By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
January 10, 2007
Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, and Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, are dealing with an unfamiliar political scene in Salem — the coffers are overflowing with money.
The two incumbents spent the last two biennium sessions weathering economic storms. So, they are gratified to have at least $1 billion more in projected revenue. However, the legislators are not overly optimistic that partisan wrangling will stop.
“It’s going to be a whole different dynamic. Now that we have the funds we have to agree on how to use them the most wisely,” said Smith.
Democrats have full control of the government for the first time in 16 years. And they are poised to dramatically increase school, health care and safety funding by upping taxes on cigarettes, corporations and motorists. If Gov. Ted Kulongoski has his way in the halls of Salem, his $14.9 billion general fund and lottery budget will increase state spending by 20 percent.
Republicans, who are down two seats in the House they recently controlled, are already objecting to greater taxation. They are also expressing reluctance to pour revenue into new programs that require ongoing support.
However, both parties seem to be pushing to build up more than $1 billion in savings by the end of the next budget cycle. But they are likely to be at odds about how the “rainy day” fund is set up to deal with future downturns.
Smith is hesitant to approve any new taxes until government agencies have done everything possible to scale back expenditures. She said the best way to build public confidence is to show people that their tax dollars are well spent.
Metsger is pleased that Gov. Ted Kulongoski joins his long-held belief that the $10 minimum corporate tax needs to be raised to further workforce training. He also agrees with many of his peers that the state Constitution should be amended to repeal the corporate kicker tax rebate. That move would add $275 million to the current budget that could go into reserves.
As a member of the Senate Education Committee, Metsger is also interested in allowing schools in all 36 counties to levy system development charges for new construction.
“We need to ramp up programs for Oregon schools that are struggling with growing class sizes, shrinking school years and severe reductions in activities,” he said.
Metsger spent 2006 exploring K-12 and college funding options as co-chair of the Senate Commission on Educational Excellence. Therefore, he is pleased that the lion’s share of the governor’s budget — $6.1 billion — goes to schools, community colleges and universities. Oregon’s lead official has also promised educators an additional $240 million if revenue allows.
Metsger believes the state health care program needs to cover all children and as many qualifying adults as possible. Kulongoski has suggested an 84-cents-per-pack hike in cigarette taxes to support this cause. Metsger also favors raising the price of tobacco products but probably not by that much.
He has not yet weighed in on the governor’s plan to add a $2 surcharge to auto insurance policies. That revenue would put 139 more troopers back on state highways.
Metsger will now assume duties as a member of the Senate Education Committee. Because of the knowledge he has already gleaned, he anticipates being a key player in decision-making about the allocation of dollars for schools.
He is also chair of the Legislative Reform Committee and combined Business Workforce Development and Transportation committees. In 2003, Metsger co-authored a bill for $2.5 billion to fix Oregon’s aging bridges, the largest funding package in state history. He will try to free up other monies in 2007-09 for roadway repairs that are essential to commerce.
Smith takes on duties as vice-chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. She is also a member of the Business and Labor Committee and intends to explore policies to overcome the current picker shortage and other economic challenges.
She will bring forward legislative concepts as a member of the Joint Emergency Preparedness team. Smith said the recent natural disasters in Hood River and Clackamas counties have demonstrated the need to consolidate jurisdictions to streamline the regulatory process.
In some cases, she said landowners and agencies were unable to act quickly because there was confusion over which agency should take the lead.
“I just believe this is going to be a good session, a productive session. I look forward to working on these issues that affect all of us,” she said.
Smith and Metsger are hopeful that, when it comes to Measure 37, their peers will follow their bipartisan example. Although they often have opposing viewpoints, they more often than not manage to bridge their ideological differences.
Metsger has “never been optimistic” about the Legislature coming up with a Measure 37 “fix” on its own. He believes that officials should develop policies that bring more flexibility to the land-use system and then run them by the electorate.
“I think, if we could get something together and refer it to the voters, it would be overwhelmingly approved. But getting it to that stage could be pretty difficult,” he said.
Smith contends that the Legislature needs to keep in mind that a 61 percent majority of voters approved Measure 37 in 2004. She said the will of the people has to be respected if the state attempts any changes in the law.
“I would give a word of caution for the Legislature to be careful how they clarify it. Because if they don’t fix the underlying issues, the people aren’t going to buy it,” she said.