Buckley to co-chair state's Ways and Means Committee

Ashland Rep. Peter Buckley will co-chair the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee in the 2009 Oregon Legislature, taking a lead role in grappling with state budget troubles that could mean cuts for education and health services.

Buckley said he reluctantly accepted the position, offered to him by House Speaker-designate Dave Hunt.

"I gave him a flat 'no,'" said the 51-year-old Democrat. "I told him he was making a mistake in considering me."

After several days of talks over the past two weeks, Buckley, who will run the committee with Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland, said he finally agreed to it — despite hearing from his three children that it wasn't the smartest move he's ever made.

"It will be an adventure without a doubt," said Buckley, who will start his third term as a state representative in January.

His interest as a legislator has been in setting policy and protecting programs such as health and education that are important to him, not in making cutbacks.

"One reason Dave asked me is that I'll probably be the last person standing to protect education," he said.

A $1.2 billion shortfall is expected by state economists in the $16 billion biennial budget that legislators will debate this January.

Buckley said the state has made great strides in restoring some of the budget cuts made to health services and education earlier this decade. But that progress likely will be eroded if projections prove true.

"It's going to be very challenging," he said.

The state is looking at a job-creation plan that mirrors proposals being made by President-elect Barack Obama on the national level, said Buckley.

Some of the proposals include increased bonding for building projects at schools and colleges and for roads.

Some financial aid could come from the federal government as President-elect Barack Obama looks for ways to stimulate the economy.

Buckley said he wouldn't expect the federal government to make up the expected shortfall in this state.

He said Obama could roll back some of the requirements in the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act. Schools have been trying to make the program work without enough funding from the federal government to help them.

"It sets an impossible process for schools to succeed," he said.

Some tax plans are also being considered that could help during the budget cutbacks, said Buckley.

A far-reaching proposal to regulate hospital costs and increase cigarette taxes could raise about $700 million over the next two years and generate more than $1 billion in federal matching money.

Buckley said the plan, which will be considered by the upcoming Legislature, could provide health coverage for 100,000 Oregonians who currently don't have it.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski also has proposed a 2 cent-per-gallon gas tax to generate more money for repairing roads.

Buckley said Obama could look at health care plans that could benefit the states and potentially avoid some of the cutbacks.

State economists earlier predicted Oregon would start pulling out of the economic slump in the second quarter of 2009. But Buckley said the economists are now hopeful that the economy will start turning around in 2010.

Buckley's hopeful that some of the steps being considered by the Legislature, the governor and the new president will help turn things around.

"We do have some hope, but it won't be immediate," said Buckley.

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