Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Time to get real on Oregon's state budget

By Doug Bates, The Oregonian

May 13, 2009, 5:29PM

The state budget proposal offered Tuesday by Republican lawmakers in Salem is a thing of great beauty in a time of crisis.

It would maintain schools and state government pretty much at their current levels of service.

It would make no draconian cuts in aid to Oregon's most vulnerable citizens.

It would keep cops on the highways, teachers in the classrooms and crooks in the prisons, all without a nickel of new taxes.

It would even include a $1.4 billion surplus that could be used to shore up agency budgets if serious needs arose.

In short, it's a brilliant budget that legislators would be crazy not to adopt, if only it were grounded in reality.

Unfortunately, it is not. Republican leaders unveiled it Tuesday using the latest official revenue estimate, which is two months out of date. If they'd waited just three more days, they could have used the new revenue estimate that will be released Friday -- a number that just about every economist in Salem predicts will be painfully lower than the March estimate.

The new figure may very well blow a billion-dollar hole in the Republicans' budget, but they had a transparent reason for rushing it out ahead of the grim forecast: It's not really a budget. It's a political statement -- something GOP legislators will run on in the next election.

The fiscal crisis has indeed put their rivals, who control both chambers of the Legislature, in a political bind. Deep cuts in education, human services or public safety would not be popular. Nor would tax increases, but Democrats may have to do some of both to meet a revenue shortfall that's likely to exceed $4 billion.

The most recent budget proposal offered by Democratic leaders would give K-12 schools about $5.5 billion, which might mean early closures for some schools in the state. The Republican leaders countered with a $6.2 billion K-12 figure, enough to stave off early closures.

The GOP legislators, however, are far from being the only ones floating numbers that are likely to be hopelessly rosy. Portland schools Superintendent Carole Smith's original budget, recently reduced, also used the $6.2 billion figure, and so does a proposal being circulated by the Oregon Business Association.

Neither Smith nor the OBA nor the Republicans deserve to be attacked for their optimistic budgets, but their plans won't mean anything if they're built on numbers that don't hold up. After Friday's revenue forecast, everyone in Oregon -- legislators, school officials, business people, all of us -- will be obligated to face reality.

No more will anyone be able to deny the costly impact of the prisons bill that passed last fall.

No more will anyone be able to claim there's no increase in social worker caseloads as unemployment rises.

No more will anyone be able to pretend we have ample revenue for schools and public safety, if only it were spent more wisely.

Friday we'll get the real numbers, and then it will be time to get real ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. This is a good example of waiting to make budget decision until all the data is at hand. Hopefully this will prevent bad decision being made.