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November 12th, 2003 The Nose | The Nose
 

All Talk, All the Time

     
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TO: Lars
FROM: Vera
Christmas came early last week for Lars Larson, Victoria Taft and the other Portland talk jocks who delight in taking verbal potshots at local pols. As the Nose sees it, Portland Mayor Vera Katz, who made a name for herself in Salem by restricting gun sales, just handed them a loaded pistol, gift-wrapped.

To understand just how generous Her Honor is, think back to the early part of this year. In February, the Portland School District was staring down a $50 million budget crisis while battling with the local teachers union over health-care costs. Premiums were growing faster than Howard Dean's war chest, and, unlike the vast majority of employees in this state, Portland teachers and their families pay none of these costs. The School Board was asking whether teachers might agree to pay a portion of any increase if premiums rose above $600 or $700.

Enter Katz, City Commish Randy Leonard and Multnomah County chief Diane Linn. The three step into the discussions, steamroll right over the School Board and give in to the teachers.

How will they pay for continuing the health plan? With a countywide income-tax hike they put on the ballot in the spring.

How will they establish any credibility with the public? By the creation of a task force to lower the district's health-care costs away from the glare of contract negotiations and election campaigns.

But unlike other task forces, this one would deliver. As Linn said at the time, "This has got to be dealt with, and I expect the public to hold us accountable." Leonard was equally forceful, saying that he was willing to put his reputation on the line that this committee would get a grip on health-care costs. Based largely on that promise, this newspaper endorsed the tax hike, which passed last May.

If you've been paying attention, you know where the Nose is headed.

Last week, the "committee" issued its 58-page report. The product of almost-weekly meetings for four months among a dozen-plus participants came to these bold and courageous conclusions:

"The status quo is undesirable and unsustainable."

And this:

"Portland Public Schools and Portland Association of Teachers should follow a process in bargaining that reaches agreement on a reduction on this year's budgeted contribution to health care."

It's a wonder the group didn't also conclude that you should wash your hands before eating.

Committee members have told the Nose that he does the report a disservice, that the committee did a wonderful job of compiling what The Oregonian called "a wealth of credible, comprehensible data."

Diane Linn emailed the Nose to tell him that, in her opinion, the report "will be a useful tool and sets the foundation for contract discussions with PPS and PAT."

In the Nose's view, Linn, Katz and Leonard are fiddling while Rome burns. As former School Board vice chair Karla Wenzel told WW, "Taxpayers got a bum deal. It falls short of producing what they had committed to."

What's so annoying about all this is not that teachers are screwing taxpayers. It's not even that the Nose's health coverage amounts to a company-provided bottle of Advil and a box of Kleenex. It's that by failing to deliver on a promise, these three politicians erode the believability of all public agencies while filling the stockings of anti-government marksmen with plenty of ammo.

 
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