Good news and bad on the budget front

For the first time in recent years, Oregon lawmakers are talking seriously about putting some money back into public education. That's good news, but don't get too excited just yet.

A great many pieces must come together to make it possible to reinvest in Oregon's beleaguered school system. And the wild card that could bring the whole house crashing down is — the kicker.

Yes, Oregon's unique system of giving lawfully collected tax revenue back to taxpayers in relatively small amounts when it could be used to benefit the state as a whole is threatening to emerge from hibernation.

State economists earlier this month announced state revenues were higher than expected because federal tax increases on wealthy individuals caused many to sell assets so they could be taxed at 2012 rates this year. That caused a spike in state tax collections.

The good news: the economists predict lawmakers will have about $87 million more to work with for the 2013-15 budget. The bad news: If collections rise enough between now and April 15, they could trigger the kicker. That happens when revenues exceed the projection by more than 2 percent. If they do, the entire amount above the forecast is returned to taxpayers.

Education backers in the Legislature — and every lawmaker there will claim to be one — would love to restore some of the funding schools have lost in recent years. That money could restore lost instruction days, hire back teachers to reduce class sizes, even revive enriching electives such as music and art that fell to the budget ax.

Where to find the extra money will be the battle in Salem. A slight uptick in state revenue won't do it all.

Republicans, led in the House this session by 55th District Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, vow to enact Public Employee Retirement System reforms and put the savings back into the classroom. State employee unions are ready to fight PERS reductions, and many of their Democratic allies are cool to the idea as well.

Democrats and some Republicans want to see sentencing reform to save money on state prisons — a move some conservatives will oppose.

No matter how committed lawmakers are to restoring school funding, there are plenty of other state services that have absorbed reductions, too. Oregon State Police coverage is spread thin. Services to the elderly and disabled could use more help.

All of these programs have their constituencies, and they will all be clamoring for attention as the budget comes together.

But if the kicker kicks — which is more than a remote possibility — lawmakers could see $200 million to $290 million go back to taxpayers, according to Senate Ways and Means Co-chairman Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin.

Never mind the fact that the state could use that money. The kicker — the only law of its kind in the country — is enshrined in the Oregon Constitution because the voters put it there, and only the voters can take it out.

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