Oregon’s future looks bleak — at least per the Legislature’s budget experts.
Teachers, counselors and other school employees could lose their jobs; and class sizes could soar. Thousands of low-income Oregonians could lose medical and dental. Justice could move more slowly in the state courts.
The co-chairs of the Legislature’s Ways & Means Committee — Democratic Sen. Richard Devlin of Tualatin and Rep. Nancy Nathanson of Eugene — last week presented their state budget framework for the next two years. Unlike Gov. Kate Brown’s proposed budget, it would rely on existing revenue instead of new taxes. But unless the Legislature does raise taxes, Oregonians across the state would receive fewer services.
That debate — more taxes, cost efficiencies or both — will frame this year’s legislative session, which begins Feb. 1.
The irony is that Oregon will have nearly $1.3 billion more in revenue to spend during 2017-19 than during the current two-year budget period.
However, Oregon faces a $1.8 billion shortfall between that revenue and what the state would need to keep agencies, programs and schools operating at the same level as today.
This gap was not a surprise. Many lawmakers, especially Republicans, had warned that the state budget was on an unsustainable path even though Oregon — especially urban Oregon — had emerged from the Great Recession.
The reasons have long been known. Federal funds that financed a vast expansion of the Oregon Health Plan are being cut back, leaving Oregon to either pay a larger share of that insurance or take coverage away from some people. PERS bills continue to rise for schools and government agencies. Voters added more costs in the ballot measures they approved this fall.
Meanwhile, too many legislators expected the budget hole would be filled by Oregonians. They counted on voters this fall to pass the largest corporate tax increase in state history. Instead, voters wisely said no.
This budget crisis — this fiscal fiasco — illustrates why Oregon needs a more disciplined and long-term approach to budgeting. “
We’re uniquely good at identifying problems and spending money to solve them. We’re not as vigorous at looking at efficiencies,” state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said.
The state lacks a guiding set of priorities of which programs and services are most important and most cost-effective. So interest groups — many of them representing worthy causes — fight to make their case with lawmakers every two years.
“The big challenge always is to provide the services people want and expect with the resources they give you,” said Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, who is starting his 35th year as a public official.
The budget framework released Thursday leaves Hansell fighting to preserve the state police forensics lab in Pendleton and to ensure state funding to deal with wolves that prey on livestock.
And across the state, legislators and parents are worried about the state’s financial roller-coaster will hurt schools.
The Legislature’s No. 1 responsibility is to pass a balanced budget. That will happen. But will it be a responsible, forward-thinking budget?