Oregon lawmakers pass three key budgets

Oregon senators gave final legislative approval to three big budgets for state prisons, police and attorneys on Friday, and delayed a vote on a hotly debated K-12 schools' budget until Wednesday.

Each budget passed unanimously and now heads to Gov. John Kitzhaber for signature. Collectively, the three agencies will spend nearly $2 billion from the state's general fund in the next two-year budget cycle. Most of the nearly $2 billion goes to the Department of Corrections.

Lawmakers are working on a deal being crafted behind closed doors that would cut prison sentences for some criminals to flat line the state's burgeoning prison population. The corrections budget approved by the Legislature Friday did not account for any savings that might come from the passage of a public safety bill.

The agency budgets were presented by Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, co-chairwoman of the public safety budget subcommittee. Despite giving unanimous approval, a few senators expressed concern that the state police were being underfunded.

"This budget is inadequate for the state police patrol division," said Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls. "It absolutely needs to be beefed up."

Whitsett said Oregon's timber counties depend on the state police for assistance since a federal subsidy expired and they can no longer afford to fund critical public safety services.

Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said he wished there were more funding in the Department of Justice budget for crime victims' services, but gave a yes vote because he said it was a relatively minor grievance given the scope of the budget. "What I was really upset with was the funding for crime victims. I thought it was a little lower than it should be," he said.

The Senate also held over a $6.55 billion budget for primary and secondary schools, which failed on Monday after a Democrat joined 14 Republican opponents, creating a 15-15 deadlock.

Combined with $200 million in savings from cuts to retirement benefits for public employees, the schools' budget would have allowed most districts to avert teacher layoffs and school day reductions.

Republicans withheld support for the budget in hopes of securing deeper cuts to the state Public Employees Retirement System, which would allow school districts to save money on retirement costs. Sen. Chris Edwards of Eugene, the lone Democrat dissenter, said the budget didn't provide enough money for schools. He told lawmakers that his local district was one of a handful still facing budget cuts next year.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House passed a precautionary measure allowing state agencies that haven't had their budgets approved by July 1, the start date for the next two-year budget cycle, to continue operating. The bill now goes to the governor.

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