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The Importance of Balance in Government

Ptld Tribune

Ptld Tribune headshotThe Ancient Greeks spoke and wrote of the importance of balance. This concept embodied the ideals of excellence of character and soundness of mind, which when combined in one well-balanced individual leads to other qualities, such as temperance, moderation, prudence and self-control.

If this concept is applied to government, balance would create a healthy, cohesive environment in which government tends not to operate at the extremes, and sound policy would emerge. When imbalance occurs, there is a constant clashing of ideologies, with one drowning out the other. When imbalance occurs, large minorities of thought and perspective are overwhelmed.

In the coming election, Oregon, it seems, may continue its dangerous embrace of imbalance.

Let’s compare a couple of recent legislative sessions.

The 2009 Oregon Legislative Session was characterized by the three-fifths supermajority of the seats held by Democrats in each chamber. As it happens, a three-fifths majority is required by the Oregon Constitution to pass bills to increase tax revenue. In the beginning of what was to be the worst economic recession in 80 years, bills to balance the budget were passed to raise income taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals and households. Opponents led an effort to force a statewide referendum on these increases, which appeared as Measures 66 and 67 on the January 26, 2010 special election ballot.

Measures 66 and 67 became a “double-barreled victory” as the first voter-approved statewide income tax increase since the 1930s. Supporters spent at least $6.9 million on the campaign, most of it coming from teacher and public employee unions. Opponents, led by a coalition of individuals and business organizations, spent at least $4.6 million on the campaign. Amid the worst economic recession since the 1930s, both measures passed by substantial margins.

The 2009 session perfectly demonstrates what damage can be done when our politics are out of balance. When this condition exists, the party in the super-majority does not have to negotiate or even speak to the party in the minority. That is in fact what happened in 2009. It has proven to be harmful to our industry as well as to our state. Super-majorities breed arrogance and almost always lead to bad policy.

In contrast to the 2009 session, the 2011 Oregon Legislative Session was almost evenly split. In that year, the Oregon House of Representatives was evenly split, 30-30. The House selected two co-speakers, Democrat Arnie Roblan and Republican Bruce Hanna. The two were selected by Governing Magazine among its eight “Public Officials of the Year,” and were praised for “setting in motion a tenure that has been marked by rare bipartisan cooperation and two of the most productive legislative sessions in Oregon’s history.” Similarly, the Senate was comprised of sixteen Democrats and fourteen Republicans and was led by Senate President Peter Courtney, with Senator Ted Ferrioli as the minority leader.

To this day, many legislators and longtime observers still view the 2011 session as one of the most successful in modern history. Both sides had to work together to get things done. While the economy remained in recession, the balance between the parties created an environment in which all parties had to work together to be successful.

As an association, AGC focuses on seeking balance in many ways. From a business perspective, we work to make sure the playing field is level so that all contractors can compete in the marketplace. From a legislative perspective, the success of the kind of policies we address on behalf of our members and the investments we see as critical are only possible with a balanced House and Senate.

When government is balanced it works well. It works as our founders envisioned, and it works the way citizens expect it to work. It protects the public interest, educates our children, and is a solid partner with the private sector to form policies that encourage a climate in which business can grow.

At a time when the world seems out of control, Oregonians and citizens across the country turn to their government for wisdom and stability. In doing that, these same citizens need to let government do their job and then hold them accountable at election time. Government does its job best when it is in a state of balance.

In 2016, we urge Oregon’s voters to seek balance. Only then will Oregon return to its historical role of being a place of governmental excellence.

This column originally appeared in the Business Tribune.

Mike Salsgiver is executive director of the Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia Chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or

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