Where’s Oregon’s state budget these days?
It’s like Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom, with the lava rising around them. And most Oregonians, just like the Hobbits back in the Shire, are unaware of the perilous predicament.
The state budget “lava” is a hot, flowing muck consisting of increasing service needs, rising public employee retirement costs, a restricted tax system (e.g., Measure 5), and uncertain federal funding.
Meanwhile, the business community and the unions are arguing about how to summon the eagles to rescue Frodo and Sam. Thanks to Lord of the Rings — The Return of the King — The End of All Things, you get the picture.
Indeed, Oregon’s state budget lies on the rocky outcrop of a $1.8 billion shortfall of historic proportion. In the recently convened Legislature, there’s talk of major cuts to vital public services and/or tax increases.
Yes, Oregon’s state budget is in rough shape, but just how bad?
For the eagles to fly to the rescue, the public and Oregon’s leaders need to feel Oregon’s state budget is a crisis, and it is urgent we come together, compromise, and act. The action could take many forms, ranging from attending public meetings and demanding the Legislature and governor do something to supporting a statewide ballot measure.
Yet when it comes to feeling that the state has a severe budget crises, Oregonians aren’t there yet.
A recently conducted DHM Research survey found only about a quarter of Oregonians (26 percent) strongly agree that Oregon is facing a budget crisis. An additional 41 percent somewhat agree, 13 percent disagree either somewhat or strongly, and a large 20 percent don’t know. When asked to rate the severity of Oregon’s budget crises a scale of 1-7 (1 equals very mild and 7 equals very severe) only 9 percent rated the severity a 7. The average rating was 4.8.
Younger Oregonians and those from low-income households — two demographic subgroups with lots at stake in budget deliberations with education and health care being big ticket items — were the least likely to know about the budget or to feel there is a crisis.
Why does it matter? If Oregonians don’t understand the magnitude of the problem, they will not make the compromises in their thinking or take the actions needed to help resolve the state’s budget mess. As for a ballot measure, there is a long way to go to build the levels of awareness and support that will be needed to pass a tax increase.
As for Oregon leaders, there is no survey to turn to, but something that happened at the recently concluded Oregon Leadership Summit gives us a clue of their feeling about the state budget. When the hundreds of leaders were asked if conditions in rural Oregon are a “deep concern” or a “crisis,” almost everyone raised their hands for crisis.
Additionally, in the general population survey, those respondents who were the oldest and had the highest education and household income were the most likely to feel the state budget is a crisis.
In short, Oregon’s leaders recognize the danger on Mount Doom. But nothing is being done.
Our leaders are not coming together on what to say and how loud to say it.
Part of the reason why may be that not enough Oregonians are aware of the budget crisis, appreciate what is at stake, and taking appropriate action, including pressuring our leaders.
Where do we go from here? Two things are needed. One is a greater public understanding of the nature of the budget crises including what it means for them as individuals and what is at jeopardy for their households and communities. Second, is for all of us to come together around a fair spending and tax package. These take leadership.
Where are the Gandalfs in the state capitol, corporate board rooms, and union halls across Oregon? The eagles need to fly.
Adam Davis, who has been conducting opinion research in Oregon for 40 years, is a founding principal in DHM Research, a non-partisan firm specializing in assisting with public policy making and communications. Visit www.dhmresearch.com