Legislative leaders making budget crisis worse by inaction

By Dave Lister
Guest Columnist for The Oregonian

Imagine your boss calls you in one day and tells you that, due to the recession, all employees are going to have to take a 10 percent across-the-board cut in pay. Imagine that you then go home and draft a letter to your mortgage holder, your telephone provider, your electricity provider, your home heating provider and your cable company telling them that, until further notice, you will be short-changing their monthly bills by 10 percent. Sound ridiculous? Of course it does. Faced with that situation, you’d have to prioritize. Short-changing your mortgage is not an option. Your utility bills have to be paid in full. What you’d do — and what many of us have done — is forgo vacation, or dine out less often, or drop the premium channels on your cable bill, or maybe even drop the cable altogether. You’d go through your budget, item by item, and you’d prioritize.

Unfortunately, Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the Democratic leadership in Salem have turned their back on that simple fiscal discipline. After discovering the state budget is once again coming up short, this time by nearly $600 million, they’ve chosen not to prioritize.

Rather than call a special session of the Legislature to examine priorities and do what any average wage-earner would do when confronted with a salary cut, the governor has simply instructed all state departments to cut their budgets by 9 percent. In effect he’s chosen to deal with the problem with a meat axe instead of a scalpel. By doing so the governor and the legislative leadership have ensured that the greatest number of Oregonians will feel the pain. The decision seems lazy and foolish, perhaps even intentionally so.

State Rep. Scott Bruun, a Republican who will be challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader in November in the Fifth Congressional District, sees it as an abrogation of responsibility.

“The governor can, and should, call us into special session,” Bruun said. “This is, after all, a matter of priorities. We have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that not all government services are equal. When we treat them equally, and cut them equally, we are not only hurting the taxpayers, but are failing to do our duty to them.”

State Rep. Matt Wingard agrees.

“I don’t think most Oregonians would look at all the state’s budget items as having equal priority,” Wingard said. “Why would we cut funding for schools and services for our most vulnerable citizens while still providing tax credits for solar panels and windmills?”

I asked Bruun why the Democratic leadership is opposing a special session.

“I think they are avoiding responsibility during this midterm cycle,” he replied, “and they are holding out for another federal bailout.”

Of course, nearly all the states in the country are in financial trouble, and nearly all are hoping for federal bailouts. But do we really want the nation to add trillions more to our Bank of China credit card in order to fund cultural trusts and green-energy initiatives at the same level as schools and public safety? I don’t think so.

The final irony is that Oregon taxpayers were recently convinced that approving tax Measures 66 and 67 would solve our budget woes. I, for one, am not surprised they didn’t. We’ve raised tobacco taxes and tobacco tax revenue has gone down. Why would we think increased business taxes wouldn’t cause business tax revenue to go down?

The governor said he didn’t want to call a special session because it would result in partisan wrangling. He’s right. But when has there been a better time to wrangle over our state’s spending priorities?

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.