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Gov. Kulongoski Pushes Job-Creating Road Plan in Oregon

Sun December 07, 2008 - West Edition

SALEM, Ore. (AP) From the race for president down to contests for legislative seats, Democrats were elected on promises they would patch up a broken economy.

Now, Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and legislative leaders say they are ready to deliver with a big job-creating transportation package as a first step.

Kulongoski recently appeared at a legislative hearing to make his case for a plan that could raise the state gasoline tax and vehicle fees to pay for road and bridge improvement projects and create thousands of new construction-related jobs.

It’s what voters had in mind when they embraced Barack Obama and other Democrats in Nov. 4’s election, Kulongoski said in an interview.

“We need to put people back to work,” the governor said. “And you can accomplish more good on that score by investing in public infrastructure than you can throwing public money at banks and financial institutions.”

A state jobless report provided more grim news about Oregon’s unemployment rate — already above the national average — but it also gave added support for Kulongoski’s call for creating public works jobs.

Kulongoski isn’t giving details about the transportation package he will submit to lawmakers in January.

His package will draw from recommendations made by a committee that looked at short-term and long-term steps needed to address the state’s $1.3 billion transportation maintenance shortfall.

Among other things, the panel called for a gas tax increase of between 2 and 8 cents a gallon, doubling the vehicle titling fee to $110, raising the registration fee from $27 a year to $81 a year and creating a $100-a-year fee for titling cars new to the state.

Raising the gas tax, in particular, likely will spark considerable debate in the Legislature.

The state’s 24-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax is still the biggest single source of money for Oregon’s road and bridge program. Moves to increase it haven’t been popular. Oregonians trounced the most recent attempt — a nickel-a-gallon increase in 2000.

But the path to a possible gas tax hike became easier in Nov. 4’s election when Democrats won 36 seats in the Oregon House, thus the ability to raise taxes or fees without Republican help.

Democratic state Rep. Dave Hunt, who will be the next speaker of the Oregon House, noted that the last time the issue was discussed in 2007, House Republicans were able to block a proposed $10 fee on new license plates to pay for transportation improvements.

“It was that action, more than anything else, that convinced me that we needed a supermajority” of 36 Democrats, the Clackamas lawmaker said. “We’ve got one now, and I’m confident they will pass a transportation package.”

Hunt also said he’s hoping Republicans “will engage with us and make it an even better package.”

That could be the case, if recent comments by House Republican Leader Bruce Hanna are any indication.

While Republicans are leery of a big gas tax increase and tend to favor moves to create jobs through the private sector, they are open in the current economic crisis to discussions of public works projects, Hanna said.

“If the Democrats come out with reasonable increases and say how they are going to prioritize that spending on transportation projects, then we will be willing to listen,” the Roseburg lawmaker said.

Political scientist Robert Eisinger said that while voters clearly were saying they wanted change in Nov. 4’s election, it wasn’t entirely clear what approach they think federal and state leaders should pursue to try to put the economy back on track.

Some might support tax breaks for families as the best economic stimulus; others might see public works programs as the answer, he said.

Either way, he said, Kulongoski should try to get as much buy-in as he can for whatever package he pursues.

“If he can get business support and Republican support, then it’s not a one-party issue, not just jamming it down people’s throats,” said Eisinger, who teaches political science at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.

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