Less lawmaking, more representing

By The Curry Coastal Pilot April 13, 2011 05:00 am

The legislative session must be more than a time to find a way to balance the budget. It should be a time to assess the state’s programs.

It matters as much to figure out how well Oregon’s programs work as it does to decide on how much money schools should get.

Some of that program analysis happens. There are state audit reports. Departments do internal audits. As the Legislature holds hearings on new legislation, it also holds occasional hearings on spending and programs.

But some programs drift along only to grab attention when they are in crisis. The state’s Disabled and Senior Property Tax Deferral program is one of those. It’s about to run out of money, as The Oregonian reported.

The Legislature established the program in 1963 to basically allow qualifying people to borrow from the state to pay their property taxes. Homeowners have to be at least 62 and their annual taxable income can’t be more than $39,500. There are 10,700 people in the program. Eventually, the state gets the money back plus 6 percent interest when the home is sold, through a lien placed on the home.

Lawmakers dipped into the fund in 2008 and took $14.2 million to pay for other programs. That turned out not to be a good idea. At the end of 2008, the economy tanked.

The program grew by about 25 percent as more people applied. And when the property tax bills came due in November, the state was short. It paid a portion of what was owed and has to make the final payment May 15. Estimates are that the fund will be short $27 million through the next biennium.

Legislators say the state should re-evaluate the program. The state may consider a test on assets, a higher interest rate and a limit on the property value.

The deeper question is: How can this program cruise along for so long and not be more careful with the state’s money?

Most legislative hearings on any given day so far this session are devoted to new proposed laws or fluff like making the last week of April Oregon Dance Week. But the mission of a legislator is not to be a lawmaker.

It is to be a representative. State government runs billions in programs. Oregon needs more hearings on what the state does and spends, and fewer on new things for the state to do and spend on.

– Wescom News Service (The Bulletin)