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Our Opinion: Lawmakers: Focus on tough issues

The Oregon Legislature has a mere 35 days to do important work in the session that began Monday. That means it has no time to waste on controversial issues that cannot be resolved quickly.

Gun control, legalization of marijuana and other hot-button issues are being discussed, but they also are out of place in a short session intended to deal with a more manageable list of concerns. Legislators should concentrate their limited time on larger matters, including:

• Continuing the progress made in education. The Legislature has no extra general fund money to spend in this session, but an improving economy should motivate an ongoing discussion about how this state can get better results from the K-12 system, community colleges and universities. One topic demanding attention is the length of Oregon’s school year — one of the shortest in the nation. Legislators should agree to study the cost and educational outcomes that would come from mandating a longer school year and more hours of instruction.

Other ideas include studying whether it’s possible to offer high school graduates the chance to attend community college for free for a specified period of time. These types of initiatives, which eventually require funding, are essential to achieve the state’s goal of having all children graduate from high school by 2040, with 40 percent of those students completing community college and another 40 percent getting university degrees.

• Rising to the Knight challenge. The Legislature can boost the state’s economy and help advance cancer research by approving $200 million in general obligation bonds to be sold in 2016. The bond revenue would help Oregon Health & Science University in its quest to match a $500 million pledge from Phil and Penny Knight for the Knight Cancer Institute at OHSU. Phil Knight made that pledge on the condition that it be matched by another $500 million in fundraising by OHSU.

The $200 million from the state, which would pay for construction of research and clinic space, will count toward that match if needed. Regardless, if OHSU is going to secure sizable contributions from outside the state, it’s critical that Oregon show its support for this effort — starting with the Legislature.

• Funding the Columbia River Crossing: Prospects are dimming for this project, but that doesn’t change the fact that a new Interstate 5 bridge is needed. The current bridge is poorly designed for modern traffic and vulnerable to earthquakes. Legislators should agree to sell bonds backed by tolling to build the bridge.

Too often, the Legislature allows itself to become bogged down in a sea of bills that do little - if anything — to improve the lives of the people they represent. In short sessions such as this one, legislators cannot afford to lose focus on the state’s most critical priorities.

Our representatives in Salem should tackle these issues, get them resolved, and leave Oregonians with something to be proud of when they look back at this session on March 9.