SALEM — Oregon legislators may try another strategy to get the state fair on better financial footing.
A bill backed by the Senate president, Peter Courtney of Salem, would put the fair and its year-round exposition center under the control of an independent public corporation free of many state reins.
The fair itself makes a profit, but the expenses of running its exposition center year round turn the operation into a money-loser. The loss is expected to top $7 million in the current two-year budget period, The Salem Statesman Journal reported.
The Expo Center hosts events such as the Oregon Ag Fest, graduations, conferences and quinceaneras.
The fair used to be run by an independent agency. To wean if from tax dollars, the Legislature transferred it to the Parks and Recreation Department, which gets lottery support. Farm groups say the department isn’t geared to enterprises such as the fair, and some events have moved to other venues.
Critics said the fair operation would do better if it were freed from state restrictions on contracts, facilities, hiring and benefits. Lisa Van Laanen of the Department of Parks and Recreation said keeping the organization as it is means the talk in the next few years will turn to how to keep the fair alive.
“This is kind of that bridging the gap,” she said.
Unionized state workers oppose the move, saying it will reduce government accountability. The Service Employees International Union Local 503 is finalizing an agreement with the state to ensure the 10 people employed to help run the fair will be placed in jobs without displacing other state workers.
Courtney leads majority Democrats in the Senate. Twenty years ago, as a House member, he voted against a measure to give the fair’s management more autonomy.
Then, he said, a fair marked by glitzy entertainment, fewer display booths and less family entertainment might draw larger crowds but would abandon the fair’s mission of showcasing “Oregon products and Oregon homegrown talent.”
But recently he told the Statesman Journal editorial board Oregon faces a choice: “Either we say we got an opportunity here, there’s no guarantee and we take it — or just wallow along.”
The measure would create a seven-member State Fair Council, appointed by the governor. It is scheduled for a committee hearing Tuesday.
Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.