Home Opinion Editorials STATE CAN'T KEEP SPENDING LIKE IT HAS
STATE CAN'T KEEP SPENDING LIKE IT HAS
The task before the Legislature is simple: either come up with another billion dollars in revenue, cut a billion dollars from the last year of a two-year budget, or combine some cost-cutting with some additional revenue. It should be that simple.
EXCEPT, YOU have over 300 school districts across the state clamoring for more money. You have other special interest groups who want more money for human services, public safety, the Oregon Health Plan and dozens of other state agencies that want their fair share. At the same time, the state is still mired in a recession, hoping that by the end of 2002, tax revenues and job growth will be back to pre-2001 rates.
Oregon has a lame duck governor and several legislators who don't have to care what anyone else thinks about what they decide to do. The best example is House Speaker Mark Simmons, R-Elgin, who will soon fade into an executive job with the state's nurserymen and is now openly talking about increasing cigarette taxes 75 cents a pack. A few months ago he wouldn't even discuss the issue. And you have Gov. John Kitzhaber, who wants to increase income taxes by adding a three-year surcharge. It's like the mad man running the psychiatry clinic. Oregonians shouldn't be surprised if by the time this third special session is completed, they will be facing some kind of new tax or fee or both.
WHY ARE THEY FEELING the pressure? Because forces are working against them that even they probably wish would go away. Because of the recession, no one feels like they can send hundreds if not thousands of teachers and other staffers to the unemployment lines. Eighty percent of education's costs are labor and benefits. At the same time, tax revenues continue to decline because fewer Oregonians are working. Couple this with declining enrollment in most school districts in Oregon (with the exception of a few in the metro areas), and you have a situation that forces political leaders to the extreme.
Oregon's government is bullish on taxes and fees. They want more and have put themselves in a pattern of spending faster than the taxes can be generated. And if the governor and the Legislature were to give the state's hungry educational system and all the other agencies as much money as they wanted, we could double the amount the Legislature will be talking about. Neither Oregon's industries nor Oregon's residents can afford to open their wallets and let it all be sucked out. And yet we find ourselves in a dilemma. Oregonians are spending billions on gambling through the state lottery system or at Indian casinos. A wise legislator or governor might decide that taxing or assessing gambling could be a good revenue source.
EVEN IF THE LEGISLATURE finds a way to deliver another $300 million to schools and much more to the other agencies, it will only be a stop-gap measure. Oregon isn't big enough to keep spending like it has been. So the next governor and Legislature will have to decide how to balance the budget. Will it be with fewer jobs in government and education or will it be taxing Oregonians more fees included? The time has come for a long-term look at what we can afford to fund and what we need to fund. Oregonians can't afford to keep hoping that a healthier economy will prime the pump forever.