A massive shortfall in the state budget took top priority for Southern Oregon's Republican state representatives at a town hall meeting in Medford Saturday.
Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, and Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, brought an update on the worsening budget news from Salem and took questions from about 50 people attending an open forum Saturday morning at the Medford library.
Richardson, who serves on the Ways and Means committee, explained that the budget gap just for the rest of this fiscal year — through June 30 — has ballooned to an estimated $855 million and likely will continue to grow. The next biennium likely will be $4.4 billion short of the roughly $17 billion that would be needed to sustain state services at current levels.
"The budget is like hitting a curve ball," Esquivel said, describing a swooping downward arc with his hand. "We have to adjust just to get through this year."
The two legislators explained that the cost of government has grown steadily and consistently outpaces revenue, a practice that is unsustainable.
"If we continue to do the same thing and expect different results, we are crazy," Richardson said. "Large government can't support the economy and government has to do things differently."
He said the state will get federal stimulus money and has reserve accounts to tap. Using all that money still wouldn't close the expected gap and could leave the state in a worse fix if the economy doesn't bounce back quickly, he continued.
Cuts will be necessary, even to vital programs, and new sources of revenue must be considered, both representatives said. However, they warned of political strategies that make cuts look so severe people will agree to new or increased taxes.
In response to audience questions, the legislators said a proposed provider tax on hospitals and insurers to help pay for health care likely will pass, although negotiations on exactly how much it will be are ongoing. A proposal to raise money for roads by tracking mileage instead of using a gas tax is dead, and a sales tax — which voters have repeatedly rejected — isn't even being discussed.
Increased beer and wine taxes to provide funds for drug and alcohol treatment are likely and could even be necessary, but Richardson said he wanted to know that money now allocated to treatment services was being spent effectively before he voted to provide more.
They also noted that lottery revenues are down, likely linked to the economy and the recent ban on smoking in bars where lottery machines are located.
Richardson voiced support for scaling back bureaucracy, possibly consolidating agencies, to save services instead of departmental infrastructure.
Esquivel said he wanted to focus on protecting education from cuts. Both representatives spoke in favor of providing alternatives, such as charter and virtual schools, to augment public schools.
Budgetary concerns weren't the only topics that had constituents speaking up, however.
Monika Sayre, of Eagle Point, sought support for a proposal to cap rent increases in manufactured home parks, but the two Republicans described rent control as a short-sighted and unfair use of government power that they didn't support.
A contingent of people wearing pink Planned Parenthood T-shirts wanted to know whether the legislators supported comprehensive sexual education. Both Richardson and Esquivel voted against an update of the state's current law, which passed the House and is now in the Senate. They said the Department of Education shouldn't have come back with more changes after the 2007 Legislature had updated the law.
Glenn Archambault, of Phoenix, was looking for a remedy to land-use and planning problems that have plagued his rural property.
Esquivel said the state is still working to find remedies for property owners who filed for help under Measures 37 and 49, but many planning issues are best solved at the local level.
"This kind of town hall meeting is where we will figure this out," Archambault said, as he waited after the forum ended to talk further with the elected representatives.
Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail email@example.com.