SAN FRANCISCO — The big question in Oregon is whether the two political parties will be able to put their differences aside long enough to tackle the state’s $3 billion budget hole.
When the dust settled after Election Day, voters split the Oregon House between 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans, with the Senate likely to lean toward Democrats by only two seats.
With no precedent for breaking the tie in the House, stalemated lawmakers will be left to themselves to decide how to share power when the legislature starts its new session at the beginning of the year.
Adding to the potential for chaos, Oregonians elected as governor John Kitzhaber, a Democrat and former governor, by the thinnest of margins, giving him little in the way of additional authority.
The cloudy political climate comes as Oregon faces a worsening budget.
The state economist’s office most recent forecast projected a more than 3% drop in revenue due mainly to falling tax collections.
The state’s slipping revenues have fueled an estimated $3.2 billion shortfall for the next two-year budget cycle, which starts in 2011.
According to Jim Moore, a professor of politics at Pacific University in Oregon, it remains unclear how the two political parties will end up sharing power and history does not bode well for a bipartisan solution.
Is the House “in a mood to compromise and share power and deal with the budget or are they in the mood to start fighting the 2012 election right now?” he asked.
“History says they will start fighting the 2012 election right now.”
Moore said gridlock traditionally has been the result in the past 15 years when one party controls the House and another the Senate, with lawmakers bickering over the budget until forced to compromise by the last ticks of the clock.
However, Oregon has at least one precedent for cooperation. It was established earlier this decade when the Senate was split 50-50.
Democrats held the presidency and a Republican was co-chair, with the leaders working together to choose committee heads.
Washington State leaders took turns holding the speaker’s gavel the two times when their House had been split in the past 12 years.
Even if Oregon history points to gridlock, the parties are publicly saying they will come together to tackle the budget.
“We must look to this shared responsibility to govern Oregon as an opportunity to find better ways to make state government do more with even less as we continue efforts to pull Oregon from the grips of this global recession,” current House Speaker Democrat Dave Hunt said in a statement.