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Republicans sidelined this session

Republicans complain they are largely sidelined this legislative session, denouncing what they perceive as an underhanded strategy by Democrats to raise taxes.

Rep. Mike McLane, the minority Republican leader from Powell Butte, said Democrats purposely have underfunded education as they expand other government programs.

“They have chosen their victim, and they will say business doesn’t pay enough, so they will tax business and the rich,” McLane said. “It is an embarrassment to our state and to our nation.”

Democrats say the $7.3 billion, K-12 budget represents a 9 percent increase over the previous biennium and helps restore some, but not all, of the losses suffered during the recession.

McLane, whose legislative district encompasses a portion of northern Jackson County, said Republicans want an $8 billion education budget. But he said Democrats don’t seem to be getting the message and largely have ignored Republicans.

“They have sent a signal to Republicans that your voice doesn’t matter,” McLane said. “They say, ‘You’re not in charge.’ They are quite arrogant.”

Democrats hold a majority in both houses of the Legislature.

Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat who has been criticized by McLane, said the K-12 budget for this year represents a sizable increase over the previous biennial budget. If the state’s economy continues to show improvement by the end of this legislative session, Democrats have vowed to increase education spending even more, he said.

Buckley, who is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, said he would never use schoolchildren as political pawns.

“I think I have a pretty solid track record in six years working on the budget that K-12 is a priority,” he said.

In years past, Buckley has opposed reductions to education spending when the state economy faltered, despite calls by Republicans for deeper cuts.

Even though education spending should be increased this budget cycle, Buckley said he agrees with Republicans that the state doesn’t provide enough to repair all the losses schools and teachers have suffered during the recession that resulted in large class sizes and one of shortest school years in the nation.

Buckley said any further increase in education without new revenues would mean reductions in programs for seniors, the disabled and public safety.

He said he would prefer to get the K-12 budget closer to $7.5 billion, which he said is a funding target many school districts have called for.

Buckley said his calls for increased revenue to fully fund education — far from being a Machiavellian strategy — were spelled out clearly in the co-chairs' budget message in January.

“It is clear to us that our state cannot have the education system it needs or the sustainable budget it needs without changes to our current revenue system,” the budget proposal stated.

Most of the state general fund pays primarily for education, public safety and human services. Buckley said the state budget calls for increases in each department. The amounts are spelled out in the co-chairs' proposed budget.

As to the idea that Democrats don’t listen to Republicans, Buckley said he would be willing to listen to anyone who offers a genuine way of raising revenue for education without robbing money from other programs.

McLane said Buckley stood up in the Legislature recently and said he would “boldly” seek revenue increases to pay for education.

“This is all a setup for a tax initiative,” McLane said.

Buckley actually was quoting a suggestion from the Beaverton schools superintendent asking the Legislature to “boldly” increase revenues to adequately fund education.

Following up on the suggestion from Beaverton, Buckley said he would boldly seek new revenues, as well.

Buckley said one alternative is to use the money from the so-called “kicker” and return it to the general fund, which would add another $345 million to $400 million, or enough to provide better funding for education. Oregonians receive a tax refund or kicker when revenues exceed economists’ forecasts by more than 2 percent.

However, Buckley said, it would be difficult to change the kicker law.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said he thinks Democrats are using school kids as pawns in the budget debate and thinks the target is to grab the kicker. Esquivel said he’s doubtful any changes to the kicker would be approved by voters.

He said the state has $1.8 billion more in this biennial budget, so he wonders why most of it doesn’t go to education.

The biggest problem is that discussions about budget matters are taking place without Republicans this session, he said.

“We have no input,” Esquivel said. “Whatever we say, it falls on deaf ears.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.