Atkinson & the 2014 Strategy: a preview

T.A. Barnhart

On Thursday afternoon, Sen Jason Atkinson gave those present in Hearing Room B a preview of his campaign for governor in 2014. The performance was confident, deft, and disturbing. Atkinson, like most intelligent and politically crafty Republicans in Oregon (an admittedly rare commodity), knows how to present bad policies so they sound reasonable and attractive. Given how few voters bother to look beyond the surface, the Southern Oregon Senator will be a formidable opponent to whomever the Dems nominate.

So let me help kickstart the oppo by dissecting his 13-and-a-half minute appearance before the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee where he was presenting, yet again, the “81-day Bill,” aka SJR 24. The idea behind this proposal is simple: the Legislature must complete the state K-12 education budget by the 81st day of the legislative session. Current practice is to complete that budget, as well as most of the others, near the end of the sessions. Sen Atkinson has his opinion on this practice:

That sounds bad, of course. The trouble is, as is usually the case with untrue stories, the facts: the 2009-11 Budget (General Funds plus Lottery) spent 93.4% on education, public safety and human services. That’s a whopping 6.6% on “All other programs”. The Leg did not allocate 15-20% of the discretionary budget to “other programs” and then backtrack to whack them all by 75%. They know when they convene approximately how much they will be spending on “other”. There is no drunken-sailor spending going on; program budgets are relatively stable year to year, with projected increases or reductions known relatively well in advance. And to get that amount as correct as possible, they wait until the State Economist releases the May budget forecast — about which, more later.

Sen Atkinson has been pushing this proposal for quite a while; this is the 5th successive term he’s introduced it. It’s reached the point where the words “81-day bill” mean something:

Where did this idea come from in the first place? Why does Sen Atkinson have this driving urge to introduce this bill session after session? Refering to his initial experience in the Leg, the 1999 session, as a noob member of the House:

“I think I’ve been gamed.” This plays into one of the most potent talking points of the Republican right: the status quo controls everything, and it works against Oregon’s best interests. Not only that, his reference to “Not only was that not true…” is a complaint about the politics of education. He does not cite any facts, of course; he’s simply griping about what was said outside the Legislature about funding after the session. (The education budget for the 99-01 biennium increased $550M, most of that being $304M in Lottery Funds; it would be hard, in fact, for someone to claim, as Atkinson asserts someone did, that education was cut.)

More importantly for Atkinson, as a Republican who must campaign on the basis of anti-government messaging (if he has any hope of winning his party’s nomination), is the need to demonstrate that the real problem is within the halls of the Capitol, where bad stuff happens and common sense gets lost:

His assertions rely on accepting his initial premise: that setting the budget for education late rather than early is a bad thing. In a section a little too long and rambling for compelling video, he relates how school boards must submit their budgets long before they know how much they will receive from the state. While the timing aspect is true, again, school boards have a pretty good idea what to expect from the state as they write their budgets. Scenarios like the previous biennium, with massive, unexpected mid-biennium reductions, do not occur very often — and the solution to these is not timing when the cuts will be made but to avoid the cuts at all.

It’s not a problem of setting a date on the calendar: it’s the lack of stable funding and a robust rainy day fund. (Not to mention M5, M11, the kicker, Bush tax cuts….)

Worse, asserts the Senator, states like Florida and Texas can get there budgets done in about a third of the time that Oregon does. What’s wrong with us?

(And Sen Atkinson has gotten practiced to presenting this story. From the inflections of tone to the pauses and gestures, this has the hallmarks of a performance piece. The entire performance is presented at the end.)

No. This, as a former boss liked to rail at me when I was being dense about the difference between two issues, is a comparison of apples and oranges. Until this session, Oregon’s biannual legislative sessions made it an oddity on the American political scene. Other states were meeting every year; mistakes made the previous year could be corrected the following year before much damage was done. In Oregon prior to 2011, the Legislature had one shot to get it right. (Unless leaving it to the E Board counted as “gettin it right”.) Of course they wanted to get as much information as possible −- the May forecast — before finalizing the budget.

Not to mention, Oregon, unlike almost every other state in the nation, has the two-legged stool of a revenue system, with the General Fund so dependent on income taxes. The other states he mentions have sales taxes and other resources that provide them with a more stable budgetary base. They also have broader economic bases than Oregon has had for a number of years. And for much of Atkinson’s time in the Legislature, there was that little issue of anti-government Republicans controlling one or both of the chambers.

Never let the facts get in the way of a clever story.

And then there’s this:

That’s a lot of real estate, as we know, but the area he references is approximately one-fifth of Oregon’s population. While we err badly in dismissing the strong preferences of any minority population, we can err just as badly in setting policy based on those preferences. And if the basis of Sen Atkinson’s measure is that the Legislature overspends on “other” budgets, which it does not, then any population’s preferences do not matter nearly as much as the Legislature getting the budget as correct as possible. Even if it does take a lot longer than he wants it to.

This measure is not going any further this year than any previous session. With annual, shorter sessions, and a governor who has promised to redo both the education and budget systems, a simplistic attempt at forcing the Leg to comply with an arbitrary date because it made sense in the shower…

…would be bad government of the worst kind.

But perhaps that would serve Jason Atkinson’s ambitions just fine.

T.A. Barnhart has been writing at Blue Oregon for nearly 6 years, and has currently launched The Action TAB, video reports from the 2011 Legislature; a project made possible by supporters at You can follow these reports throughout the session on Facebook (please "Like" the page & help the project move forward).

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    the full video (with some audio issues at the beginning & end) is at

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    Senator Atkinson was almost certainly correct in his statement that "people claimed that education was cut in the '99 - '01 biennium, even though funding increased..."

    It's important to remember that when Democratic legislators refer to "budget cuts" in state government, they usually mean a reduction in the the budget level needed to maintain the current level of services, and not whether there is an actual reduction in dollars spent relative to the previous biennium.

    Unfunded PERS expenditures grew substantially from 1998 - 2002 due to the market downturn, so it is entirely plausible that the level of service in K-12 education was lower in the '99-'01 budget cycle relative to the previous biennium, even though actual spending increased by $500 million.

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