GOVERNOR TED KULONGOSKI faces continued questions about his recession leadership after announcing shaky economic plans at Portland's City Club late last week.
Kulongoski plans to convene a cabinet of experts in the field of education, human services, and public safety later this year, to look at "end[ing] the budgetary insanity" in Oregon, he said, particularly when it comes to low tax rates for corporations and for people earning more than $250,000.
But Kulongoski's term ends in late 2010, so it's unlikely that the cabinet will be able to invoke any actual changes. Meanwhile Kulongoski ruled out using any of the state's $900 million in rainy day reserves to pay the salaries of teachers, public safety workers, and social workers, all of whom are facing job losses thanks to a $3.8 billion hole in the upcoming state budget.
Listeners wondered aloud whether the governor could have done something about tax reform over his past six years in office to avoid such revenue holes—before the recession required him to make politically unpopular job cuts.
"I think the hard work needed to reform the tax system needs to be done, but I also think we could have been working on that for these past six years," says Steve Novick, who attended the meeting. Novick, a former candidate for US Senator in the 2008 Democratic primary, is rumored to be considering a run for governor when Kulongoski retires.
"There's nothing wrong with trying to give yourself extra credibility by convening a panel of experts, but it would be nice to see him say, 'You know what, I should have done this four years ago even though the pollsters were advising me against it,'" Novick says.
Novick suggested Kulongoski should also have considered abolishing the statewide tax kicker as another way to protect jobs. "The state needs to save during good times so we can protect education and human services," he says. "Not give the money back to people and face a budget crisis when the economy turns bad."
New unemployment numbers released this week show Oregon's jobless rate continuing to hover at 12 percent, and the governor announced an emergency jobs program to give 12,000 Oregonians temporary employment this summer. Kulongoski even responded to criticism over alleged failed leadership by shouting into the microphone, "If you want to criticize me for not creating enough jobs, criticize me for not creating enough jobs!"
Audience members were indeed willing to criticize the governor after the speech—but for different reasons.
"I was a little perplexed to hear the governor talking about job creation efforts without protecting teachers in the classroom and caseworkers," said Oregon Parent Teacher Association Legislative Director Otto Schell. "That doesn't make sense to me."
The state budget will be hammered out over the next two months in Salem.