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A so-so session.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The 73rd Legislative Assembly won't be remembered as a watershed on a par with, say, the 57th in 1973, which saw the creation of Oregon's land-use planning system, or even the 72nd in 2003, which saw the reform of the Public Employees Retirement System and the approval of the biggest transportation investment plan in state history. The 208-day session that ended early Friday earned a passing mark, with plenty of room for improvement.

The Legislature's most enduring achievement may prove to be the approval of a bill requiring parity for mental health treatment in insurance programs. Senate President Peter Courtney said the mental-health parity bill was the best thing he'd done in his legislative career - and he's served in 12 sessions, more than any of his colleagues. The parity bill promises to improve the lives of thousands of Oregonians and their families who struggle with mental illness, and marks a welcome shift in social attitudes toward diseases and conditions too long shrouded by stigma.

Lawmakers can also be proud of a $100 million program to improve railroads, ports and airports. The investment recognizes the importance of moving goods and people by rail, ship and plane in a state where the highway system has limited capacity. The Legislature also took meaningful steps to reform campaign finance laws, fight methamphetamine and improve low-income students' access to higher education (see editorial below).

More notable, however, is what the Legislature didn't do:

It didn't reform the state's creaky tax system.

It didn't provide budgetary stability for Oregon school districts, even though both House Speaker Karen Minnis and Gov. Ted Kulongoski proposed earmarking a percentage of state revenues for that purpose.

It didn't create an adequate budgetary reserve to protect schools and other state-funded programs during the next economic downturn, but instead formed a task force to study the problem.

It didn't address the defects of Measure 37, the initiative that requires local governments to waive land-use rules or provide compensation when regulations reduce the value of property.

It didn't allow civil unions for same-sex couples, or strengthen civil-rights protection for gays and lesbians.

And it didn't raise taxes. House Republicans' no-new-taxes pledge set the tone for the session, with an assist from Kulongoski, who said early on that the budget should be balanced without new revenues. Republicans - and Kulongoski, should he choose to seek re-election - can now campaign on a platform of having kept the lid on taxes and spending. But a refusal to reach for even such low-hanging fruit as the renewal of a voter-approved 10-cent-per-pack cigarette tax or an increase in the $10 minimum corporate income tax foreclosed such possibilities as a significant strengthening of the Oregon State Police or a broadening of the Oregon Health Plan.

An atmosphere of constraint led to a session concerned primarily with preventing damage to existing programs. By that modest standard the session was a success - most state programs, including public education, will be no worse off in 2005-07 than they were in the preceding budget period, and some will see marginal improvements. A growing economy allowed the Legislature to protect the status quo without seeking additional resources.

Making do during hard times is a virtue. In good times, muddling through reflects a lack of vision. The Legislature has done little to correct known deficiencies in the state's system of public finance, to improve children's ability to compete in a global economy, to protect Oregon's environment or to improve the lives of the afflicted. The Legislature acted as though there will be plenty of time to answer big questions and dream big dreams. Maybe there will be. Oregonians will have to hope that in the meantime, the rest of the world doesn't pass them by.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Most notable is what didn't happen
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 6, 2005
Previous Article:Progress, of a sort.

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