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Governor wraps up budget hearings

on 3/15/02.

Gov. John Kitzhaber on Friday ended two days of public hearings that mostly drew people pleading that funding for their programs not be cut as lawmakers wrestle with $815 million budget shortfall.

The hearings were a conspicuous warm-up as the governor prepares to release a new budget plan Tuesday and call a second special legislative session to close the gap.

The session is expected to be held the following week.

Meanwhile, Kitzhaber intends to take his hearings on road next week, with one-hour sessions planned on Wednesday in Eugene and Portland and on Thursday in Bend and Medford.

Kitzhaber contends that legislators didn't hold adequate hearings before passing a budget-balancing plan in their first session, a three-day meeting that ended early Monday.

The Democratic governor opposes their plan, threatening to veto virtually all of it. He wants lawmakers to raise taxes and rely less then they did on dipping into reserve funds.

Leaders of the Republican-run Legislature are staunchly bucking any tax increases, and there was little sign the hearings changed anyone's attitude.

"I think 95 percent were things we had heard before," said House Speaker Mark Simmons, R-Elgin. "It doesn't make decisions we have to make any easier."

The hearing was unusual because the governor personally presided. Top legislative leaders attended much of time.

Advocates for school funding and a host of social programs queued up to talk, saying they deserved to be spared.

"Without the resources we need, we are failing Oregon's future," said James Williams, student body president at Portland's Lincoln High School. "Zero cuts. Period."

Some endorsed Kitzhaber's proposed 50-cent a pack cigarette tax increase, higher beer and wine taxes and delay of a voter-passed increase in the federal income tax deduction.

The governor's revised budget is expected to include at least the cigarette tax increase, which Democrats in both houses have endorsed.

Witnesses from Citizens for a Sound Economy said taxes need to be reduced, not raised. The national organization works to lower taxes.

Legislators cut spending by about $350 million and otherwise mainly used one-time revenue from reserves to balance the budget.

Kitzhaber says there have to be cuts, but he opposes taking $50 million from the state's share of the national tobacco settlement, for example, to balance the budget. He says the trust fund is meant for health care.

The governor has said he could accept a legislative proposal asking voters to approve taking about $100 million from a Lottery-financed education endowment, if legislators agree to raise some new revenue.

"Taking a chunk of that money is contingent on making the pie bigger," he said Friday.

Getting any tax boost passed in a year when most legislators face re-election, though, is considered very difficult. A law that required tax increases to win at least 60 percent approval in each house makes the job even tougher.

Republicans control the House 32-28 and Senate on a 16-14 count.