Business leaders push legislative agenda in Salem

Business leaders push legislative agenda in Salem

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Revenue: Show us the money

The Oregon Business Plan, an economic and policy strategy guided by a coalition of business leaders, does outline a long-term plan for funding the state’s beleaguered public schools. The idea is to restructure K-20 institutions to make the system more efficient, then rein in escalating costs in other parts of the budget to shore up cash-strapped institutions. With education restructuring and health-care reform under way, the focus is turning to other “unsustainable cost drivers,” says Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association.

On the top of the list is reforming the state’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), which is expected to cost all public employers, including school districts, an extra $1 billion next biennium. Two items on the agenda are reducing the earnings rate inside PERS accounts and the elimination of an income-tax break for retirees who move out of Oregon.

Kitzhaber has also identified PERS reform as a key issue. But the question is what the Legislature will be able to accomplish — politically and legally. Many elements of PERS are considered a binding promise in the state’s statutory contract with public employees. Lawmakers, business executives, and rank- and-file voters will also have to “convince the unions that having some PERS reform is important for the economy of the state,” says Jarman.

Business leaders are also pursuing corrections reform this session, with a focus on developing a more “rational sentencing and corrections model,” says Deckert. He points to Texas and Kansas, states that have reduced incarceration costs in part by redirecting funds for new prison construction into a more efficient network of residential and community-based treatment and supervision programs.

The business plan doesn’t end there. In the end, restructuring and cost containment simply lay the groundwork for what Deckert calls the “big enchilada” — reforming Oregon’s much-maligned tax code. But actual changes to the system, which could include a sales tax and corresponding reductions in capital gains and income taxes, will probably have to wait for another session, as lawmakers are not expected to come up with concrete options until at least 2014.