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Senate budget writer's work is a balancing act

Committee co-chair Richard Devlin puts priority on education


Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - If the Legislature had adopted Gov. John Kitzhabers budget as proposed, state Sen. Richard Devlin says, we would have been back to cutting school days and laying off teachers. Devlins 19th District includes Lake Oswego, West Linn and Tualatin.When Sen. Richard Devlin and his House counterpart unveiled their plan for state spending for the next two years, the budget committee co-chairs made good on a long-standing pledge to put education first.

Their framework, which lawmakers will use to base decisions on agency budgets, did not satisfy anyone completely.

They propose a state school fund of $7.24 billion — more than the $6.9 billion in the budget by Gov. John Kitzhaber — and almost $600 million more than the 197 districts are sharing in the current two-year cycle.

“At the governor’s level, I believe we would have been back to cutting school days and laying off teachers,” says Devlin, a Democrat from Tualatin and now in his third cycle as the Oregon Senate’s chief budget writer.

They also propose more state aid than Kitzhaber did to the 17 community colleges and seven universities.

“We’re trying to go in the same direction as in the past two years,” Devlin says. “I wish we could do more. But given the resources we had, we did not want to reverse direction in education.”

Both plans do fund full-day kindergarten, which all districts will start in the fall.

Some school officials want more — as much as $7.5 billion in the fund that pays the lion’s share of district operating costs — but they will not get there even if more money becomes available for a list of potential add-backs totaling $150 million.

“I do not have any idea where we would get the additional resources” to reach $7.5 billion, Devlin says.

Meanwhile, the legislative plan greatly reduces Kitzhaber’s targeted spending of $800 million on other education priorities, which are aimed at moving Oregon toward its 2025 educational goals of graduating all students from high school and getting 80 percent of them into college or advanced training.

“Basic math will tell you that if you move a significant amount back into the state school fund, you are not going to have the money for new priorities,” Devlin says, although there is still about $60 million set aside for them.

The budget writers also pared Kitzhaber’s proposed spending on human services, public safety and other programs, although they have left the details to budget subcommittees.

“Nobody is going to have an easy time balancing their sections of the budget,” Devlin says. “But we have done this (plan) not by shortchanging other areas of the budget, but by putting in realistic expectations of what we can afford to spend. We are not simply trying to balance revenues and expenditures, but also priorities.”

Guide to action

Unlike the governor’s budget, which is presented as a single document, lawmakers approve individual agency budgets within a framework.

The framework, known as the “co-chairs’ budget,” is the earliest unveiled in recent years — just a few days after the official opening of the 2015 session on Jan. 12. So lawmakers will be able to focus on budget details longer this year.

“It’s a result of the two co-chairs, who have been together for years and know each other well,” says House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.

Devlin’s counterpart in the House is Rep. Peter Buckley, a Democrat from Ashland who is in his fourth two-year cycle as co-chairman. Buckley shared that position with Republican Rep. Dennis Richardson in 2011 and 2012, when the House was split evenly between the parties.

The budget writers get less attention from the public than the Legislature’s presiding officers — who name the committees and assign the bills — or the party leaders in the chambers. But to groups contending for a share of the budget, they get the most attention.

“What most people do not know is that we have to say ‘no’ most of the time,” Devlin says.

Budgets for most agencies, particularly those dependent on the tax-supported general fund and lottery proceeds, proceed after lawmakers receive the May 15 economic and revenue forecast — the last one before the budget cycle starts July 1.

One other key difference between the governor’s and legislative budgets: The legislative plan would carry over just under $200 million into the 2017-19 cycle, double the governor’s $100 million, so the legislative budget anticipates spending from the tax-supported general fund and lottery proceeds at $18.5 billion.

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Regardless of political party, most legislators want adequate school funding, they want people in need to have their needs met, and they want to ensure that people are safe in their communities and neighborhoods, state Sen. Richard Devlin says. If we can do those, we have done 90 to 95 percent of the job.

Making the effort

While nothing in Devlin’s previous work suggests he is a whiz at numbers — he has worked in juvenile and adult corrections, and was a private investigator — Devlin says he has made an extra effort to learn about budgets and programs.

“I read budgets like some people read novels,” he says.

Not only does Devlin pore over previous state budgets to look for patterns of income and spending, aides say he also reads the budgets of counties, school districts and other local governments that receive state aid.

“Being familiar with the realities of budgets, I find it is difficult to respond to people who think it’s easy,” he says.

But Buckley, the House budget co-chairman, says Devlin’s effort has paid off.

“I have never worked with anybody who has his grasp of details,” Buckley says.

“The (legislative fiscal) staff likes to try to trip him up with questions about budgets from four years ago, but he’s got an encyclopedic mind. He’s got a tremendous mind — and heart — and is fun to work with.”

Devlin, in turn, says Buckley excels in explaining what the numbers mean.

Although the Legislature is organized along party lines, Devlin says most budget committee members share similar goals.

“They want adequate school funding, they want people in need to have their needs met, and they want to ensure that people are safe in their communities and neighborhoods,” Devlin says. “If we can do those, we have done 90 to 95 percent of the job.”

How he got there

When he came to Tualatin in 1980, Devlin recalls, “I had not been in any one place two years since I was 18,” while in the Marine Corps and then college. He wanted to get involved in civic life, but instead of his first choice of the city budget committee, he ended up on the park advisory committee, where he spent three years.

Still, that experience stood him in good stead when he joined the Tualatin City Council in 1985 after voter approval of a parks levy. He was elected in 1988 to the Metro Council.

He failed in his first bid for the Oregon House in 1994, but in a rematch two years later, he unseated Republican Bob Tiernan of Lake Oswego.

He was elected two more times, but never landed a seat on the joint budget committee until 2003, after he defeated Tiernan for an open seat in the Oregon Senate.

Except for a stint as Senate majority leader from mid-2007 to November 2010, Devlin has been a full member of the budget committee ever since. He’s sat on four of its subcommittees and led the education and natural resources panels before he became Senate co-chairman in 2011.

pwong@pamplinmedia.com

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