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Budget Hearing Highlights Stark Choices

Sometimes the best advice for legislators comes from outside of Salem.  That’s what state budget writers are hoping as they take their show on the road.

Oregon lawmakers face a widening budget gap and they’re turning to everyday Oregonians for help.  

The Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee held the first of eight hearings Monday night in Lincoln City, along Oregon’s coast.  Another hearing is scheduled Tuesday night in Portland. State Capitol correspondent Chris Lehman has this report.

It’s hard to visualize something as large and complicated as the Oregon budget, but Democratic Representative Peter Buckley thought he’d give it a try.  

Buckley is co-chair of the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee.  And as the meeting began, he invited chunks of the audience to stand up to visually demonstrate the way Oregon’s tax dollars are spent.  More than half the audience represented the education budget.

Rep. Peter Buckley:  “Would the people in the next three rows stand up here, in this section stand up for a second.  There’s human services.  That’s our human services budget. You can go ahead and sit down.”

With the ice-breaker out of the way, local officials and citizens took to the mic to make their case to lawmakers for why their favorite program should be spared from the budget axe.  

Dave Wells works for the Oregon Department of Forestry in neighboring Tillamook County.  He says Forestry employees are a valuable asset in a part of the state where timber is major resource. He drove his message home with a song.

Dave Wells:  “Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear.  Prowling and a-growling and sniffing the air.  Our shirts are tan, and our trucks are white.  And we keep the forests, we keep the streams flowing clean and bright…."

Others who testified about budget cuts skipped straight to the doom and gloom.

Seth Eisenberg:  “People will die”

Seth Eisenberg is a trauma surgeon.  He told lawmakers that one proposal to end a program that allows trauma hospitals to coordinate care would be devastating.

Seth Eisenberg:  “To eliminate this will result in several hundred deaths estimated.  I don’t think anyone in this room wants to raise their hand to volunteer themselves or their children for this role.”

Not all potential cuts sound so dire.  One man testified in support of funding for county fairs.  Another person favored a program that helps seafood wholesalers market their products.  Many spoke out on behalf of drug treatment and mental health programs.  Some wanted to make sure the local community college is spared.  

A common theme:  many made the case that cutting the program they favored would have an even more negative ripple effect.  

John Lavrakas owns a technology consulting firm in Newport.  He argued against eliminating funding for what’s know as SBDC’s, or Oregon’s Small Business Development Centers.

John Lavrakas:  “The SBDC’s are a key part of bringing Oregon out of the recession. They provide business development services adapted to our region simply not found in other programs.”

What’s more, Lavrakas says getting rid of the program means Oregon would have to give up some federal matching funds.  That’s an attractive argument in that program’s favor, but Representative Buckley says it may not be enough to save it.

Peter Buckley:  “The difficulty is, it’s having the up-front money.  There are a number of programs that receive federal matching funds.  But if we don’t have the up-front money to fund the program to receive those federal funds, it’s a moot point.”

Buckley and others on the Ways and Means Committee are planning for a $4.4 billion budget deficit.

They’ll plug some of the hole with federal stimulus dollars and money from the state’s reserve funds.  But Senate President Peter Courtney says the budget gap isn’t showing any signs of getting smaller. 

Peter Courtney:  “I think it will at least be five, headed toward six billion before it’s over.  So it’s going to be a lot more than $4.4 billion.”

And while only a few people at the hearing advocated for new taxes, it’s certainly a possible outcome at the capitol.

Courtney says higher taxes are as unpopular in Salem as they are in places like Lincoln City.

Peter Courtney:  “It’s a tough sell right now, we know that.  But we can’t get out of Salem by just cutting budgets.  We’re going to have to come up with some new taxes and new revenues.  Which ones will fly, I don’t know.  Which ones will survive the ballot if they get put on the ballot, I don’t know.  That’s what makes this so very difficult.”

For now lawmakers will continue to hold hearings on possible budget cuts.  The final push of the legislative session in Oregon starts in mid-May, when state revenue forecasters issue their final prediction before the Legislature adjourns.


Information about the Oregon Budget

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