Here’s hoping the governor prevails. A dose of reality is just what the doctor ordered.