The Biggest Issue? No Question, the State Budget

Legislative leaders are stretching every state dollar as far as it will go.The weekend edition of The Oregonian carried a story describing what it called "the menu of options" as everyone in Salem focuses on the tone, character and content of the state budget.  It is the biggest issue facing lawmakers now and in the 2011 regular session of the legislature, when there will be a new governor in office.

Legislators met for three days of committee meetings and, while other committees met, the Legislative Emergency Board was at center stage.  It found "emergency fund" money to cushion the blow of governor-ordered across-the-board budget – $2.5 million for the Oregon Youth Authority, $4.4 million for the State Police and $754,000 for district attorney salaries.  Earlier, money had been given to K-12 education and long-term care for senior citizens.  On tap for December is money to make sure the Corrections Department doesn't have to release prisoners early.

No one is sure how long these emergency funds will last, especially with several more revenue forecasts before the end of the biennium. The trend has been for declining revenues, not more money to cushion the blow.

In the main, the die is cast for the current biennium.  A combination of budget cuts and emergency allocations will have to tide the state through to June 30, 2011.  The next biennium, 2011-13, is another story.  Legislators will face a projected funding cap that now tops $3 billion and could go higher. 

Conversations with key legislators last week seemed to illustrate that, to quote an old State of Oregon tourism slogan, "things are different here."  The depth of the recession-inflicted state budget cuts mean that legislators are saying "everything is on the table" this time around.  By "everything," that they will leave no stone unturned to cut state government or change the way government does business.

In discussions about the Children and Families Commission and its local counterpart in 36 counties, legislators told local officials that "it would be impossible to maintain the state office, local commissions and the programs local commissions deliver."  The legislators said it would be better if local commissions offered up cuts than to wait for legislators to decide what goes away.

Sounds good, but the risk is that, if the children and families enterprise offers cuts, it will become a new floor for further cuts, not a ceiling.  

The proof of whether legislators are serious about cutting will come when they consider the K-12 budget.  If they ask K-12 to propose cuts just like every other program, then we'll know that "everything in on the table."  To this point, the objective has been to give K-12 money, not impose reductions.

But going forward, as one member of the Ways and Means committee put it, the only thing left to cut are vital state programs.