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Brown state budget proposal relies on help from Congress

Gov. Kate Brown unveiled a highly aspirational two-year state budget proposal Tuesday that would require a politically supportive U.S. Congress to make much of its most sweeping — and expensive — programs to work.

“2020 has challenged Oregon in unimaginable ways,” Brown said in her budget note.

The keystone to the budget is active and expansive federal support.

Brown’s budget calls for federal funds for:

Health care recovery: Due largely to the surge in demand caused by the pandemic, jobs losses and wildfires, Oregon faces a $718 million budget gap for the Oregon Health Plan — the state’s version of Medicaid — which serves the poorest and most vulnerable residents. Coronavirus Relief Funds that have helped so far are among a long list of federal programs and assistance that expire Dec. 31. Brown said the state was working to find savings in the Oregon Health Plan but needs an extension of enhanced Federal Medical Assistance Percentage funding. The governor said she wants new Coronavirus Relief Fund support for local and state governments that is more flexible and has a faster response.

Helping businesses keep workers on payroll: Brown wants to renew the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses that offered loans in exchange for promises to use the money to pay employees to stay on the job during times when businesses are closing or cutting back. The loans can become grants that do not require reimbursement to the federal government if conditions are met.

Unemployment: Congress must revive monthly $600 payments in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Insurance that can be added on top of state unemployment payments to out-of-work Oregonians. The governor’s budget maintains funding for the state departments overseeing unemployment and worker safety. It includes $146.4 million for the long-delayed modernization of the state’s antiquated unemployment benefits computer system that led to months-long backups in assistance payments that continue today. The state will maintain spending on the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, Oregon Worker Quarantine Fund, and the COVID-19 temporary paid leave program. Brown underscored that all programs will assist people “regardless of immigration status.”

Housing and homelessness. Brown wants $350 million in rental assistance to help Oregonians stay in their homes. Brown’s budget includes a $65.9 million increase in state funding for housing and homeless programs compared to the current budget. The proposed budget also includes $20 million in homeowner assistance, and $250 million to develop more affordable housing.

COVID-19 funds: Additional spending is needed to support the state’s COVID-19 testing and vaccine inoculation programs, as well as back-filling state spending on other pandemic responses and programs. Brown calls for $30 million in “public health modernization” to streamline the way residents move through the health care system.

Child care support: Brown wants to assist Oregonians to go back to work by helping defray costs of care for children while parents work. A federal survey found that one million mothers nationwide had to quit their jobs during the pandemic to care for children who would otherwise be in school or day care.

Wildfires: The state budget features several separate efforts to deal with wildfire recovery, including reconstruction and repair, debris cleanup, tree removal, shelter, housing and food assistance. The budget earmarks $189.5 million to rebuild communities destroyed or damaged by the fires. Another $170 million in community development funds would be allocated through the governor’s Wildfire Economic Recovery Council. Improving future fire response and resources would receive $73.7 million. Spending includes $30 million for the Department of Forestry, and $40 million for programs suggested by the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response. Another $47 million would go to grants and loans for other wildfire recovery efforts.

The state would also shift focus on many programs and spending priorities for issues that have come into sharper focus during the pandemic, wildfires, protests over police response in the community, and other impacts on the economy and well-being of Oregon residents:

Long-term care: Brown includes $17.9 million in investments in improvements, training and new “strategies” to support and protect seniors living in assisted living and nursing homes from the effects of COVID-19. An ongoing New York Times analysis of pandemic cases and deaths shows that Oregon is one of 13 states where more than half the total deaths from COVID-19 have been nursing and other congregate care facility residents. As of Nov. 27, the Times reported 437 Oregon deaths in 406 facilities, accounting for 53% of the state’s deaths at the time. Nationwide, nursing home residents accounted for just over 6% of the total COVID-19 infections, but 39% of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States — just over 101,000.

K-12 education: Brown would spend $9.1 billion on the State School Fund. Fully funding the Student Success Act programs, grants of the High School Graduation and College and Career Readiness Fund. Drawing $215 million from the Education Stability Fund to stabilize education funding. Brown said the pandemic and school closures have exposed the gaps in educational opportunities for Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Latin, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal and other students of color who did not have the resources for online learning and the home support needed because of demands to help with child care or work.

Broadband access: The governor would spend $118 million to connect 50 urban and rural communities to high speed internet service. Distance learning underscored the geographical gaps in access to school materials during the crisis.

Early learning: Brown would fund early care and education for 8,000 children through Oregon Pre-K, Early Head Start, Preschool Promise, and the Early Childhood Equity Fund.

Criminal justice reform: Brown said Black people represent 2.2% of Oregon’s population but 9.3% of the state’s prison population. The governor’s budget advances Oregon reform through expanded police accountability to court reform and changes at the Department of Corrections. Brown would expand drug courts and continue criminal justice reforms to divert possession and other lower-level allegations of criminal activity into what she said are more appropriate settings and outcomes.

Environmental reform: The governor would include the impact of climate change, wildfires, water quality and access on underrepresented communities by creating an Office of Environmental Justice. Brown would also move ahead with greenhouse gas reduction programs, water access reforms, wildfire preparedness and prevention with an eye toward equity in planning and resources.

In most years, the governor’s budget is a starting point for negotiations with the Legislature to create the tax and spending program that is finalized at the end of the session in odd-number years. Unlike the federal budget, the state budget must be balanced — no deficit spending is allowed.

Brown’s budget proposal Tuesday points to Congress for continued or reinstated funding from 2020, such as the CARES Act and Payroll Protection Program, which are being allowed to lapse with the new year.

Though Democrat Joe Biden will be in the White House Jan. 20, Congress features a reduced Democratic majority in the U.S. House.

The biggest question mark in politics — and Brown’s state budget proposal — is the uncertain political mix in the Senate. The election left Republicans with a 50-48 majority while waiting for two run-off elections Jan. 3 for both seats from Georgia.

If Republicans win one or both seats, they will have a majority they can use to block Democratic legislation and government nominees. If Democrats win both seats, the chamber would be split 50-50, but under the Constitution, ties would be decided by the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, in her role as president of the Senate.

The 2021-23 budget will be the last that Brown will have to implement. Term limits bar her from running for another term when the office is up for a vote in 2022.

The November election resulted in Democrats keeping a slightly diminished supermajority in both the Senate and House. Democrats in the Senate maintained an 18-12 majority. The House saw Democrats lose two seats, to give them a 36-24 majority.

With just over three-fifths of the votes, Democrats can pass financial bills — including the state budget — without Republican votes.

The budget is also the last to be decided by the Legislature in its current districts. A reapportionment plan based on the 2020 Census will have all 60 House members and half of the 30 senators running in unfamiliar districts.

The Georgia elections and the course of the pandemic will be clearer by the time the Legislature meets in January, and much of the likelihood of Brown’s vision for partnership with Washington in recovery will get a reality test.