Key lawmakers reach agreement on state budget

SALEM — Key state lawmakers have reached a bipartisan agreement on a framework for Oregon's next two-year budget and planned to release it publicly Tuesday. Ending months of negotiations, the three co-chairs of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee overcame partisan differences to arrive at an agreement last week. They declined to discuss the details before Tuesday's official release but said it includes difficult cuts in spending for schools and seniors.

The agreement marks a successful test of a power-sharing agreement in the House, where an even split between Republicans and Democrats means neither party has a majority in the chamber. The parties agreed to appoint two House co-chairs — one from each party — to the joint Ways and Means Committee.

The framework was negotiated by Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point.

Richardson said the split in the House forced the parties to work together because "there's no minority to blame the majority like there usually is."

The bi-partisan arrangement "is good for Oregon because it forces compromise and a rational approach instead of a more partisan approach," Richardson said.

The Legislature has to close a $3.5 billion gap between revenue and the projected cost of continuing current services.

"No matter how you do this, everyone's going to have to share in the cuts," Devlin said in a statement. "We hope that things are getting better for everyday Oregonians and we're beginning to see indications of economic improvement, but that doesn't mean we don't have to make tough decisions now."

Perhaps the most-watched number will be funding for schools, which are expected to take a big hit from the loss of federal stimulus dollars that propped up education spending last year.

Gov. John Kitzhaber proposed spending $5.56 billion on schools — more than $1 billion less than schools say they need to continue their current programs. Lobbyists for schools and some lawmakers said Kitzhaber's proposed education cuts are too drastic.

Buckley said the proposed funding for schools is greater than in Kitzhaber's proposal but is still too low to ensure school years aren't shortened. The budget also significantly cuts funding for long-term care programs for the elderly and disabled.

"This budget is extraordinarily uncomfortable," Buckley said. "We will still be funding vital services at a far-too-low level."

After the co-chairs' budget is released, the Ways and Means Committee will hear public testimony on the proposal, and subcommittees will work out detailed spending in areas including human services, natural resources and public safety.

A successful budget will ultimately need approval from the full House and Senate and Kitzhaber's signature, and it must be approved by June 30.

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