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Cha-ching! Lawmakers line up funding requests ahead of budget outlook

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TRIBUNE ILLUSTRATION - Lawmakers are lining up lots of funding requests for the state budget.SALEM — State economists will provide an update Wednesday morning on the outlook for Oregon’s economy and government revenue.

A week into the short legislative session, lawmakers have received plenty of requests for more money. The ability for lawmakers to tackle budget shortfalls and look for efficiencies was among the reasons supporters of annual legislative sessions cited in 2010, when voters approved a measure requiring lawmakers to meet annually in Salem. The state is seven months into a two-year budget that extends through mid-2017.

Some of the funding requests this session are routine from agencies with fluctuating human services caseloads. For example, the Department of Human Services will ask the Legislature for an additional $71.7 million to plug a budget hole caused by increased costs for certain types of cases, changes in caseloads and increased personnel costs, according to a budget presentation.

The Oregon Health Authority also asked lawmakers for more money from the state general fund, although for a less routine reason. Budget documents show the agency asked for $84.4 million, and communications director Robb Cowie said most of the request stems from higher-than-anticipated enrollment in Medicaid since the program was expanded under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Other budget requests are tied to natural events. The Oregon Department of Forestry is asking the Legislature for an additional $77.4 million to cover firefighting costs during the remainder of the biennium, after severe wildfires burned through the agency’s budget in 2015. “In 2015, we depleted that large fire fund,” said Rod Nichols, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is asking the Legislature for authorization to spend an additional $6.2 million to repair roads, guardrails and other infrastructure damaged by fires, but agency spokesman Tom Fuller wrote in an email that the agency expects to be reimbursed by the federal government and other state agencies.

There are also anticipated budget issues that could affect the state in a few years, but which might not be addressed in hearings or legislation this session.

In late January, the Legislative Fiscal Office released a report that analyzed the cost to state government during a two-year budget of increasing the minimum wage immediately to $13.50 or $15 per hour. Analysts estimated the wage hike could cost the state more than $140 million during the next biennium.

However, the office ultimately found the cost to the state of specific legislation moving through the Legislature would be “indeterminate” because analysts did not know how many state employees would be working for minimum wage as the increases were phased in over seven years. As a result, a three-tier minimum wage bill was not referred to the budget writing Joint Committee on Ways and Means and there is currently no plan to cover the costs to the state.

That did not sit well with House and Senate Republicans.

“Our members are deeply concerned its not going to Ways and Means,” House Republican Office communications director Preston Mann said on Wednesday.

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, agreed the Legislature should discuss the potential state budget impact of a minimum wage increase.

“My biggest concern is that the Legislature is actually adding costs to the budget for this biennium and next biennium without actually increasing any revenue,” Knopp said. “And so my point is that the minimum wage, if it’s passed, is going to have a significant impact on the state budget as well as local budgets — school districts, park districts and so on — and there hasn’t been any study of that or review of that in Ways and Means at this point, which I think is pretty disturbing.”

Spokespeople for Democrats in the House and Senate did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Knopp, who sponsored a bill aimed at trimming public employee pension costs, said he was also disappointed lawmakers likely will not address the looming pension shortfall this session.

“I think that’s what the short session was intended for,” Knopp said of the pension liability and other long-term budget issues. The unfunded liability in the state pension fund has continued to grow, with the latest projection surpassing $21 billion over the next couple decades.

Finally, lawmakers will also consider requests from agencies for new programs. For example, the wish list from the Department of Corrections includes $11.4 million for 67 new corrections officers posts to enhance security and relieve stress and mandatory overtime, $9 million for a possible expansion at Deer Ridge Correctional Facility in Madras and $8.2 million for programming to reduce isolation for inmates with mental health problems.

The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between Pamplin Media Group and the EO Media Group.