Facing a projected $4 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, Democrats in the legislature have put together a package of spending cuts and tax increases to close the gap. The keystones of their plan are a 15% reduction in state spending and increases in corporate taxes and income taxes on Oregon households making more than $250,000 a year.
Since any tax increase, at any time, for any reason is anathema to Republicans, it's not surprising they've come up with their own alternative. Led by Bend's own Sen. Chris Telfer, they've developed something they call the "Back to Basics" budget.
According to Telfer and her Republican colleagues, there's approximately $3 billion in loose change lying around that the legislature could tap into and eliminate the need for raising taxes or drastically cutting services. The trouble is that the Republicans seem unable to say exactly where it is.
For example, the biggest chunk of it is in the form of loans or grants earmarked for specific purposes, and the state Legislative Fiscal Office says that money can't be shifted to the state's general fund. The Republicans also want to roll back $250 million in raises for state employees that were granted last year, but those raises are included in contracts and denying them would almost certainly lead to lawsuits.
Another $600 million in the Republicans' package consists of fees that various state agencies collect for services, such as driver's licenses and vehicle registrations. The amounts collected are greater than the actual costs of providing the services, but that doesn't mean the surplus is free money - the agencies use it to run their operations. As state Rep. Judy Stiegler of Bend told the Source: "It's not like there is a lot of extra money running around out there, and if you take those fees away and use them for something else then how are those agencies going to continue to operate?"
So, bottom line, it looks like the Republicans' magical $3 billion simply isn't there - unless maybe Telfer hopes to find it under the cushions of the sofas and chairs in the state Capitol.
There's certainly room to argue about the details of the Democrats' budget package - maybe it cuts too much here, maybe it raises taxes too much there - but at least the Democrats have taken a rational and responsible approach to the fiscal crisis instead of making a grandstand play for political points. When you're the minority party and your proposals don't stand a chance of enactment you have the luxury of doing that. Still, it's disappointing that the Republicans chose to indulge in it.
And it's even more disappointing that Chris Telfer, who as an accountant certainly knows better, chose to take part - hell, to play the leading role - in this performance of fiscal legerdemain. So presto-changeo, abracadabra, alakazam - out of our magic hat comes THE BOOT.