SALEM — The Oregon House of Representatives rebalanced the state's budget with the passage of legislation on Thursday that was opposed by all but one of Southern Oregon's representatives.
The passage clears the way for legislators to start focusing on an even bigger budget shortfall — a $3 billion deficit expected in the 2009-11 biennium.
Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, was the lone member of the area's House delegation to vote in favor of the rebalancing, which passed 37-22 on the strength of its support among Democrats.
The legislation, authored by Ways and Means, cuts $300 million from agencies across state government, takes $80 million from reserves to fund state agencies, and applies money from the recently passed federal stimulus to patch a $855 million hole opened by the state's ongoing recession.
Representatives Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, George Gilman, R-Medford, Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, and Ron Maurer, R-Grants Pass, all voted against the legislation. Only four members of the House Republican caucus voted for its passage.
Esquivel said he was particularly "disturbed" by the legislation's use of trusts for community housing and the arts.
"I voted against it," Esquivel said Thursday afternoon. "It wasn't because it didn't need to be done. It did need to be done. I didn't like robbing trust funds."
Esquivel said the bill took $447,000 from the Dammasch Trust, money slated to provide housing for Oregon's most mentally ill. The bill also took $1.8 million from the Cultural Trust, $1.5 million from fees paid to liquor sales agents and nearly $4 million from an account reserved for improving emergency communications.
"If I took money from a trust fund I would have problems," Esquivel said. "I would probably have some legal trouble."
Esquivel said he believes reserve funds should have been used to get through the remainder of the year.
"How much does it have to rain before we realize it's a rainy day?" asked Esquivel.
Rep. Gilman said he believed the committee could have used more money from the federal stimulus, minimizing the impact on the Cultural Trust and emergency services.
"We've already taken $4 million from the stimulus package," Gilman said. "We could have easily increased that another half million and held these funds harmless."
Buckley said the budget shortfall forced the state into making tough decisions. He emphasized that the money pulled from programs to fill other holes would not hurt day-to-day operations of any agency.
"We tried to follow the principles we set out when we started the process," Buckley said. "The discussion is fair, the points made are fair. Some of the cuts we made are cuts you make only in an absolute crisis — that's where we are."
Buckley, acknowledging intense opposition from his Republican colleagues, said the majority of Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee voted for the new budget's passage.
"They were part of the struggle that we had to find a balanced way to do it not only this year, but also looking for ways to find a balance the next two years," Buckley said.
With the budget balanced through the current biennium, lawmakers' decisions aren't likely to get any easier. The state is $3 billion shy of the resources necessary to maintain the current level of services in the next biennium.
Buckley and the Ways and Means Committee shifted their focus to the next biennium immediately after finalizing the bill to rebalance the current budget. The committee will release a snapshot of its financial position for the upcoming biennium next week, he said.
Said Buckley: "Now we have to get the next budget done."
Bob Albrecht is a freelance writer covering the Legislature for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.