Strange, but it seems the top proposals for coping with a $482 million-and-counting shortfall to the state's $12 billion budget are exorbitant borrowing or layoffs of thousands of teachers, release of almost 4,000 state inmates because of prison closures and layoffs of more than 100 state troopers.
However, the facts speak for themselves.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality still has plenty of money to fly helicopters with infrared cameras to map the temperatures of our rivers. Is this really a necessity given the state's budget woes?
According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Office, the natural resource program area in Oregon received $1.307 billion in the 2001-03 legislatively adopted budget, and the combined limited budget for the natural resource agencies came in 13 percent higher than in the previous two-year budget period.
"The total general fund provided for natural resource agencies increased by $14.5 million from the 1999-2001 approved levels, a gain of nearly 10 percent," according to the LFO.
The state can afford to fritter away millions on non-essential programs, including $2.3 million of general fund money on a pesticide-use reporting system that nobody needs.
And (with all apologies to school officials) K-12 education does not face cuts in the strictest sense of the word. Even with a nearly billion-dollar shortfall in revenue due to a sagging economy, we cannot imagine that all - or even most - of that shortfall will come at the expense of schools. Schools received an increase of $391 million between 1999-2001 and 2001-2003. The Oregon Legislature's appropriation of $5.2 billion to schools in 2001-03, an 8.1 percent increase over the prior biennium, may need to be shaved to help cover the shortfall. As for actual cuts from past spending, not likely.
The state's 2001-03 budget totals $34.053 billion, a 15.3 percent increase over 1999-2001. How many families saw their income increase by 15.3 percent in that time?
The 2001 Oregon Blue Book dedicates about 70 pages to executive branch agencies, yet few of them are being mentioned as targets for reduced increases in spending. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife - one of these agencies - approached the 1999-2001 biennium facing a $10.5 million revenue shortfall "necessary to maintain existing programs"; despite this overdraw on resources, the Oregon Legislature gave the agency $195.1 million, 3.5 percent more than the agency's 1997-99 estimated spending.
While everyone talks about state budget cuts, in reality, the state will receive about $2 billion more to spend in the 2003-05 budget than it received in the 2001-2003 budget.
We learned from a Grant County resident that Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, "is really getting beat up because instead of another tax, Greg states he wants agencies' budgets cut, that people in rural Eastern Oregon don't want agencies trespassing on their land." Nobody in Salem is talking about that.
Jeff Thompson, an economist and policy analyst with the Oregon Center for Public Policy, reported that "the Portland area benefited most from the 1990s boom, leaving average earnings in the rest of the state well below historic levels." Yet, the Oregon Legislature refused to allow rural schools in timber-dependent communities to keep a federal handout intended to offset losses from the logging industry's collapse. Why is that issue not being discussed?
It's funny that the Legislature went back for a fifth special session this month, considering that the first four sessions cost taxpayers $298,123.
Is the tail wagging the dog when agencies dictate how much money they expect to receive? Does the definition of "cut" become blurred when everybody expects to receive more money than in the previous biennium?
We need answers to these questions after we elect a new governor and new legislators. It's time for new ideas in Salem.