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Our Opinion: Time to talk details on budget deal

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For reasons that bewilder just about everyone we've talked to, Gov. Kate Brown has largely walked away from the most important task facing the state she said she wanted to govern. With lawmakers staring at a $1.8 billion budget shortfall, someone needs to get labor leaders to sign off on government spending cuts and persuade business leaders to agree to new taxes.

Around the state, local school board members, county road supervisors and social service providers are fretting.

Will there be enough money next year to keep classroom sizes under control, repair our bridges and care for the state's most vulnerable residents?

They're waiting for some signal from Salem that there's a plan. But they're mainly hearing silence.

Elected officials are often excoriated in this space because their rhetoric exceeds their deeds. Peter Courtney and Tina Kotek find their names here for the opposite reason. They're doing more than they let on.

In this case, that's a good thing.

For reasons that bewilder just about everyone we've talked to, Gov. Kate Brown has largely walked away from the most important task facing the state she said she wanted to govern. With lawmakers staring at a $1.8 billion budget shortfall, someone needs to get labor leaders to sign off on government spending cuts and persuade business leaders to agree to new taxes.

Brown has made it clear that she will play, at best, a supporting role. So into the breach walk Salem's odd couple: House Speaker Kotek and Senate President Courtney.

They're both Democrats, but their styles are quite different. While Kotek plays the part of the meticulously measured Felix, Courtney is all Oscar: boisterous and unpredictable.

But for the past several weeks, they've been tag-teaming groups of union representatives and captains of industry, laying the groundwork for what will undoubtedly be some difficult conversations. From what we hear, they're doing a good job. And the fact that we don't hear much is a sign of their success.

Participants in the talks, which include at least one meeting in which both sides were present, are taking their vow of secrecy seriously.

That's appropriate, given that at this stage there are no specific proposals on the table. It's more an exercise of rebuilding trust after the bruising battle over Measure 97, in which a coalition of labor groups spent $16 million to pass a corporate sales tax, only to be rebuffed by a business-fueled $26 million counterattack that prevailed at the polls.

And, while there are no sounds of kumbaya emerging from behind closed doors, no one has stomped out in anger.

While we applaud these initial, quiet get-togethers, it's time for Kotek and Courtney to make some noise. At some point other lawmakers — including GOP legislators — will need to be involved, proposals will need to be floated and the hard work of negotiating will have to begin. That process must be done in public — and it must start soon, to dispel the notion that nothing is being done.

Kotek and Courtney need to unite behind a single message: The first priority for everyone in Salem should be to get costs — including state payroll and employee retirement costs — under control. Only then can the conversation about revenue take place, starting in the House. That will create the opening for a long-overdue transportation plan, an education budget and other spending measures.

The fact that the two sides are meeting is good news. Now it's time to take the next step and provide some vocal leadership.