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State budget changes top Legislature's priority list

The New Year brings another state legislative session during which the Southern Oregon delegation will have significant say in how the state's shrinking revenue will be used.

State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, will co-chair the 2011 Legislature's Joint Ways and Means Committee, the body that helps determine the direction of the state's budget. Also on the legislature's most powerful committee will be Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, and State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford.

The session begins Jan. 10.

"The primary considerations this session are balancing the budget, because there's such a reduction in revenue, and creating an atmosphere where private-sector jobs can be created," Richardson said.

Committee members, Democrats and Republicans, are expected to investigate options for restructuring state services in a way that costs less — to help make up for a 15- to 20-percent reduction in revenue in the next biennium, Buckley said.

State revenue continues to be anemic because of shrinking income-tax collections, upon which the state depends.

Most of the budget cuts are expected to be directed at human services, including programs that serve the elderly, those with disabilities and children, Richardson said.

"We are working with Southern Oregon nonprofits to come up with new ways to deliver services to Southern Oregon's most needy with less resources," Richardson said.

Bates said lawmakers are looking to programs such as On Track's Moms program in Medford as models for how the state can improve its services. Moms offers an alternative to placing children in foster homes by providing a live-in program for families that allows parents to receive treatment for drug abuse and/or mental-health issues.

The program has cut down the average number of foster children in Jackson County from 450 to 250, Bates said.

"Moms is a good example of what needs to be done," Bates said.

Higher education and K-12 education will likely receive the same level of funding as in this biennium, but there won't be any extra funds to cover increases in health-insurance costs, personnel or inflation, Buckley said.

For instance, lawmakers have to find a way to keep the in-home care program for seniors intact, Buckley said. "The alternative is a much more expensive program, such as nursing homes," he said.

On a second front aimed at improving Oregon's economy, lawmakers said they would support legislation to help fuel economic growth and private-sector jobs.

One example is a bill supported by the Friends of Family Farmers that would allow small farmers to slaughter up to 1,000 poultry birds per year for fresh, on-farm sales. Farmers currently have to have a state licensed and approved slaughter plant in order to slaughter birds for sale, a cost-prohibitive requirement for most small farmers that keeps them out of that business, according to Friends of Family Farmers. Oregon is one of the few states that doesn't allow the 1,000-bird exemption for small farms. The bill is set to be read and assigned a number Jan. 10.

"A whole new generation of younger folks are going into agriculture," Buckley said. "They're operating smaller farms and operating in a way that brings collaboration."

"This (1,000-bird exemption) is one more tool small farms have," he said. "It also provides fresh produce for our community, which our state values."

Richardson said Republicans also have some bills in store to help create private-sector jobs, including encouraging more work in the timber industry.

"With a 50-50 split in the House and a new governor, it's not clear what direction those will actually be taken," he said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.