Legislature has a busy session in February

The four-week February session of the Oregon Legislature will be about money, money, money — specifically how to fill holes in the budget caused by declining revenues amid the recession.

Each legislator is allowed to introduce two bills in the brief, even-year sessions, but Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said those peripheral bills won't be a huge focus compared with addressing budget shortfalls. The session is scheduled to run from Feb. 1 to Feb. 29.

Buckley, co-chairman for House Democrats on the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, said the committee's work "will be the same process as we've done several times now . . . working through the options to get back in balance and making the smartest choices we can to reduce budgets without harming vital services to people."

Last year's full session protected K-12 schools from the first round of cuts and, said Buckley, "I'm glad we start from there."

However, Buckley noted, "We've got programs at the edge. Anything in senior and disabled services would have a direct impact on vulnerable populations."

Buckley's committee co-chairman from the House, Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, cautioned that the Legislature will face another quarterly revenue projection on Feb. 8 that likely won't bring good news. If there's an end in sight for the budget crisis, it's not obvious, he said. "No one knows," said Richardson. "There has to be a bottom, where it's going to bump along the bottom and head up."

A decline in people filing for unemployment benefits is no sign of an upturn, Richardson added, noting, "It just means you can't collect benefits anymore. It's not the same as getting a job."

At the end of the last regular session, the Legislature kept an ending balance of $150 million and added $310 million to the emergency fund by cutting agency budgets by 3.5 percent across the board, except for K-12.

Buckley said that since revenues dropped by $300 million below projections, the emergency fund now is "down to $160 million."

Buckley said the $160 million could be used to avoid some cuts and that budgets of nonhuman-service agencies could be cut further to shore up funding for human services.

"Looking to the next 18 months," Buckley said, "it's going to be a puzzle."

Buckley said one nonbudget bill likely would be introduced. "Invest Oregon" legislation would require the state treasurer to keep economic development and investment dollars in the state, plowed into local credit unions and community banks, where earnings and loans can help businesses here.

Richardson blamed increases in spending committed to in 2007 by Democrats who controlled both houses and the governor's chair, noting, "we bear the consequences of unprecedented increases . . . the Legislature has made promises it can't keep."

Richardson pointed to the Public Employees Retirement System, noting "generous" Tier I packages made before 1996, and said the state Supreme Court has ruled such contracts can't be violated. Many public employees now have less generous packages, but enough Tier I deals remain to have an impact on the budget.

"It's a huge pig that's been swallowed and it takes many years for it to work its way through our system. The reality is that it's very difficult to make any meaningful reform, so we haven't decided where those dollars (to balance the budget now) are going to come from."

Noting the brevity of the session, Richardson expressed concern about it being "treated like a real session. There's the risk bills will be passed that aren't adequately vetted."

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, a physician and main player in health care reform and human services programs, said the Oregon Health Plan is in good shape and that agency cuts will be covered mostly by the 3.5 percent claimed from budgets last year "without hurting human services terribly."

Bates issued a big caveat, however: If the next revenue forecast shows more than a $40 million shortfall, "everything is off the table," meaning legislators would take on a new round of significant cuts.

"It's a short session, and it'll be like speed-dating on the budget," said Bates.

On nonbudget policy bills, Bates said the Legislature likely would pass a foreclosure bill, which would require mandatory mediation before owners could be evicted. A minor bill, aimed at owners of the 11 homes burned in Ashland's 2010 Oak Knoll fire, would freeze property taxes at pre-fire levels if owners don't exceed the former square footage, he said.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said he'd like to see bills allowing Oregonians to go over state lines to buy health insurance, which he said would cost less because of a plethora of insurance-related mandates required here. Esquivel also wants Oregon veteran loans to mirror federal criteria, so vets are able to refinance their homes at 100 percent of the value of the original mortgage.

Citing increased wolf predation in northeastern Oregon, Esquivel said he would like to see ranchers made whole from stock losses via tax credit rather than payment from the state — because the state lacks funds.

Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, said in the short session if bills don't get through one of the houses in the first week, they're not going to pass. But many lawmakers will seek to "make a big flash" in preparation for next year's regular session, he said.

Atkinson said he would do what he can to keep county payments flowing from O&C forest lands and to attempt to "get federal and state on the same page about O&C timber able to be cut."

Atkinson said he would also try to get movement on HB 3615, which died in the last session and would permit Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties to petition the state Land Conservation and Development Commission to allow "local definition" for what is agricultural land and forestland.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Share This Story