(TNS) — Lawmakers say they kept money flowing to critical state services like schools and health care for low-income Oregonians when they trimmed state spending during last week's emergency session.
Legislators voted to cut planned spending by about $400 million across a range of government agencies.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended the U.S. economy, and that downturn is expected to decrease the revenues that the state collects through sources like income taxes and the lottery. Altogether, lawmakers cut roughly 3 percent of their planned spending of general and lottery funds for the next year.
Unlike the federal government, Oregon can't run a deficit and must balance its budget.
While the feds have provided some funds to offset the impacts of the pandemic, Oregon still had to make cuts to make up for the revenue losses.
State lawmakers managed to avoid even larger cuts by drawing on savings, including a fund intended to keep spending on K-12 schools stable.
"That decision to do everything we could to protect education drove the rest of the budget," said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, is one of three leaders of the legislature's budget committee.
Johnson said leaders tried to avoid cuts that would have lessened any matching funds from the federal government. They also considered the long-term impacts of any reductions.
"But there's no way in hell you cut 400 million dollars out of a budget and not have some people impacted," Johnson said. "Again, we tried to not cut positions. We used up vacancies. We used federal money where we could. So we tried to have as light a touch as possible."
Johnson said she and fellow chairs Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, and Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, consulted with Democrats and Republicans, took public testimony and secured agreement from Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, on each cut, Johnson said.
Two prisons spared from cuts
In some cases, lawmakers kept certain programs they initially considered cutting.
The chairs had considered cutting two prisons — Shutter Creek Correctional Institution and Warner Creek Correctional Facility — but nixed that idea.
"At the end, our budget cut neither because cutting jobs in a rural Oregon in the middle of a pandemic made no sense to us at all," Johnson said.
Lawmakers also approved some new spending: They set money aside to account for what they expect will be an increase in people who will need Medicaid – public health care for low income people – and other social safety net programs.
Kotek said that the state approved money for some construction projects at public universities and at the Capitol building.
"That'll put people to work, which will create needed economic activity," Kotek said.
Lawmakers also approved $50 million to build more affordable housing and $30 million for water infrastructure projects.
Across the board, government agencies chose to hold vacant positions open to save money, according to legislative documents detailing the cuts.
That's the case for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which is putting off hiring people who write air and water quality permits for businesses and government entities, as well as "key staff" for the Cleaner Air Oregon program, which monitors industrial air pollution, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Flynt.
"Every budget cut has does have an impact," said Cameron Smith, chief of staff to Secretary of State Bev Clarno, whose budget was also reduced for the next year. "But thankfully, I think we're very well-positioned both for elections and our other work going forward."
Still, some Oregonians could feel the effects of decisions lawmakers made this week.
For instance, the Oregon State Hospital, which has public psychiatric hospitals in Salem and Junction City, is discontinuing a program called REACH that nudges patients to meet treatment goals.
Through the program, patients get points for going to treatment groups and participating in other therapeutic activities, and can use those points to buy snacks, stationery and other items. The hospital is looking for other ways to encourage patients to meet their goals for treatment, said spokeswoman Rebeka Gipson-King.
Some agencies are also holding off on big-ticket purchases – for instance, the forestry department, which fights forest fires, is planning not to buy any new fire engines for the next year, according to spokeswoman Joy Krawczyk.
Spending priorities criticized
Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, in a tense moment on the Senate floor on Monday, questioned some spending decisions.
Why, he asked, did lawmakers want to send millions to the Oregon State Fairgrounds for capital improvements, when he had asked for a mere $1 million for police in his Southern Oregon district to deal with what he called "black market marijuana" that was "off the charts"?
"Where are our priorities?" Baertschiger said, his volume rising to match his ire, as Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, banged the gavel at the dais in an effort to restore collegiality.
"Our priorities are for chickens and horses and not the safety of the public. That's what I'm complaining about," Baertschiger said.
Officials warn of larger cuts to come as the pandemic and its economic impacts wear on — and Gov. Kate Brown said she thinks it's "critically important" that Congress act soon to provide more money to states.
In the two-year budget cycle that starts next summer, the state is expected to bring in $4 billion less than previously projected, Brown told reporters early last week.
"That's a significant, some would say catastrophic, impact to our state budget," Brown said.
©2020 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.