Best-laid plans

Oregon lawmakers accomplished what they set out to do when they crafted an alternative ballot measure to Kevin Mannix's latest get-tough-on-crime ballot measure. The Legislature's Measure 57 passed and Mannix's far more expensive Measure 61 failed.

Now lawmakers have to live with the consequences of Measure 57: They have to pay for it, or explain why they can't.

Legally speaking, the Legislature could decide to repeal Measure 57, or put it on hold until the economy gets better. Politically, that's hardly likely.

Mannix has said he'll be watching closely to see what the Legislature does to implement the new law, which means if they don't act to his satisfaction, he could be back with another initiative.

The state economist told lawmakers last week that Oregon's budget faces an immediate shortfall of $140 million, prompting Gov. Ted Kulongoski to order across-the-board cuts. The worse news is that over the long term, the state could be $800 million short of maintaining current service levels through 2011.

That means every service the state provides, from public education to state troopers, will face cutbacks, even as Oregonians cut back on their personal expenses and businesses trim staff. In the midst of all that hardship, the Legislature must figure out how to put more repeat property and drug offenders behind bars, and provide probation and drug and alcohol treatment to first-time offenders.

Creative solutions may well be part of the answer, as the state's corrections chief suggested last week. The estimated 1,600 additional prisoners likely will be held in temporary quarters, and modular classrooms might be used for drug treatment.

That still costs money, of course — money the state doesn't have — so every dollar spent on putting more people in prison will have to come from some other state service.

The dilemma of Measure 57 is another example of the age-old problem of unfunded mandates. Lawmakers — or, in some cases, citizens by initiative — enact new laws that require the state to spend money, but provide no mechanism to cover the cost.

In this case, lawmakers put Measure 57 on the ballot in an attempt to head off Mannix's measure, which would have cost an estimated $800 million over five years and $1.3 billion in new prison construction.

The best outcome, given the economic climate, would have been for both measures to fail — an argument we made in this space before the election. The voters wisely rejected Mannix's measure, but passed the alternative.

Now lawmakers must do their best to satisfy those voters and still balance a budget that will leave every sector of state government hurting.

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