11 May

In legislature, Oregon needs a transportation package that goes somewhere

SALEM – Last week, a carpool of legislators, notably some Republicans, went over to the governor’s mansion to talk about a transportation package.

The governor should invite them over often.

Unless, of course, the route between the Capitol and Mahonia Hall, like so many Oregon pathways, is becoming too bumpy to travel.

This legislative session was supposed to be the one that took on a transportation package, getting a start on fixing the state’s aging bridges and potholed roads. Delivering her first State of the State speech to the Portland City Club last month, Gov. Kate Brown declared a transportation package, along with ethics reform – driven by the circumstances that made her governor – as her legislative musts.

There is, however, a roadblock.

Democrats, even with their heavy control of both houses, would need some Republican votes to raise the gas tax, or any other revenue source. Earlier in the session when Democrats passed a bill extending the state’s low carbon fuel standards – which will, depending on who sets your odometer, cost consumers anywhere from a fraction of a cent to a dollar a gallon – Republican declared a transportation package to be off the table.

According to the GOP leadership, it’s still there. “I don’t think there’s a transportation package in our future,” said Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day. “The answer hasn’t changed,” agreed House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte. “The Democrats spent the money on their DEQ program.”

But there might yet be a possibility, even if the path is as stop-and-go as Rte. 26 coming into Portland at rush hour. The core supporters of both parties, business and labor, would like something to happen.

Cities and counties know they need help, and have learned not to expect it from the feds. (Portland put off its own plans to see what the legislature would do, with a faith that now looks adorable.) Rural Republican areas have some of the state’s most motionless pathways.

A deal would reduce the chances of a repeal of SB 324, or any other transportation issues, being on what already looks like a crowded ballot next year.

And now both Gov. Brown and chairman of the Senate transportation committee, Lee Beyer, D-Eugene, say they’re open to making adjustments on SB 324 to move toward a deal.

“My sleeves are rolled up,” said the governor last week. “It’s time. Let’s get this done this session.”

It’s not clear what kind of adjustments might be involved, and some Republicans, particularly in the House, seem to be holding out for pretty much repeal.

But some might listen.

“How do you mitigate that on a very real way?” asked Senate Republicans’ point person on transportation, Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg. “There might be (a way). Show me how you’re going to do that.”

There would, of course, be considerable complications involved in trying to reach a rearrangement.

“I think we already made a lot of adaptations on 324,” said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton. “Clean fuels and transportation policy are true, true and unrelated. It’s not a trade in my mind.”

Even if there were a deal on SB 324, points out deputy House minority leader John Davis, R-Wilsonville, there’s not a lot of time left in the legislative session, and a lot of people outside the legislature who would want input on what goes into a transportation package have not been heard.

But legislators say that a working group had made a lot of progress on the package before the process blew up, and that could be resumed.

“I remain extremely hopeful at this late date in the session,” insists Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. “We can convene a group to begin a fruitful discussion in the interests of both parties.”

Or as Kruse puts it, “We could go over to Mahonia Hall and camp out for a week.”

A deal for a transportation package at this point would be difficult and perhaps unlikely, but there are reasons for both parties to be interested.

Democrats should want to produce a deal because when you have strong majorities in both houses, you’re supposed to produce. Republicans should be interested in a deal unless they really think that after next year’s election, with the presidency at the top of the ballot, they’ll be in a much stronger legislative position.

It might be a lot to expect from Ted Cruz.

The rest of Oregonians might also be interested in a transportation package, but we don’t always hear from them.

They’re mostly stuck in potholes.

NOTE; This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 5/10/15.

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