Dollars and Sense

Entering the PCC classroom, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except the people, ultimately filling the place, weren’t students.  They were mostly elderly, gathered for a budget town hall, with three of our finest local representatives.  Only a handful (out of about 60 people present) looked anywhere close to my age.  One by one, each of those five or six young people were pointed out and thanked for being staff of the local representatives.  (Shortly after the meeting began, a few more of my generational peers trickled in.)

Right off the bat, I learned, in Oregon there are two House districts for each Senate district.  Senator Jackie Dingfelder was introduced, a petite woman with short brown hair in a cream suit and a bright silk scarf.  Her constituents, divided basically along the  I-84 line, are led in the House by Rep. Ben Cannon (District 46) and Rep. Michael Dembrow (District 45).

“Because it takes two of them to make one of me,” joked the Senator.

Reps. Cannon and Dembrow accompanied Sen.  Dingfelder at the front of the room, under a  lit screen, reading, “Oregon 2011-2013 Budget: A Tale of Crisis and Opportunity.”  A fourth person was introduced, the unanticipated, featured speaker of the night, co-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Oregon State Rep. Peter Buckley.

Buckley began by setting the current stage of Oregon politics.  For the first time in our state’s history, we have elected an equal number of Republicans and Democrats in the House.  To accommodate even numbers, the House now  has two co-chairs for the Ways and Means Committee (which does the budget writing), Buckley and his Republican colleague, Rep. Dennis Richardson.  Together, with their partner in the State Senate, Sen. Richard Delvin, these people work alongside our Governor to hash it out.  A rough draft of the budget plan is scheduled for completion by March 31st.

Guiding any measure through such waters is no simple task.  Somehow, they must come up with a passable budget.  Buckley summarized the version, recently submitted to legislature by Governor Kitzhaber:

– Relative to their previous rank on the economic priority list, spending for public safety/police, corrections, and higher education is maintained.

– Services for seniors and the disabled are maintained.

– Early childhood and K-12 Education gets cuts.

– The entire health care system is to be restructured, as Oregon pioneers a voucher plan that, if successful, will be enacted by other states.  This, said Buckley, is a task not unlike “changing the wheels on a bus while it’s moving.”

The Governor’s proposal must either be approved, or improved upon by our legislators.  For the rest of the 90-min session, the representatives fielded our suggestions and questions about how we might slice the pie.  (Or bake more of it!)

While they assured us, our ideas are welcome, particularly those that either reduce expenditures or expand our economic resources (or at least have net zero cost) nothing seen as too far left or right of center is seriously discussed.

In this environment, where the risk of political gridlock is high, it appears we also have a rarely seen chance, forced to work collaboratively (or not at all), to make viable and productive structural changes to our government and the services it provides, to not only improve our own state’s efficiency, but also (potentially) create a model worth replicating.

Close to the front as usual, I sat behind two friendly people who had introduced themselves to me.  They were Amy and Abdul, colleagues at a workforce training organization.  Amy wanted to know why this jobs organization was on the chopping block.  This organization is a producer of net gains, they explained.  And they had data to back it up.

The jobs training issue was raised again, this time, from the back of the room.  The young man had a quiet voice and a thick accent, full of valid concern, a voice worth hearing.  Another one of the young latecomers, a woman who looked about my age, also expressed frustration with this particular cut:

She told us about a 17 year old teen parent who was in her office today, pregnant with a second child, who had just been evicted.  She didn’t know what to do.  They were able to get her placed into a school that specializes in helping young parents meet what are undoubtedly some of the biggest challenges of their lives.

This teen parent and her children will require public dollars no matter what.  The question is, are the dollars spent now (on workforce training and job placement assistance) or later, through a trap-like cycle of dependence on public assistance?  Or worse, she or one of her children might resort to one (or more) of any number of dangerous behaviors, inflicting a compounded set of costs onto our system as a whole.

How can we propose making early education a priority while simultaneously cutting the workforce training programs?

Our legislators are facing extremely difficult decisions.  With money going out the door in many directions at once, they are making efforts to eliminate entire agencies, when possible, in order to reduce duplication of services.  The  problem with this streamlining perspective is, trends generating an increasing number of needy people remain constant.  Don’t forget, more funding will still be required for the remaining agencies to accommodate additional caseloads.

We are talking about successful programs that get needy people moving on the road to self-sufficiency.   They’re not just providing social services – it’s economic development.

Then something struck me.  We were actually generating effective change!  People, we do not have an impenetrable system that doesn’t acknowledge or listen to us.  Our system responds to the PEOPLE who make the most noise!

“Because of this conversation today,” said Buckley, “I am going to re-double my efforts to keep this jobs program.”

But we can’t keep everything.  Inevitably, the cuts are going to hurt people who need help most.

Unless!

We figure out a way to generate more income.

Marijuana barely entered the conversation.  It came up finally, when I raised my hand…

I realize legalizing marijuana is a slippery topic, politically…  But I kept looking at the sizable (and growing) chunk of the budget going to public safety, building and filling our prisons, where by far, most people are non-violent offenders.  Seems like we could legalize, tax and regulate marijuana, just like with other controlled substances and solve two HUGE problems at once:  Add quite a bit fluff to the budget, meanwhile substantially reducing costs.  We could fund all of our state-sponsored agencies and more!

I also wanted to know what we plan to do about the disaster that’s come of Measure 11 (mandatory minimum sentences).  The legislators recognize the negative impacts of the measure and are working to re-evaluate it’s overall effectiveness, but this is an extremely delicate process.

Going after that part of the pie, said Buckley, “is political dynamite.”  No one wants to look soft on crime for the voters.  A bill was recently presented to give inmates more opportunities to earn time off their sentences for good behavior.  It almost cost the legislator behind it his seat.

We discussed a few more “unpopular” ideas:

– Eliminating Oregon’s kicker.  The kicker is a tax refund, given when taxes bring in more than 2% above projected amounts.  We’re the only state that has it.  A show of hands at the town hall meeting gave unanimous support to this  idea of  giving up the kicker in exchange for a better rainy-day fund.

– Sales Tax.  These two words, said Rep. Cannon, in just about any context we devise, mean certain defeat for political measures.  Although there was a lot of head nodding from around the audience when the sales tax idea was raised, Rep. Cannon assured us, Oregonians wouldn’t approve of it.  No matter what their income bracket, even if the proposal saves them money (through reduced income or property tax), polling says voters remain abhorred at the thought of sales tax.  Here’s one suggestion to get this option back on the table:  Use different words!

No one expects the process to be easy and no one has the right  to complain if they aren’t out here, participating in the democracy that we all are, inexorably, a piece of.  The biggest problem WE have, is a generally apathetic lack of interest, an unwillingness to come together, where we can collaborate and build sustainable solutions.  I would LOVE to start seeing more people my age at these events.  Until then, we’ll continue to have policies crafted for the few (mostly elderly) people who are making their opinions heard.

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One thought on “Dollars and Sense

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