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State lawmakers fiddle as budget crisis looms

It’s said that Nero fiddled as Rome burned in 64 A.D. The saying should be dear to the hearts of Oregon lawmakers, who, faced with almost certain financial difficulties next year, are now busying themselves with everything but the problem at hand.

Forecasters say the 2011 Legislature is likely to find itself some $2 billion short of what it needs to balance the state budget. That’s after the state collects hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the two tax measures voters approved last month. Worse, the state cannot expect to receive the more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money that made balancing the current budget possible.

Faced with a problem like that, most of us would get busy. We’d begin cutting expenses and socking away every penny we could find. That’s not what’s happening during the brief legislative session, however. When it comes to the looming deficit, not much is happening at all.

Instead, lawmakers have trimmed, but not eliminated, the Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) program that has grown from a $4 million giveaway to a $167 million one in less than two years. Beyond that, they haven’t done much.

There are reasons for this lunacy, to be sure. This is an election year, for one, and incumbents don’t want to offending voters with budget cuts, no matter how necessary those cuts may be. They especially don’t want to trim education, though it accounts for roughly half of general fund spending.

There’s no happy ending to this sad tale, unfortunately. Lawmakers will be unable to go though next year’s session ignoring their problems as they’re doing now. And it’s difficult to believe they’ll be able to persuade voters to OK yet another whopping tax increase to keep current service levels going. That means cuts, and it likely means cuts to everything in the general fund, from prisons to schools to social services. There’s simply no other way.

— Wescom News Service (the Bend Bulletin)


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