The Oregon Legislature started its 2018 short session on Monday, as Gov. Kate Brown delivered her state of the state speech and legislators hunkered down for a whirlwind 35 days.
It was interesting that Brown's speech on Monday didn't focus so much on her priorities for the short session but instead on an education plan, "Future Ready Oregon," that she said she plans to present to the 2019 Legislature. Brown said the plan will call for a $300 million boost in spending on career and technical education (CTE). The idea, she said, is to better prepare Oregon workers for jobs in fast-growing economic sectors such as health care and biotechnology.
Brown's speech follows on the heels of new state statistics showing that students who took even a half-credit CTE class graduated from high school at a higher rate than students who didn't take any of those classes.
And the speech follows in the wake of the November 2016 election, during which Oregon voters handily approved Ballot Measure 98. That initiative called for investing $800 per Oregon high school student for three purposes: career education, college preparation and dropout prevention. All three of those areas show promise in terms of improving the state's anemic graduation rate.
Opponents of Measure 98 didn't have any criticism of the programs it was intended to fund. But they did have a problem with the fact that the measure didn't come with a funding source; the money was supposed to come from new revenue from economic growth.
And, in fact, the 2017 Legislature did have a record amount of revenue at its disposal. Unfortunately, state spending also set a record, thanks largely to increased costs related to expanding Medicaid in Oregon, the state's public pension system and, yes, unfunded mandates approved by voters. (The Legislature ended up allocating $170 million for all the Measure 98 programs, but mandated that large- and medium-sized school districts use at least a portion of the money for career and technical education.)
All of which raises a question for the 2019 session, despite Brown's high hopes: It's not at all certain whether legislators will have an additional $300 million to spend on career and technical education. Many of the same cost drivers at work in the 2017 session will return in 2019.
And it's not 100 percent certain that Brown will be governor in 2019: She faces a re-election campaign this November, and although she's favored to win another term, she likely will face a strong Republican challenger in the form of Bend Rep. Knute Buehler.
So it's possible that Brown's speech was intended at least in part as an opening salvo in her re-election campaign. To some extent, that's something to be expected at the start of an election year.
But it brings to mind yet another reason why legislators in these short sessions need to focus on making necessary budget adjustments and tying up other loose ends and not spend much time on sweeping new policy initiatives: These short sessions in even-numbered years take place in the shadow of political campaigns. Legislators and other elected officials facing re-election campaigns or possibly aiming for higher office might find it hard to resist the temptation to use the session to score some quick political points.
We're not naive enough to think that politics always takes a backseat to sober and high-minded legislative deliberations; of course, politics and political maneuvering color just about everything the Legislature does. But it would be good if legislators this month and next remembered why Oregon voters approved annual sessions in the first place, stayed focused on the essential work ahead of them in the next five weeks and avoided (to the extent possible) opportunities for political grandstanding. Those opportunities will come around soon enough. First, though, let's take care of the people's work. (mm)