More of the same in Salem
Despite a recovering economy, the new budget won't cover the costs
The opening of a new legislative session can be a time for optimism, but it's hard to summon much of that this year.
The state is still reeling from spending cuts that have not been restored, and the outlook for the next two years calls for more of the same. Democrats will control the Senate outright for the first time in a decade; the House will be run by conservative Republicans.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, have pledged to cooperate this session to get the state's business done. We'll wait and see if the rank and file in both houses will follow their lead.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski has proposed a budget of &
36;11.9 billion that calls on state agencies to operate with existing revenue. The plan is &
36;1 billion below what's needed to continue providing services at current levels.
The only new revenue in the governor's budget is a squishy &
36;120 million from adding video slot machines to the Oregon Lottery. He wants to spend that money to avoid laying off more state troopers.
Advocates for schools, social services and the Oregon Health Plan are calling for new sources of money to ward off further cuts in spending. The governor proposed &
36;5 billion for public schools ' &
36;100 million more than the current budget, but &
36;400 million below what analysts say is needed to keep up with inflation.
— During last year's election campaign, we heard legislative candidates talk about funding education first ' giving school districts an amount they can count on in drawing up their own budgets. It's a nice idea, but it's not very practical.
Lawmakers get revenue forecasts from state economists in March and again in mid-May. Frequently, the forecasts change dramatically from one to the next.
In past budget years, a drop in expected revenue in the May forecast has sent legislators scrambling to adjust budget amounts proposed earlier.
That's less likely to happen this year, because the state economy is rebounding, although slowly, from the downturn that caused so much pain last time around. But there are no guarantees.
If lawmakers agree on a school funding amount and anticipated revenue declines, what then? Do they cut other parts of the budget even further to keep schools whole, or do they adjust all the numbers to spread the misery around?
By the same token, what if the May forecast calls for more revenue than expected? Are schools stuck with a lower amount, or do lawmakers share the good fortune across all sectors of the budget?
We don't have the answer to the state's budget dilemma. Neither, we suspect, do lawmakers. Voters have made it clear they want no tax increases. Legislators and the governor have vowed to take them at their word and live within the state's means.
We do know this: No one will be happy with the budget that finally emerges from this legislative session.
Open it up
Public confidence in state government is about as low as it can get.
Senate Democrats have taken one step toward restoring some of that confidence. They agreed to open their caucus meetings to news reporters, so the public can know exactly how its business is being conducted.
The League of Women Voters is pushing for even more openness from the Legislature this year. Lawmakers would do well to listen.
The League wants committees to give 48 hours' notice of public hearings on legislation, up from 24 hours in past sessions. It also wants committees to hold hearings around the state during the session so more voters can watch their government in action.
The League also wants committees to allow members of the public to testify first in committee hearings, before state agency representatives and others who have been invited to testify.
Those are modest but meaningful requests that would go a long way toward de-mystifying the process of making laws.