January 17, 2002 11:00 pm
Mark Simmons ().
Mark Simmons ().

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Oregons public schools should be protected from dramatic budget cuts in the Legislatures upcoming special session, the speaker of the House believes.

Rep. Mark Simmons, R-Elgin, is proposing that state aid to public schools be cut by $50 million to $100 million. That would amount to about 1 to 2 percent of the states $5 billion education budget. This is substantially less than Gov. John Kitzhabers $304 million cut for education, about 6 percent of the states education budget.

The Legislature will have to make significant budget cuts in the upcoming session due to a $700 million revenue shortfall brought on by Oregons struggling economy.

Simmons is part of a bipartisan legislative committee that is developing a budget-cutting proposal. The speaker discussed the plan being developed by the committee during a conference call this week conducted at a La Grande School Board work session.

Simmons, calling from Salem, said his recommendation for a 1 to 2 percent kindergarten-through-high school (K-12) cut is close to what the committee will recommend.

Simmons said legislators made K-12 education a high priority in the 2001 Legislature and that they should continue to be so.

The Legislature established its priorities at the last session, he said. It needs to stick to them.

The speaker said holding the education budget cut to 1 or 2 percent would be noteworthy because K-12 education is the largest part of the budget at 42.3 percent.

Simmons said he is opposed to any tax increases to balance the budget. He said that boosting the so-called sin taxes, taxes on things like cigarettes and wine, would raise relatively little money.

The speaker noted that any income tax increase would likely be referred on to the voters for approval. Simmons doubts that Oregon voters would support an income tax increase.

Simmons is not enjoying the process of preparing for budget cuts.

It is a very painful process. But we cant hold any portion (the budget) harmless, Simmons said.

The speaker, who is in his third two-year term, said he has not decided whether he will seek a fourth term. Simmons is eligible to run again because the Oregon Supreme Court struck down voter-approved term limits last week. Under the term limits law, passed in 1992, Simmons would have been ineligible to run for another term in the House.

Simmons is considering not running again. He noted that in Salem he is 330 miles from Elgin and that he wants to spend more time with his family.

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