In his first year in office, Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski antagonized his labor allies with a strong push to reduce pension benefits of public employees and freeze state workers’ salaries.
At the same time, he worked with legislators — including Republicans — to crank out a budget deal and pass bills aimed at boosting the state’s economy. With those actions, Kulongoski believes he has helped restore some of the public’s trust in government that was lost during eight years of political warfare between lawmakers and former Gov. John Kitzhaber.
“We couldn’t have gotten the product we did from the Legislature unless we reduced the acrimony that was in this building,” Kulongoski said in a year-end interview.
It was an eventful first year for Kulongoski as he and lawmakers struggled through the longest legislative session on record to patch together an $11.6 billion budget.
Their budget is predicated on a controversial $800 million tax increase that will be put to a statewide vote Feb. 3.
Public opinion polls have shown strong opposition to the tax. Voter rejection of the tax likely would trigger a special legislative session that would force Kulongoski and lawmakers back into another budget battle.
Still, even Republican lawmakers give Kulongoski much of the credit for restoring a more productive political atmosphere at the Capitol.
“Ted set the right tone,” said House Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village. “Did we have our moments? Absolutely. But Ted has good people skills. He likes people. Those skills were absolutely helpful.”
Kulongoski did ruffle some feathers this year.
Labor unions that helped Kulongoski win the 2002 governor’s race were dismayed by Kulongoski’s advocacy of bills to reform the Public Employee Retirement System to keep the program financially afloat.
“Our members are angry. They feel he abandoned them,” said Ken Allen, head of AFSCME Council 75.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Russ Walker of the anti-tax group Citizens for a Sound Economy, said Kulongoski deserves failing grades for his first year in office.
“He broke his promise that he wouldn’t raise taxes and he signed into law the largest tax increase in Oregon history,” Walker said. “That gives him an ‘F’ in my book.”
In fact, Kulongoski did seem to rule out any tax increase when he delivered his inaugural address to the Legislature on Jan. 13. But then, the economy continued to worsen and projected revenue dropped by an additional $1 billion by the state’s May forecast.
Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said that despite the flak that Kulongoski has taken from both sides, the governor must be doing something right because he’s generally well-liked by Oregonians.
“He has an infectious enthusiasm that wears well with people,” Hibbitts said. “That alone won’t carry him through for four years, but the fact that people like him personally helps him a lot.”
Kulongoski, in the interview, said one of the unexpected duties of his job has been to attend, as commander-in-chief of the Oregon National Guard, the funerals of Oregon soldiers killed in the war in Iraq.
Kulongoski, who spent three years in the U.S. Marines, said he believes it’s important for him to attend every one of those services. He becomes teary-eyed when he describes what it’s like to speak at those services with the soldier’s grieving relatives sitting in the front row.
“The tears come to your own eyes as you’re talking to them. It’s very, very difficult,” he said.
Looking at the past year, he lists as one of his key accomplishments winning the Legislature’s approval of a vehicle registration fee increase to help pay for a bridge and road-fixing program that will generate 5,000 construction jobs a year.
A new hotel-motel room tax he pushed will help the state do a better job of promoting tourism, Kulongoski said. Other bills to make more industrial land available for business expansion and to cut red tape also are key, he said.
The Democratic governor said he will be among the top leaders who will campaign next month to try to persuade voters to approve the $800 million tax increase on Feb. 3.
But to maintain his credibility with voters, Kulongoski said he will avoid using hyperbole or “scare tactics” that he says both sides in the campaign have employed so far.
“The opponents of the tax say, ‘If you vote for this, Oregon’s economy will go in the tank and we will forever be in the dark ages.’ That is absolutely false,” the governor said.
“But the other side engages in the same kind of activity when they say the sky will fall if the tax doesn’t pass, and that’s just not true, either,” he said.
Aside from the tax issue, Kulongoski said he plans to devote a good portion of the coming year working on proposals to further upgrade Oregon’s transportation network; improve Oregon’s higher education system, and find ways to make sure all Oregon children have access to health care.
Kulongoski in the past year has eagerly embraced his role as the state’s No. 1 cheerleader, making trips to California, Asia and Europe to sell Oregon as a good place to do business.
He said he plans to continue trying to lure new business investment to the state.
“I will go anyplace, anytime, to promote Oregon,” he said.