Sunday, September 29, 2013

An open letter to Governor Kitzhaber

Governor Kitzhaber,

I'm writing to express disappointment with your use of the power to call the legislature into special session.  Twice now you have called for sessions based not on emergencies but based on political advantage.  I believe the outcome of these sessions is poor legislation with inadequate consideration of long term goals and consequences.

Last year, a few weeks before Christmas you called the legislature into special session to provide a tax perk to Nike.  Reporting in the Oregonian shows that you were in active discussions with Nike several months prior to December.  You had ample time to advise the legislature of Nike's request and to allow a more deliberate and public discussion of the costs and benefits of Nike's proposal.  You chose to call a special session not out of need but out of convenience.  After being called, the legislature faced a fait accompli.  There was no time to consider alternative mechanisms that could accommodate Nike and other businesses, the legislature's choice was to accept the demand or risk driving the underlying investment out of state.  

The resulting legislation had immediate negative consequences as other large employers wondered why they hadn't received similar consideration.  And the long term consequences of the Nike deal- a 30 year dispensation from state tax law backed by an insurance contract underwritten by the state- are utterly unknowable.  No one knows what state tax law will look like 30 years from now or what liability this created for Oregon.  Fortunately, the legislature was wise enough to include a sunset provision that voided this power without additional legislation.  In the 2013 session there was not even a proposal from either party to renew this power unaltered.  That strongly suggests that when the legislature had time to think about it they found the "Nike Bill" to be a bad idea.

The current special session, called for September 30th, is only marginally better grounded.  The "grand bargain" of PERS reform and tax changes was actively considered in the 2013 regular session.  But that just shows that the use of an emergency session is even less justified.  Neither PERS nor taxes are new.  Neither PERS nor taxes is going away.  So why can't a grand bargain wait until next year?  

The nominal reason, to provide immediate funds for the current school year, is poorly considered.  It is well known that public employee unions will challenge any changes to PERS in court, including those already passed in 2013.  What happens when the court, as is quite possible based on past experience, overturns some portion of the reforms?  What happens to schools which spend money this year that they don't actually have?  It has been a longstanding complaint of districts that their budgets are unstable, leading to constant cycles of hiring and firing teachers.  Your use of the special session here ensures that problem will continue.

The short term education dollars bought with a special session may prove more costly in the long term.  In my school district, it is estimated that the grand bargain would provide an additional 40 teachers this year.  That's nice, but there are 78 schools.  Given ludicrously high class sizes, an extra half-teacher per school isn't an adequate remedy.  Getting class sizes down to something reasonable will require a larger conversation with teachers about the connections between compensation, class sizes, work environment, and ultimately their work output.  Even great teachers become bad teachers when classes are too big.  Having that conversation requires a great deal of trust and respect, it requires that the public and teachers speak and hear each other.  Rushing PERS changes through the legislature and depriving unions of input makes that conversation less likely.

Emergency legislation should address what is truly an emergency and nothing more.  That is not how you've used your power to call special sessions, and in my view your use of that power has hurt the state more than it helped.  I urge you to use greater discretion, and have more respect for the legislative process.

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