Oregon governor has angered, soothed

The Associated Press

Salem, Ore. 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 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 thinks 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 his 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
Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

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 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 Kulongoski has taken
from both sides, the governor is 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 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 governor said he will be among the leaders who will campaign next month to
try to persuade voters to approve the tax increase 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.”

Aside from the tax issue, Kulongoski said he plans to devote a good portion of
the coming year to working on proposals to upgrade the state’s transportation
network, improve the higher-education system, and find ways to make sure all
Oregon children have access to health care.

Kulongoski 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.

“I will go anyplace, anytime, to promote Oregon,” he said.


Rick Bowmer / The Associated Press : Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski says he plans
to devote time next year to improving the state’s transportation network, the
higher-education system, and health care for children. (0393745510)

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photo; Caption: Rick Bowmer / The Associated Press : Oregon Gov. Ted
Kulongoski says he plans to devote time next year to improving the state’s
transportation network, the higher-education system, and health care for children. (0393745510)