SALEM — Since the divisive November national elections, Oregon lawmakers and a member of its congressional delegation are seeing unprecedented public participation in the political process, and they are hoping the engagement will help solve a budget crisis.
"The level of public engagement since the November election has been astonishing to all of us," said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. She said attendance at her pre-legislative-session town halls more than tripled this year.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden marveled on social media at the crowds that have come to his town halls. He posted photos of a flood of more than 1,500 people who filled all the bleachers and spilled onto the floor of a community college gymnasium in Albany last weekend.
"Turnout in Newport and Tillamook was off the charts," the Democratic senator added.
To hear directly from the public on the biggest issue facing lawmakers this year — a $1.8 billion budget shortfall — the Legislature's committee that determines state budget policy announced on Monday it will host public hearings throughout the state. The first one is in a hearing room at the Oregon State Capitol on Friday, from 5 to 7 p.m.
Those who live nearby will have the opportunity to share their thoughts about budget issues, said Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem. "It is an opportunity that we have not had locally for a while," Winters said.
Lawmakers must find ways to increase revenue and cut spending to make up for the shortfall, caused by increased health care costs, the fiscal impact of 2016 ballot measures, and Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System unfunded liability.
"I feel like we have to bring it back to the public, and say, 'How best to do this?' " Kotek told Capitol correspondents on Monday.
Gov. Kate Brown's budget proposal would, among other "very difficult decisions," raise taxes on hospitals, insurance companies and on tobacco and liquor sales; close a loophole that allows many businesses to avoid corporate income taxes; and deny customary funding increases for public higher education.
The public hearings could be passionate as people make a case on how the proposed $20.6 billion for the 2017-19 biennium should be spent.
"I am really looking forward to hearing from Oregonians about how they think we should prioritize," Kotek said. She said that, as an example, some might want to ensure money goes to covering drugs for chronic diseases, while others want to make sure no one loses health insurance.
"Those are competing interests when we're trying to do a budget," Kotek said.
The Joint Ways and Means Committee's other public hearings will be on Saturday from 12 to 2 p.m. at Portland Community College-Sylvania Campus; Feb. 17 at Hermiston High School; Feb. 18 at Madras High School; Feb. 24 at Southern Oregon University in Ashland; Feb. 25 at Lane Community College in Eugene; and March 3 at the Port of Tillamook Bay.
"We're trying to make sure we get diversity in input, and we're hoping for big crowds," the House speaker said.