Stop us if you've heard this before: Gov. Kate Brown, speaking last week at the annual Oregon Leadership Summit, called for state leaders to find a long-term solution to Oregon's budget problems.
According to a report in The Oregonian of Brown's remarks to the gathering of business leaders, the governor talked about the state's continuing "structural budget deficit," and noted that she expects it to continue for years.
"It is time that we quit kicking this can down the road," Brown told the assembled executives and lobbyists.
We have a couple of reactions to that: First, we're calling for a moratorium on that phrase "kicking the can down the road," and we vow to do our part beginning in just a couple of paragraphs.
But also, Brown must surely understand that she is among the state leaders who have been doing the, er, kicking. The governor was among the elected leaders who threw in the towel at the end of this year's legislative session on talks designed to reform the state's public pension fund and possibly to increase corporate income taxes. Would that have fixed the state's "structural budget deficit?" No. But it would have taken us a few promising steps down the road. (Sorry.)
Brown has dropped in on this particular gathering before with similar messages and the resulting payoff has been, well, something less than what the state needs.
So excuse us if we seem less than convinced that Brown will be able to follow through on the steps she outlined last week to the business leaders. But, yet, she now has another opportunity to offer leadership on some of the state's thorniest problems and, it seems to us, can do so with limited political risk to her re-election hopes.
In her remarks, Brown did not specifically call for lawmakers to pass or increase taxes; it's not clear if the votes exist in the current Legislature to do that. She did say that she hoped to identify policies to stabilize state revenues for "the long haul." She said that she's asked her staff to identify measures to help.
But Brown has to understand that any proposal to increase taxes has to go hand-in-hand with plans to scale back state spending. Here's something to keep in mind: The state is scheduled to collect more revenue in the current two-year budget cycle than ever before. When the Legislature meets to work through budget shortfalls, it's not because the state's revenue numbers are tanking: It's because state spending is growing faster than revenue. And this in the middle of economic expansion, no less. What happens the when the state's economy inevitably slows down?
Brown has made a promising start on at least one front: She has in hand a task force's list of recommendations to trim $5 billion from the $25 billion unfunded liability in the state's public pension fund. Not all of the ideas are feasible, but Brown should present some of them to legislators in their February short session. She also should throw her support behind other reforms, including a proposal to require public employees to contribute to their pensions and a bill from Rep. Gene Whisnant of Sun River to prevent pensioners from boosting retirement benefits by including pay from side jobs.
Some of these proposals won't go over well with the public employee unions that have been among Brown's biggest backers. But it seems a long shot that anything Brown would propose would compel those unions to toss their support to a Republican challenger. Politically, it's a low-risk move for Brown.
Showing even a bit of leadership on the issue could help to defuse Republican claims on what is shaping up as a potentially potent campaign issue, that Brown has been ineffective in the governor's office.
And it comes with an added benefit: It could help prevent the eventual fiscal disaster that Oregon could be facing somewhere (sorry again) down the road. (mm)