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Turning the screws


The pain from budget cuts is real, and the agony is just beginning

In Medieval times, torturers used devices such as thumb screws and vises to inflict pain and cause mutilation. Today we've got the Oregon budget.

It is squeezing state departments and agencies ' another methodical turn of the screws with every updated budget forecast ' until they have no room to move, no easy choices left to make.

The newest round of modern-day torture came this week, when Southern Oregon University responded to a new call from the governor to make cuts. The Ashland school announced it would cut 17 from its staff, including seven administrators, and raise tuition by &

36;50 a term now and possibly another &

36;50 or so in the spring.

These numbers are small. SOU has 700 employees in all, and students already pay nearly &

36;1,000 a term in tuition. But put in the perspective of a year's worth of squeezing, they hurt.

SOU, like many others funded primarily by the state, has lost more than 10 percent of its budget this year as Oregon has struggled with wave after wave of budget shortfall. Students face the new tuition increases on top of increases each of the past several years, and they are likely to pay higher fees as well. Meanwhile, they choose from fewer classes.

Last year at this time, when the problems with the budget were just beginning, it looked like the cuts would be uncomfortable but not particularly painful.

Hundreds of millions of dollars later, the damage they have done is severe, putting the screws to programs again and again. Oregonians are dulled by the talk and exhausted by the exercise. The hardest-hit services are simply gone.

Where will it end? Even if voters approve a three-year income tax increase proposal on Jan. 28, an outcome pollsters consider unlikely, another &

36;1 billion in cuts is likely to be needed in the two-year budget cycle that begins in July.

If voters don't approve the income tax increase, it will amount to one more turn of the screws this winter, before legislators move on to the next set of problems.

SOU, like other big entities, will go on. Classes will be held. Students will be educated.

That won't mean everything's right in Oregon, though ' only that the torture hasn't done us in quite yet.

Abundance, not excess

Instead of rising at 5 a.m. to buy new presents at big-box stores, what if people simply traded the things they already had?

Those are the words of local public radio talk show host Jeff Golden, who came up with an innovative idea about obtaining holiday gifts. Why not just swap stuff you don't want or need with folks who also have stuff they don't want or need?

That's exactly what happened at the first-ever Abundance Swap at the Oak Street Dance Studio last weekend. Some two dozen people showed up bearing items they would like to get rid of by trading them for items brought by others.

Participants brought an eclectic mix of potential gifts ' all the way from old copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to wool sweaters, jigsaw puzzles and a clock with chirping birds.

It would be easy to write off the event with a cynical only in Ashland 'a place where such ideas proliferate. But that would be unfair. The idea has merit, especially as a timely reminder that commercial excess is not what this season is supposed to be about.

We harbor no illusions that the concept will take the country by storm, but what if it did? Would that be such a bad thing?