Six months in, it's time to update the Kitz-O-Meter
By Ryan Kost
Published on Friday, July 8th, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.
Six months into his third term as governor, John Kitzhaber is poised to make good on promises to reform education and health care while pledges to rework the state's finances and environmental policies appear stalled.
In the weeks following Kitzhaber's election last fall, The Oregonian's reporters for PolitiFact Oregon combed through his speeches, debates, position papers and other sources and pulled together a list of the promises he made. We collected a list of 34 on issues from health care to diversity to habitat restoration.
So far, we've been able to rate his progress on a third of those promises. Taken together, they show a governor who moved quickly to set in motion plans to change the way the state builds budgets, educates children and delivers health care. They also show a governor who made those promises a higher priority than tax and environmental reform. Those, he says, might have to wait until the 2013 session of the Legislature.
"It was really a matter of bandwidth," Kitzhaber said in an interview about the promises. "I think one of the reasons we were so effective with some of those priorities is that we really focused."
Jobs and economic development came first, he said, along with "big pivots of education and health care."
Many of the governor's victories this session were not promises in and of themselves, but they do lay extensive groundwork to help Kitzhaber make good on his many words.
In the area of education -- where a full third of his promises reside -- the governor persuaded lawmakers to create a board that would oversee all levels of state education (which he will chair) and name him the state's superintendent of public instruction. Those moves mean that several of his education promises -- linking data systems, creating early childhood education standards, shifting state education funding and tying teacher evaluations to student performance, among others -- now seem within reach.
The same goes for health care. There, Kitzhaber muscled through the creation of a health insurance exchange system, as well as a new system that will rework the state's health care delivery model. Both of those changes, like the education super board, are means to an end. In this case, that end is using national health care reform to set up a demonstration project. We've updated that pledge to In the Works.
"What we're really focused on, as you know, is changing the delivery system," Kitzhaber said. "The (Obama) administration is really looking for a state, or several states, that can really demonstrate that the Affordable Care Act is more than just an expansion of coverage."
The Democratic governor also changed the way the state approaches budgeting. In the past, budget talks usually revolved around the gulf between state revenues and the money it would take to keep current services running. Kitzhaber focused on appropriating the cash the state had to the areas he thought it could do the most good.
Again, this wasn't a promise itself, but it did help the governor makes some progress in other areas, like stabilizing the state's education budget, a promise we've moved to In the Works.
"He started the conversation (about budgeting) and he stayed with it clear through the session," said Rep. Bruce Hanna, the Republican co-speaker of the House. "I think he did look pretty closely at where we were from a revenue standpoint ... at a budget that starts with that we have, not where we wish we were."
To get those wins, the governor said he had to let some issues go.
A package of legislation that included a reduction in capital gains taxes and a plan to reroute some tax kicker dollars into a rainy day fund got left behind. We've rated both promises as Stalled.
Kitzhaber said those two reforms will have to wait until they can be wrapped up in a larger discussion with legislators about taxes.
The same goes for environmental reform, he said. There he promised to craft an energy and climate change plan, create a state agency to oversee state policies about those issues, include carbon accounting in planning processes and simplify habitat restoration permitting.
"We're going to start focusing particularly now on the clean economy and natural resources and the environment," he said. But "we're probably going to need some legislative help with that."
That'll mean starting discussions now -- Kitzhaber says he plans to meet with environmental advocates this month -- but waiting until 2013 for major action. This coming February, the legislature is set to meet for a month-long session, but the governor said they'd focus more on shoring up the education and health care changes than tackling new policy.
The environmental community wasn't completely ignored. Ben DuPree, a spokesman for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, points to Kitzhaber's plan to issue low-interest bonds to schools for green upgrades -- a promise he made during the campaign that we've updated to Kept. Some of the other promises, DuPree said, can wait, especially given that the Legislature is now meeting once a year.
"He's going to have more opportunities to affect change," DuPree said. "He isn't going to get just two bites of the apple, the way it use to be."
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