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Legislators offer up differing solutions

The fronts are many, agreements few, with positions rarely crossing the political no-man's-land.

About 40 representatives from The Chamber of Medford/Jackson County heard from an array of legislators with decidedly opposing perspectives Wednesday.

State Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, demanded legislative leaders build budgets prior to the 2017 session, while Gov. Kate Brown presented her own as the lawmakers gathered in February.

"The problem is, it's never a budget, it's a Washington, D.C., budget; it's never balanced," Courtney told the group. "They came up with a budget that's basically a wish list. It's not a balanced budget, the money is not there. You can't do that in state government, you can't do that in local government."

Borrowing a phrase often used by his Republican counterparts, Courtney said cost containment is necessary to close the gap between current service level expenditures and desired spending.

"We're really going to have to take a good look hard at cost containment measures to see how we can really seriously take out several hundreds of millions (of dollars)," Courtney said.

Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said one key to narrowing the budget gap for the coming biennium is reducing the number of unfilled agency positions that are carried forward.

Ferrioli said the budget hearings held around the state, concluding in Salem this week, are predicated on selling the revenue needs of a budget gap that is really far smaller.

"It's a PR campaign," Ferrioli said. "The road show is so carefully scripted that real people have trouble getting in there to say, whoa, whoa, whoa. I'm already paying all I can afford. ... What about some spending discipline?"

Ferrioli pointed to the Oregon School Board Association survey that showed voters have no appetite for additional taxes.

"Oregonians say it's time to pivot," he said.

One state agency reviewed 700 unfilled positions, fully funded at an average of $78,000 each, he said.

"Every single agency has a shock absorber on it, they don't know what the policies will bring," Ferrioli said. "Agency heads have been really canny about building a shock absorber and calling it unfilled FTEs. We could actually probably balance the budget this cycle with no new taxes."

The detrimental fallout of the perceived inability to keep up with PERS payouts in future years, he said, is that the state's bond rating will take a hit.

"How will that affect our efforts at funding a transportation package giving something to fill potholes and build new roads?" he said.

Although Measure 97 was resoundingly defeated, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said there will be bills forwarded to the floor to increase revenue. Kotek has championed rent control and affordable housing costs during the session.

She represents an area that hasn't responded quickly enough to provide housing for a booming economy, she said. But areas where affordability is hindered by low wages threw her a curve.

"Housing is the traditional purview of local government," Kotek said. "The challenge is that we don't have enough housing, it's not a sustainable situation."

Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, a member of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, said the 4,400 bills submitted are overwhelming.

"We have 81 days left in session, when you start compounding that, the end comes really fast," DeBoer said. "A transportation package is not going to come out because we're not too sure what the other side will pop in after they get the transportation package. So it becomes a little bit of negotiation, and we negotiate negatively up here, rather than negotiate positively. We need to take that away."

Reducing the number of bills would benefit the process, he said.

Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, said uneven funding has been detrimental to preserving the state's infrastructure. "The longer you defer it, the harder it is to catch up," he said.

When quizzed about predictive scheduling — restricting businesses' ability to use on-call scheduling for their employees — he said it hurts business.

"The reason it's not good for employees, is that it is going to take flexibility out of all scheduling," Baertschiger said. "Employees need some flexibility, too, and most of the time in my experience, businesses work with employees."

He added a roller-coaster economy hinders sound financial planning.

"We're either hiring people or laying them off," Baertschiger said. "It makes it really challenging to plan. When we try to forecast for a two-year period, we're wrong more than we're right. We're either left with more revenue, or not enough. I'd like to see another way of raising revenue, but not necessarily more revenue."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.