Three Down – Only 26 to Go

A budget deal announced as the Oregon legislature convened turned out to be less than some hoped. A bigger challenge awaits — filling at least a $300 million gap.As legislators headed home Friday to gear up for a second week in Salem, it was difficult for anyone accurately to describe the activities of the first three days because things moved much faster than normal at the Capitol — especially for opening days of a legislative session.

There was a crush of business as committees posted hearings on a large number of bills that probably will go nowhere. It prompted a lot of scurrying around, as lobbyists tried to figure what had a chance of passage and what didn't.

Three major "reforms" proposed by Governor Kitzhaber — education, health care and early learning — began moving down paths toward probable approval later this month. If you were betting, you would say the governor would win, but not without push-back by some Republicans who believe change is moving too fast for anyone to accommodate.

A so-called "budget deal" announced on the second day of the session last Thursday produced a bit of buzz, plus a couple headlines, but no one was sure about the real scope or impact of the deal. It turned out to be a "budget re-balance" plan, which means it represented an attempt by Joint Ways and Means Committee leaders to solve internal problems in the budget that had emerged in the last six months since adjournment last June.

The re-balance plan didn't address the current shortfall in state tax revenue, which has been pegged at about $305 million. Nor did the plan address any new revenue shortfall, which could be announced Wednesday when the state economist releases the latest revenue forecast at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Revenue Committees. It also prompted criticism of the Ways and Means co-chairs who took some of a recent Phillip Morris tobacco tax court-ordered payment — about $56 million — and applied most of it to the general budget deficit, not, as proposed, to funding for crime victims. Such is the stuff of Ways and Means.  Money ostensibly for one purpose is swept for another purpose.

There may be enough tins cans of money to tap (reserves or ending balances) to avoid deep cuts in major programs funded by the general fund – K-12 education, higher education, law enforcement, corrections and social services.

Ways and Means House Co-Chair Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, predicted in his November newsletter to constituents there would be no cuts in general fund programs because the legislature had set aside a large ending balance. The next 26 days will tell if Richardson's prediction proves true.

A more recent communication by Richardson came in for a lot of criticism last week from public employee unions. Richardson asked for the e-mail addresses of thousands of state employees — addresses that are considered to be matters of public record — then sent them his newsletter, asking for their ideas on how to cut the state budget.

Public employee unions derided Richardson for bothering employees at home and using their "private" e-mail addresses for state business. Richardson apologized, but avowed his intent was to ask for constructive suggestions from frontline state employees who are not usually polled. He said many employees told him they appreciated the chance to comment.

You get the picture.

Things were very strange at the Capitol and most people who were standing around in Salem watching the action appeared to be hoping that February 29, the target adjournment date, rolls around quickly. There are only 26 days to go in Oregon's first constitutionally sanctioned even-year regular session.

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CFM partner Dave Fiskum has been part of legislative sessions in Salem for more than 30 years.