Kulongoski reflects on first year

SALEM, Ore. — 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 worker salaries. At the same time,
Kulongoski worked with legislators including Republicans to crank out a budget deal and pass bills aimed at giving a boost to 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

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.

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.

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.


Caption: Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski talks in his office Thursday at the
state Capitol in Salem, Ore. 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.