When department heads of state agencies finish presenting their budget-cutting recommendations to legislators, our lawmakers should welcome county leaders into the room.
School administrators and teachers have descended on the Capitol to lobby for public education, and rightly so. But we also need a county perspective on the state's budget crisis. This newspaper has written about the overextended Public Employee Retirement System and high wages given to top state employees. None of these criticisms should reflect on the hardworking state and school employees who do the critical jobs in our local communities.
However, county advocates make a valid point when they say that the priorities of state department heads need to be balanced by an outside view. County leaders could provide this unique perspective.
There's a prevalent concern that some state agencies will protect their own and apply the hurt to citizens who denied the state a tax increase by voting "no" on Measure 28 on Jan. 28. This may be an overly harsh assessment, but, at the very least, the reality is that department heads are human. They may avoid making hard choices in their own offices with the people and programs they know.
"Part of the problem is that a lot of these agencies, we feel, are going to offer up stuff that affects us, not them," said Gordon Fultz, policy manager for the Association of Oregon Counties.
During the fifth special session of 2002 and subsequent budget rebalancing after the failed tax-increase measure of Jan. 28, the Department of Human Services, for example, left many county spectators disillusioned. When the agency was asked to make cuts, "they seemed to cut the services more than they did any non-service staff," Fultz said.
There's no denying that the budget problems the state faces are real. Saddled with a stagnant economy (thanks in no small part to environmentalist litigation and overregulation of our natural resources), the Oregon Legislature and the governor are bracing for an additional drop in revenue next month. A March revenue forecast - depending on how pessimistic one feels - may predict shortfalls ranging from $90 million to $300 million. A May forecast could bring more bad news.
On an immediate track, legislators are wrestling with short-term cuts for the current biennium, 2001-2003, which ends in June. But state legislators also have directed agencies to return in a couple of weeks with proposed, longer-range cuts for the next biennium, 2003-2005 (state budgeting occurs in two-year cycles). Then, negotiations will begin, surrounding the recommendations of department heads, the governor's proposed budget and legislative fiscal office and House and Senate committee reviews of these proposals.
County leaders - although undeniably busy with the challenges of directing county government - know plenty about maintaining tight budgets, and they should be involved in the state's decision-making process. The Eastern Oregon Rural Alliance aims to make sure county leaders have a voice. This is a process that legislators should welcome and encourage.
There also needs to be better communication about what state leaders are doing. Rumors that the 2003 Grant County Fair might be in jeopardy due to budget cuts appear to have been overblown. John McCulley, executive secretary for the Oregon Fairs Association, clarified that the Oregon Department of Agriculture was one of the agencies asked to cut its budget by 30 percent for 2003-2005.
"As a part of that 30 percent, they listed the county fairs," McCulley explained. "We started from there, and it's all in the hands of the legislature."
The $3.1 million target offered up by the agency focuses on county fair subsidies, but it would not affect this year's fairs - McCulley said the Grant County Fair received its distribution of nearly $42,000 in January, so any affirmed cut would not kick in until 2004.
"They're a long ways away from making any decisions," McCulley added.
The picture of what is best for the state would be made clearer if legislators would welcome a contingent of county leaders to Salem for a serious discussion about where the state plans to cut.
Phillip Bransford, communications director for AOC, pointed out that counties are partners with the state. County leaders know all too well the impacts of unfunded mandates and state-directed budget reductions in sensitive areas, such as mental health care and courts. Typically, counties pick up the slack for these lapses.
"We're connected at the hip with the state," Bransford said. "If you're going to take the knives to one component of the system, it's going to have an effect across the system."
These are messages our legislators should hear first hand. There's no one better to deliver this message than our county commissioners and county judges.