A Fundamentally Different-Looking Government

In Oregon, hard legislative choices reflect national structural changes under way.
by | July 2011

Sine die. Legislatures are at rest in all but a handful of states. A hard year by any measure, legislators tackled a number of contentious issues that made headlines, but left just enough room to debate structural reforms that might otherwise have been avoided in favor of short-term fixes and budget gimmicks. Sacrifice in a time of scarcity seems like a throwback to an earlier era, as is the willingness to defer gratification to help ensure a brighter future.

But a day in Salem at the Oregon Legislature late in its session provided an object lesson in doing things the old-fashioned way. The capitol building is largely run by a cadre of volunteers -- men and women of a certain age who guide tours, help visitors find the right hearing room or office, and keep order in the rotunda. Another group acts as docents for an exhibit of military uniforms from the Great War to the Gulf War, each with a picture and biography of the local men and women across the state who served and sacrificed.

A third group gathered around television monitors outside a hearing room. They had come to meet with legislators in a bid to save programs that serve the state’s 30,000 low-income seniors. They quietly lobbied for programs on which they rely, including Oregon’s Project Independence, which provides aides to help keep 2,000 elderly and disabled people in their homes. Over the years, the project has both been lauded as a national model for aging in place and has been a recurring target for cuts as lawmakers struggle to balance the budget. It has been brought back from the brink before, but under one proposal this year, it stood to lose up to half of its funding.

John Thomasian, director of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, says Oregon fits a pattern of cuts and hard choices taking place across the country. “Legislatures and everyone involved in government recognize the money isn’t there, so there has to be some serious thinking about priority setting.”

The 2011 legislative session differed from recent years in that budget cuts and program alterations were being done with long-term change in mind. “In the coming years, government will be thousands of employees smaller, more streamlined with different policies in a number of areas,” he adds. “That is a significant change. When the economy recovers -- and it will -- you are going to see a fundamentally different-looking government.”

That new look is likely to reflect structural changes to ensure cost containment on Medicaid, prescription drugs, prisons, and state employee pensions and benefits. “Next year will be about using those savings and what we’re getting in increased revenues to pour back into progressive policy initiatives … around jobs and even reinvest in education and infrastructure,” says Thomasian.

Back in Salem, one of the seniors lobbying for Oregon’s Project Independence said she hoped she would be able to stay in her own home, while also acknowledging there may be other groups that need the money more. Such an admission during the crucial final days of session could be seen as going off message.

Seen another way, it is a return to the ideal that was etched in stone above their heads in the rotunda. “In the souls of its citizens will be found the likeness of the state which, if they be unjust and tyrannical, then will it reflect their vices, but if they be lovers of righteousness, confident in their liberties, so will it be clean in justice, bold in freedom.”

It is the stuff of the long view, and yet still pertinent to today’s issues.

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