sp; By Charles Sheketoff
Our new legislature will have its hands full struggling with Oregon's budget and tax policies. Meanwhile, opponents of quality public services will be in full attack mode, using deceptive and misleading rhetoric to make their case. Here are some of the initiatives we can expect to see.
Who Needs the Senate?
A group of Libertarians and Republicans have formed the "New Budget Coalition" in a thinly veiled attempt to cut the Senate out of the action. Under a call for "budget discipline," they will urge the House to adopt a "one-page budget" in the belief that this would not only bind House budget decisions, but Senate budget decisions as well. In other words, they want to prevent the Senate from disagreeing with the House.
The desire of a group of people who often claim to be Constitutionalists to turn our bicameral (House and Senate) legislature into a unicameral body by fiat is startling. A cynic would say they developed the plan this past summer when it seemed probable that the Senate would turn from a bipartisan 15-15 split to Democratic control and the House would likely stay Republican. Darn that pesky Constitution, allowing people whose positions we don't like to participate in the budget process!
Others might say they just want to infuriate the Senate by having the House claim veto power over the budget. Rather than imposing budget discipline, the one-page budget would add fuel to the partisanship fire that expands legislative sessions far beyond the limits of any ordinary person's stamina. The Joint Committee on Ways and Means might as well dissolve itself under the New Budget Coalition's scheme. The last time the House tried to go it alone, we witnessed a long legislative session.
Use Kids as a Smokescreen, Even if it Harms Them.
These New Budget Coalition folks also say they want to prioritize funding for K-12 education and public safety, giving these areas the first general fund dollars. Pitting K-12 and public safety against the rest of the budget will harm children in the short- and long-term.
Children directly benefit from child welfare services addressing the endemic problem of child abuse and neglect. Children are major beneficiaries of Medicaid, the State Child Health Insurance Program, cash assistance for families with dependent children, and subsidies for child care.
Children also benefit when higher education is more affordable, when parks and other public spaces have better access and facilities, when polluters don't pollute the air they breathe or the water they drink and play in, when state forests are properly managed, when community colleges are accessible and offer a wide range of courses, when food supplies are certified healthy, when it's harder for tobacco companies to hook children on their deadly products, and when consumer protection laws are vigorously enforced.
The rhetoric of "fund children first" oversimplifies the issues by ignoring the full range of factors that contribute to child well-being, and leads to under-funding a wide range of human services programs.
We Like Spending Tax Dollars Just Fine -- as Long as it Goes to People in Suits
Oregon's budget debate is also being distorted by radicals pushing an arbitrary spending limit and ignoring tax expenditures. These radicals often speak as if we don't have a spending limit, when in fact Oregon has had a spending limit since 1979 (and strengthened in 2001). Oregon already does "spend within our means." Oregon's current limit ties spending to the rise and fall of Oregonians' personal income, not some arbitrary rate of growth.
Curiously, these advocates have little interest in restricting the spending of tax dollars on profitable companies and the power elite through tax expenditures. For instance, spending limit proponents think it's fine that taxpayers are subsidizing the home purchases of wealthy Oregonians with up to $1 million of mortgage debt, and ignore the fact that this subsidy grows without limit each biennium. Here at the OCPP, we think getting families off the streets, out of shelters and cars, and into homes is a better priority than subsidizing someone who can afford a $900,000 mortgage.
Likewise, some proponents of spending limits think Oregon taxpayers should pay Intel and others $5 when those companies invest $100 in research and development. Is the $5 an incentive, or does it merely pay companies like Intel to do what they would do anyway to maintain or expand market share? The so-called free-market proponents don't really want the market to be free from government assistance. They just want government assistance to benefit big companies and wealthy investors before helping children and working families.
The budget is about choices, and the debates in Salem in 2005 will make that perfectly clear.