Q: Why is the budget taking so long to produce? A: Democracy.

Russell Sadler

The Oregon legislature’s traditional six month session is half over. This has led to a number of stories about the “Legislature at midterm.”

This, in turn, has led to questions like, “They’ve been in session three months. Why don’t we have a budget yet?”

This is the wrong question. Here’s what’s really going on:

The legislature’s Democratic leadership has restored the time-honored committee process and abandoned by the Republican leadership in the 1990s. Traditionally the Oregon legislature has relied on its committees to do the serious work of evaluating and drafting the legislation assigned to them -- especially the business of budgets. The work of committees was then sent to the floor to pass or fail on its merits.

This doesn’t mean the Democratic leadership doesn’t kill bills. It does. For example, the Republicans’ particularly nasty anti-immigration legislation has been sent to committees where there are not enough votes to send it to the floor of either house. The Democratic leadership sees little chance such legislation has enough votes to pass, and its consideration unproductively inflames political passions. So the bills are buried in committee. That is the function of committees in the Oregon legislature. To avoid abuse, there is a procedure that allows a majority vote of members of either house to demand a bill be discharged from committee for a floor vote.

The budget process traditionally determines the length of the legislative session and that process takes a full six months to develop. Oregon’s budget process is the work of a rather unique Joint Ways and Means Committee that combines the tasks of authorization and appropriation that are usually the province of two separate committees in Congress and many state legislatures.

As soon as the Oregon legislature convenes in January, the Ways and Means Committee begins hearings on state agency budgets. Beginning with the least controversial budgets, there is a small but steady flow to the floor while other committees are evaluating and passing out their substantive legislation. That’s why, early in the session, other lawmakers have time to indulge in resolutions declaring the state flower, the state motto, the state insect and the state animal. While this sort of legislation is considered, the serious work on the state budget grinds on in the background.

The big ticket items -- appropriations for public schools, community colleges and the state universities -- are traditionally not considered until after April 15. Then the Department of Revenue and the Legislative Revenue staff “get a look at the mailbags” and make a reliable estimate of the actual tax take for 2006 and a reliable estimate for revenue in 2007. This sum becomes the estimated revenue for the next biennial budget period. By early May,the Ways and Means Committee decides how much money to appropriate to public schools, community colleges and state universities. The word goes out to the other committees that “the train is leaving the station,” the legislature is “on the road to adjournment,” and if their substantive legislation is not on the way to the floor and the other house, it is likely to die in committee on adjournment. Traditionally this is where the horse trading, compromising and game-playing gets most intense.

That does not mean politics won’t be involved. Gov. Ted Kulongoski wants more money to hire state police, for example, and offered an increased tax on auto insurance premiums to pay for it. The Republican minority agrees to increase the number of state police, but wants to pay for it out the the state’s General Fund of income tax revenues which means there will be less income tax money available for public schools, colleges and universities. The Republicans like that because it means less money for their dreaded “teachers’ union” and other ideological devils.

The legislature’s Democratic leadership believes “politics is the art of the possible.” If it decides to increase the number of state police, it will try to pass Gov. Kulongoski’s insurance tax to pay for it. If they do not have the votes because of arbitrary, initiative-imposed supermajorities, they will consider financing the state police with income tax revenues.

What the Democrats will not do is imitate House Minority Leader Wayne Scott, R-Canby, when he was in the majority and petulantly refuse to appropriate sufficient money to the state police. Scott displays the adolescent petulance that encouraged Oregon’s crossover voters to make Oregon Republicans the minority party last November. Oregon Democrats have absorbed that lesson. And that’s the real news from the Oregon legislature’s mid-session mark.

  • Rick Hickey (unverified)

    Nasty ILLEGAL immigration laws? NOT enough Votes? A Bill to require all companies to use the Free & Fast employment immigration status verification program with 3 DEMOCRAT & 3 Republican co-sponsors & Teamster support DOES have enough votes (we have spoken to reps on both sides that would vote yes)and would pass, as soon we will be the only State without such laws to insure taxes are being paid and Oregonians that want to work, can, will not get a floor vote to put OUR politicans on record for supporting LEGAL immigrants or American workers, BURIED by ONE PERSON, is Democracy? Russell, please go back to Communist Russia, they need you back as communism failed there once. HB 3112 to ask a School district, such as the failing Salem-Keizer district, to try Englsih Immersion, instead of the Bi-Lingual programs, with an 80% Failure rate 5 years in, per their own 3 yr. study, and getting anywhere is DEMOCRACY? Saving hundeds of Millions with immersion, that could reduce class size & hire more Teachers instead, is a bad idea? Russell, you think the Immigrant students should continune to NOT learn English, so you will always have someone to clean your toilets and mow your yard, is good for Oregon's future? California and Arizona & Mass. (a truly progressive state) are doing great with their new Immersion program.

    5 years after 9-11-01, we learned of immigrants that used state licenses to open bank accounts, rent cars and avoid detection, and still can in only 4 states, Oregon is one of them, could still use their Temp Visa, before it expires and get a license that doesn't expire for 8 years? And that is a Nasty immigration bill? Making sure that the Key to the kingdom, a license, goes only to the real person that is applying is bad? We spent $35 Million on illegals just in bed time (not including lawyers costs and much more), just in our state prisons (California spent $1 Billion, we will soon) and asking the FEDs to pitch in, so that money could go to Schools, is a nasty bill? Illegal immigrants held hostage, raped, beaten, stolen from by their Smugglers, is good? A Bill to increase the penalty for doing so is bad? And good for the ONE person, who chairs committee, for not letting a Vote happen? IS GOOD?

    Russell supports KINGS & QUEENS, WE SUPPORT the PEOPLE-LEGAL immigrants and Americans.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Good piece Russell. For those of us that have actually seen the legislature at work, this report was very accurate.

    The term "Bi-partisan" means nothing if both parties don't get to participate in the legislature. As Russell has pointed out, in Oregon's legislature, the key is the Joint Ways and Means Committee. Russell didn't point out that the Ways and Means Committee has several important sub-committees where hearings have been happening for months. Those interested in education, human services, prisons, etc. have already seen the groundwork laid for those budget areas. But its not until the magic budget numbers come in that the real work can be completed.

    Democracy is not nice and pretty. Many times in those "good old days" before the Republicans took "Bi-partisan" out of the process, there were blood baths. Mostly those happened out of sight. When there is only so much money, and a desire to spend more than Oregon has - something has to give. I expect some blood-baths both in the back rooms and in public hearings over education and health care.

    But this is the most encouraging legislature in recent years. Rather than just killing a host of bills (the Oregon Senate last session acted in a bi-partisan manner and send a fair number of bills to the Oregon House that never even saw a hearing having been killed by then Speaker Minnis), public debate and consideration is being given to them. Yes, a few have been killed, but as Russell noted, they were considered to be unfair or poorly thought out. Some bills are more appropriate for our national Congress (Oregon doesn't have any control over immigration), and should receive less priority.

    Anyway, its good to see Oregon's legislature back on track after all these years of Republican abuse of the process.

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    Rick Hikey, HB 2715 isn't one of those Republican vs Democrat things. It's a Rural vs Urban thing. Take a close look at the districts of the co-sponsors. They're all located in the I-5 corridor, nearly all urban. A bill that imposes draconian fines for employers who don't participate in an experimental Federal immigration status program is a lot easier to support when you come from the city, rather than the country, where farms depend on whatever labor they can get to stay in business.

    Insofar as you thinking you actually having enough votes to pass your bill, I think you might want to speak to the Firefighters Union who - previous to this session - leaned Republican. For years GOP Legislators promised them to let them trade down wages for better safety equipment. They told them they "had the votes" every session, it always just got buried in the shuffle. Until this session, when the Democrats forced them to actually vote, and they were finally forced to reveal that they'd been lying all those years.

    I doubt you have the support you think you do. Sure, Republicans need scapegoats for all their economic screwups, so of course they're pretending they support this. But farmers are not only a backbone of the East Oregon economy, they're the only people sticking by the Republicans. Money talks, and you ain't got none.

    Oh and drop the over-the-top rhetoric. Being outvoted doesn't mean you don't live in a Democracy. It just means you lost.

  • Rick Hickey (unverified)

    Steven, that was my final point, their has been no out voted oppurtunity. When one person such as Merkley pulls a Bill from a Hearing, it appears to me that he thinks he is King. Did he really ask all 90 legislators if they would vote yea or nay? Or did he decide by himself with some special interest group money waving in the air for him?

    If there were a hearing and a floor vote and they said NO, I would have to except that. I would bring it up next campaign season, but for now I would have to accept it.

    As of now, it will sit in the hands of one person, We haven't lost anything, except the decision of one, not the PEOPLE.

    And the Fed Basic pilot Program has been available for years, and it works. When you give Business owners the Voluntary option NOT to comply, they are obviously not going to, they should not have a choice to defy several laws. TRUST BUT VERIFY. The I.R.S. CAN verify if you are honest, why can't the people do the same with businesses?

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    Well, Rick, sometimes not even being able to force your legislators to go on record is the way the legislative politics works. Just be glad that Democrats are moving away from the way the Republicans operated, which under the "majority of the majority" system, absolutely nothing that wasn't sponsored by the GOP caucus leadership was even allowed a vote. (It got so ridiculous, Minnis even killed Democratic bills she liked, just so she could introduce identical ones the GOP could claim sponsorship credit for.)

    But at least you do have someone to blame for your bill: Merkley.


    I know everyone is supposed to love bipartisan cooperation. It sure beats infantile posturing. But just remember it also has a dark side. Legislators can get so cozy with each other that they become more loyal to their own than they are to the people. I don't know if anything happened in this case, but from the absolutely amazing cooperation he's getting from Republicans these days, I can easily imagine that Speaker Merkley was offered some quiet horse trading incentives to make that bill go away.

    And for good reason. As I said before, a lot of farms depend on whatever labor they can get. And already, due to the Republican scapegoating, Oregon farms couldn't get enough last year. Fruit rotted in the fields. The only people who were happy with that were the international farms exporting into the U.S. Farms that don't pay wages even close to the American minimum.

    That doesn't help the Oregon economy. The plutocrat wing of the Republican party knows it too. They just can't admit it. If voters stop to realize that they don't really want to pick Hazelnuts for 2 dollars a bucket or clean toilets for minimum wage, they might begin to remember just who was responsible for encouraging U.S. companies to offshore the $20/hour jobs they used to have. They might even discover we still have Republican tax giveaways for outsourcing - so that yes, you pay the IRS less money if you lay off your U.S. workers and employ foreigners in their place.

    And all hell would break loose. I mean, even more than it already has with Iraq. So expect that immigration will be the new "anti-abortion" plank of the GOP. You'll hear a lot of hot air. They'll use it to win elections. But you'll never see much action.

  • kevin (unverified)

    Pretty good spin, Russell.

    The D Leadership is doing exactly what it should be on immigration: it's killing bills to protect its weaker members in marginal districts.

    All of the freshman Ds ran a "tough on immigration" campaign, and now the leadership has to shield them from any substantive votes on the issue.

    Merkley and Hunt know that if Clem, D. Edwards, C. Edwards, Komp, and Riley vote against the immigration reforms, they will all lose their elections. This issue is that galvanizing to the grassroots.

    Rosenbaum could rob the state blind and still win her reelection. So it makes sense to let her take the heat for killing all those bills.

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    OK, that's enough about immigration. This is a post about the budget process. Russell merely used the immigration bills as a "for example" to talk about priorities. Settle down, guys. Get back on topic.

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