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Q&A: Legislative Leaders Roll Out Next Budget

The top budget-writers in the Oregon legislature unveiled their proposal Monday for the next two-year budget cycle.

Ways and Means Co-Chairs Senator Richard Devlin and Representative Peter Buckley, both Democrats, outlined their spending ideas at a state capitol press conference.

Republicans countered with their own ideas just a couple of hours later. Our Salem reporter, Chris Lehman, has been keeping tabs on the competing ideas and joins us now.

Q: Chris, after having to share power during the last legislative session, the Democrats once again have control of both legislative chambers. What does that mean for this round of budget crafting?

A:  At that start, it means a much more streamlined process since the majority Democrats didn’t really have to negotiate any of this budget outline with Republicans. And there are certainly large portions of this budget which could pass without a single GOP vote, if Democrats decided to do that. But when you look a little closer, it’s quite likely that Democrats will need some Republican support if they want to get this budget through in its entirety.

Q: What are some of the key numbers in this budget proposal.

A: First of all, you’re correct to call it a budget proposal, Beth. There are several months left in the legislative session for lawmakers to wrangle over the details. It’s pretty much accepted around the capitol that some of these numbers will change by the time the final gavel falls. That said, the number that generally gets the most attention is the amount allocated to K-through-12 schools. And that number is $6.5 billion. Interestingly, both the Democrats and Republican proposed exactly the same amount, a figure that’s higher than what Governor John Kitzhaber initially proposed in his budget last December.

Q: But it gets trickier after that, right?

A: Yes, because both parties say they’ll actually get even MORE money for K-12 schools by passing measures aimed at cutting costs in Oregon’s public employee pension system, commonly known by its acronym, PERS. Democrats and Republicans have proposed a cap on cost of living adjustments for public retirees and ending a tax break for out-of-state retirees. The details of their respective proposals diverge somewhat after that. Democrats say their efforts will add another $200 million for schools, while Republican say they can get another $600 million for schools. One unanswered question is whether any of these PERS proposals will hold up in court, since they’re likely to be challenged.

Q:  How are people reacting to the budget proposals?

A: Well, you have the expected period of political gamesmanship going on right now, with both parties finding ways to criticize the other’s efforts. Republicans in particular have been critical of the Democrats, saying the majority party wants to end certain targeted tax breaks that would effectively result in a tax increase. Meanwhile, some social service advocates are saying that not enough money is going to human services programs, and the largest state workers union, the SEIU, says it is deeply concerned about what it calls an “illegal attack” on public pensions. So clearly, not everyone is happy.

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