Surprise! Legislature discovers $50M

By The Curry Coastal Pilot March 10, 2010 09:35 am

Before the votes on Measures 66 and 67, state Sen. Chris Telfer, R-Bend, was asking questions about millions or billions that the state might have sitting around in accounts and not being used to solve budget problems. Telfer was told the money couldn’t be touched, shouldn’t be touched or doesn’t exist. Secretary of State Kate Brown released a statement before the election scolding anyone who suggested that the state had unfettered access to such money.

And then, like magic – after the votes on Measures 66 and 67 – $50 million appeared. The Legislative Fiscal Office identified $50 million that the Legislature swept from various accounts to help mend the state’s budget gap.

Where did it come from?

The biggest chunk was $31 million from the Tax Amnesty Fund. That was a new program created by the Legislature in 2009 for people to pay back taxes they owed that the state didn’t know about. Some of the $50 million came in small pieces. The Board of Licensed Social Workers, which licenses social workers, had $41,000 removed from its account. Martin Pittioni, the board’s executive director, said $41,000 is basically what the board spends in a month. The Legislative Fiscal Office says it reduces the board’s reserves to 4.5 months.

The Legislative Fiscal Office also identified $2.2 million in taxes from the all-terrain vehicle account at the state’s Parks and Recreation Department and another $430,000 from fuel taxes paid by boaters from the Oregon Marine Board.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

Brown was right, in a way. The Legislature can’t just take much of the money that the state boards, agencies and departments have in ending fund balances or other accounts.

There is much, though, that it can take. Legislators write state laws about where money goes. They can change state laws.

Brown was also right that Oregonians deserve nothing less than accurate information about the state’s finances. But if that’s true, voters should have been told, as Telfer wanted, that the state had a spare $50 million before the votes on Measures 66 and 67.

We don’t know how voters can be expected to trust legislators on taxes if legislators don’t trust Oregonians with budget information.

— Wescom News Service (Bend Bulletin)