Region's lawmakers laud supplemental budget

SALEM — Two key Jackson County legislators praised a supplemental budget proposal but warned another revenue downturn could result in a second special session this year.

Scheduled for a final vote late Thursday, the new Joint Ways and Means document leaves the state with a dangerously low ending balance — some $37 million. Another dip in the revenue forecast could force lawmakers back in June for budget cuts.

"That's very thin," said Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, a member of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. When the 2007 Legislature adjourned, it had more than $200 million for an ending balance.

"If there's another downturn in June, we'll be back," predicted Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, the House majority whip.

The low balance is the result of a sharp downturn in projected tax and lottery collections announced earlier this month.

Otherwise, Buckley, Bates and Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Central Point Republican and former member of Ways and Means, expressed general approval for the supplemental budget the committee took up Thursday.

The big winners were human services, including child welfare programs and Oregon State Hospital staffing levels. Still, longtime hospital workers were critical of the failure to provide staff raises.

"You can allocate all the positions you want, but if the state does not offer a competitive economic package, nurses will not come to OHS or any other psychiatric program for the criminally insane," said Joe Thurman, who works in the hospital's forensics psychiatric program.

"I think they did a masterful job," said Buckley of the mix of bonding and general fund dollars for a few new efforts.

Bates in particular singled out funding for a pilot program to set up a new health care delivery program, a $485,000 appropriation to hire and train 39 new state police patrol officers and a combination of public dollars and private foundation funding — up to $11 million — to jump-start low-income housing.

"We are in danger of losing a lot of low-income housing," he said.

Buckley was pleased at an additional $400,000 for Project Independence, designed to help seniors remain in their own homes, and additional resources for the disabled and foster care.

Richardson lauded funding for the so-called "Big Look" committee to study Oregon's land-use system and $500,000 for community-based delivery of health care services.

But he criticized the measure's $105 million in additional bonding authority that will add to the state's long-term debt. He said the practice is mortgaging the next generation.

Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, said he was very disappointed that the entire deal was contained in only two omnibus bills.

"It's terrible. They bundled everything," a move he said denies legislators the opportunity to express their support or opposition to individual spending proposals.

Atkinson also lost out when Ways and Means refused to move his bill to set up a telehealth program in 17 rural Oregon counties. He said he plans to revive the measure with the Senate Rules Committee.

The special session is expected to wrap up in a few days.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.

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