Our Opinion: Nobody likes this budget? Keep going
Just about every interested party has found or soon will discover something to detest in a state budget plan making its way through the Legislature that promises a substantial increase in school funding.
n Public employee unions already are scorning proposed changes to the Public Employees Retirement System, and plan a legal challenge if the reforms are adopted.
n School boards and administrators, on the other hand, warn that proposed PERS reforms fall far short of whats needed to prevent them from cutting school days or laying off teachers in the coming year.
n Meanwhile, business people and higher-income individuals are wary of the as-yet-undefined revenue enhancements that again will target the same people whove been required to pay additional taxes in Oregon for the past several years.
Details of the budget plan, authored in part by state Sen. Richard Devlin,
D-Tualatin, have become less cloudy in the past two weeks. As clarity increased, so has the intensity of opposition to certain elements in the plan. From our viewpoint, however, any budget roadmap that has created so many enemies must have something going for it namely balance.
Step toward PERS reform
We agree with critics who think the proposed PERS reforms are too tepid. We also are concerned that Democrats who control the Legislature appear determined to raise taxes once again on business owners. This state already has one of the highest tax rates on upper-income earners in the nation, and yet the Legislature feels compelled to return to the same well.
Eventually, this fascination with taxing the wealthy will damage the economy as business people choose to live elsewhere.
Our concerns about the budget proposal, however, are tempered by reality. The PERS reforms proposed by Gov. John Kitzhaber would have done more to slow the cost of a retirement program diverting too much money from schools and other services, but the governors plan isnt likely to get sufficient support from fellow Democrats in the Legislature.
A more pragmatic plan being pushed by Devlin and other legislators would produce $455 million in PERS savings as opposed to Kitzhabers $800 million. Both proposals include caps on cost-of-living increases for PERS retirees, but the legislative plan is more graduated.
Devlin also argues, with some persuasiveness, that his approach is more likely to withstand the unions legal challenges. Even if that proves to be untrue, the legislative plan is less risky, since it places a bit less emphasis on the states ability to prevail at the Oregon Supreme Court.
Imperfect, but realistic
On the positive side, the budget proposal developed by Devlin and state Rep. Peter Buckley, co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, would make important investments in local schools. At a funding level of $6.75 billion, K-12 schools would begin to recover from recent years of damaging cutbacks.
The $6.75 billion number wont cure all that ails schools. As Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith noted in her 2013-14 budget message, the proposal turns the tide of state disinvestment in education, which has resulted in larger classes, shorter school years, school closures and reduced electives, but it does not restore those programs or educational opportunities.
The co-chairs budget is an imperfect solution to a complex problem. However, it continues the work started in 1995 and 2003 to rein in the growth of PERS, and it leaves open the probability that such work will need to continue during the next two or three legislative sessions.
Critics of this budget and particularly the PERS proposals can complain about whether it goes too far or not far enough, but in the end the Legislature must do what is possible. We believe the co-chairs budget has the greatest chance of actually becoming law and establishing a funding floor for public schools while also protecting higher education, human services and public safety.
Legislators should press ahead with the budget outline, knowing that when everyone is dissatisfied, they must be getting closer to an equitable solution.