Welcome to the state legislators' tent.
These days, the legislative assembly seems like a summer camp full of overgrown kids tussling over who gets to be first on the wagon. But in this case, our legislators are playing an insidious budgetary poker game that will have far-reaching implications on the basic services many Oregonians depend on.
You could see this coming, and in fact I wrote about it in my April 1 column. So it's no surprise that one month after the scheduled adjournment date Ñ and two weeks into the 2003-05 biennium Ñ the legislators still don't have a balanced budget.
The cause? Partisanship to a degree that is threatening the financial viability of our state. These games may be petty, but they're not penny ante.
In case you missed it, State Treasurer Randall Edwards gave a grim but honest picture of the impact this lingering budget gridlock is having on state coffers. His message was enough to chill the spine of any responsible lawmaker.
'We have used nearly every trick in the financial book to continue to balance our budget. The last act was your having me sell $450 million in bonds to pay for four months of operating costs,' Edwards told the House Revenue Committee last week. 'We will spend $570 million over the next 10 years paying for those bonds, $12 million per year in interest payment.' Sound inefficient? You are right.
I admired the treasurer for calling the governor and House and Senate leaders 'to move forward a final budget in a timely and responsible manner.' My hope is that they heed the treasurer's suggestion and agree on a balanced budget by the first week of August. A further delay could put at risk $8 million that the city of Portland has budgeted from state liquor and alcohol taxes.
The current stalemate seems to stem from deep ideological and philosophical differences in the House, combined with the uncompromising partisanship. There is no evidence that either camp is willing to budge.
'Some of us believe that our primary goal is providing effective essential public services,' says Rep. Dave Hunt, a first-term Democrat from Clackamas, 'while others believe our primary goal is reducing the size of government.'
For Republicans, the budget endgame becomes an especially precarious high-wire act because their traditional 'No new taxes' posture can let Democrats portray them as cutting basic services during an especially austere time for the state.
This session might have been a time to both rein in government spending and take a look at the tax breaks that some think have been passed out like candy in recent years. But with adjournment beckoning and fiscal years beginning, that time has passed.
Ultimately, we may not need to raise taxes. But there is no question that legislative leaders and the governor need to raise their compromise level.