The root of Oregon’s insufficient funding

Rep. Mitch Greenlick

Rep. Mitch Greenlick

Opinion editorial by Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland;

Friday night I opened a very thoughtful e-mail on the condition of education funding and asking for increased funding for K-12 education.

It was late in the evening and I found myself responding much more fully than I usually do at that time of night after a difficult week. After writing that e-mail response I decided I would share it more widely through this message. I wrote:

“I certainly agree with you. The problem is that the citizens of Oregon (including the citizens of our rich district) have refused to vote sufficient funds to keep services in our state at a reasonable level. When measure 5 passed (the 1.5% property tax limitation) the funding of schools was passed to the state, without providing any source of funding to pay for those schools. After that the citizens passed measure 11 (minimum sentences for crimes) which doubled our prison budget. We now spend more on prisons than we spend on higher education.

Oregon ranks 45th in the country on per capita local and state taxes, largely because most states have a property tax, an income tax, and a sales tax, shared among the local areas and the state. We have only two of those sources. And each time we vote to increase taxes, even on a temporary basis, the measure is referred to the voters and rejected. If I remember correctly the last time we proposed a modest sales tax it was rejected 80-20.

Currently we spend 92% of the budget on three things; education, public safety (including prisons), and services for the aged, poor, and disabled. We are now faced with a significant budget shortage. Our biennial budget (general funds and lottery funds) is about $17 billion. The severe economic downturn has caused major downward revisions in revenue estimates. (Remember when the revenue exceeds the forecast we send the money back to taxpayers in the kicker, rather than being able to save the surplus for a time like this.) We are told we need to cut about $800 million out of the remainder of this biennium’s budget. That is the five months left of the 24 month budget period. And we are told we need to reduce next biennium’s budget by at least $2.5 billion. We hope the federal stimulus package will provide some relief, but that is not certain.

Assuming the budget is about $4 billion for each six month period, we need to cut $800 million out of that last $4 billion. Imagine if education is excluded from these cuts and we can’t shut down the prisons because of measure 11 and for other reasons. To balance the budget we would probably need to stop providing medical care under the Medicaid program (removing a couple of billion of federal dollars from Oregon), stop providing care for people in nursing homes, stop providing foster care, and other impossible things. And most of this we could not do even if we wanted to do so. Consequently schools are going to take their share of the hit. And we could do that same exercise for the 2009-2011 budget, which looks even bleaker.

Every day I visit with constituents who have very important messages to give me. “Don’t cut funding to Head Start.” “Don’t reduce services to frail elderly.” “Fully fund mental health services.” “Increase mandatory sentences for sex offenders.” “Provide free tuition at our universities for returning veterans.” “Provide more support for poor college students.” “Increase requirements for high school graduation.” And on and on and on. And then over and over, “don’t increase our tax burden during a recession” or “you can’t tax your way out of a recession.”

We are going to balance our budget, as our constitution requires us to do. And we are going to do it in a way that doesn’t destroy the state. And perhaps we will even look for a way to increase revenue. But we are going to need to have our constituents behind us. And we are all going to have to find ways to mitigate the destruction to our families during this most difficult time.”