Sen. Chris Telfer: $680 million fund balances could prevent cuts

by Senator Chris Telfer

As the Legislature prepares to deal with serious budget challenges this February, there should be no stone left unturned in the search for solutions that protect core services. Unfortunately, broken lines of communication with state agencies and myopic budget practices make the job of efficiently balancing the budget difficult.

In preparation for the February session, I began asking the State Controller’s Division, which functions as the state accountant, for a snapshot of agency bank balances. Just as a family would look at its assets and cash-on-hand before making a yearly budget or major financial decision, I thought it was a good idea to get a grasp of the state’s cash position.

To my surprise, the State Controller’s Division would not immediately give me this information. In fact, it took almost a month to convince this office that a legislator, constitutionally responsible for writing a balanced budget, needed this basic financial data.

To be fair, the office said it was reluctant to release the information because it was unaudited. However, if the Legislature is to make informed decisions this February, having this type of information, even if it is preliminary, is vital. Having to wait months for bottom-line data that should be readily available is unacceptable.

When I finally had a chance to look at the information, I discovered what seems to be $680 million in what are called unrestricted fund balances. These are end-of-the-year account balances, separate from a safety net the Legislature put in place at the end of the 2011 session.

These large balances obviously piqued my interest. Upon further examination, I saw that there is $176 million in truly unrestricted funds in these ending fund balances and an additional $516 million of so-called committed resources. These are resources that could be reallocated by the Legislature to protect core government functions.

I believe that some of this money could be used by the Legislature in February to prevent cuts to classrooms, health care and prisons, and to continue to safeguard the state’s general fund reserves. Unfortunately, as I try to get greater detail on the origin and purpose of these balances, I am confronted by a shocking number of bureaucratic hurdles and obliviousness. No one seems to have a good answer or concrete, detailed information about this money.

This information gap is a symptom of a larger problem when it comes to the way the state budgets. A major reason this fundamental budgeting information is so difficult to acquire and parse is because it is rarely asked for. For too long, state budget writers have focused almost all of their attention on the state’s income tax-driven general fund spending, but turned a blind eye to these agency accounts that are driven by fees and other fund sources.

These balances could be the difference between shortening the school year or being able to keep students in the classroom. They could prevent the release of dangerous criminals from our prisons. And they could enable us to leave our carefully established reserve funds untouched and available to deal with further economic turmoil. But until we get a clearer picture of the state’s finances, it is going to be tough to make informed decisions.

It is time the Legislature broadened its budgeting perspective and scope. Especially in these difficult economic times, every dollar should be on the table, not just what’s brought in through state income taxes. If we are going to protect the services that matter most to Oregonians, we need to consider and examine these other funds that have for too long been absent from the budget discussion.