Capitol Protests Hit From 2 Sides

To get a sense of what some Oregonians think lawmakers should do about the state budget, all you had to do was hang around the Capitol for a few hours Thursday.

The latest forecast of state income, which is down almost $700 million for the next two years, did not change some people’s minds.

On a chilly Thursday morning, on the Capitol’s front steps, about 100 advocates and recipients of social services rallied under the banner of the Human Services Coalition of Oregon. They opposed more spending cuts and supported higher taxes or reduced tax breaks.

On a chilly Thursday afternoon, on the Capitol’s west steps, about 100 people rallied under the banner of Oregon Citizens for a Sound Economy. They opposed higher taxes or reduced tax breaks and supported more spending cuts and efficiencies.

Both sides had their stories to tell.

Beverly Bettis of Hubbard sat at the edge of the morning rally. At age 68 with multiple sclerosis, she relies on caregivers under Oregon Project Independence to lift her from bed each morning, give her a bath, put her in a wheelchair and put her back into bed at night.

It costs the state $400 per month. But the alternative for her is a nursing home at $3,000 per month, much of which could be paid from federal grants. She would lose her home.

“This service makes so much of a difference in the value and quality of my life,” Bettis said. “I am able to be involved and participate in church and community activities. Otherwise, I am stuck at home.”

What is left of Oregon Project Independence, established 25 years ago, would be eliminated in the draft proposal by the Legislature’s budget writers.

“I continue to hope that they can find new revenue and ways to balance things,” Bettis said.

Michael Koester of Ashland, who also uses a wheelchair, arrived the previous day to meet his legislators. The commercial artist created cardboard cutouts of human figures with one-sheet descriptions of what various state spending cuts have done to people.

The cutouts were lined up around the human services rally, and people were invited to supply descriptions by computer.

“The concept was to represent Oregonians of all kinds – not just people with disabilities, but people who never get seen up here,” said Koester, who himself has been in danger of losing in-home care. “I’d like lawmakers to see the real faces behind their decisions.”

Steve Mitchell of Ashland had a differing view. He said his dry-cleaning business has been forced to close three of six locations and reduce employees from 26 to 12.

“That’s real life,” Mitchell said. “I had to cut everything I could to stay alive in business. As a citizen, I am saying that government has to do the same thing.”

He supports proposals by Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Taxpayers Association of Oregon to overhaul the public-pension system, eliminate vacant state jobs, find more efficiencies in agencies, and transfer some government functions to the business sector.

Bill and Donna Cain of Rogue River also were part of the Citizens for a Sound Economy group.

Donna Cain, current secretary of the Oregon Republican Party and a 1998 candidate for nomination to the Oregon House, said legislators are making progress with scaling back the long-term unfunded liability of the Public Employees Retirement System.

“We are encouraged by what has been done so far,” she said. “But we are hoping that it continues because PERS is costing the state billions. Anyone else in any other kind of business does not get that kind of retirement guarantee.”

Bill Cain said that efforts ought to be extended to paring other payroll costs in the public schools.

“We need to return control of the education system to the people and out from under the unions,” he said.

Rob Wheaton of Portland relies on medications to keep his body from rejecting the transplanted heart he received six years ago. He had been living with an enlarged heart.

When voters rejected an income-tax increase Jan. 28, it triggered elimination of state assistance to Wheaton and more than 8,000 “medically needy” people with high medical expenses but unable to qualify for Medicaid. The Legislature restored medications for transplant and AIDS patients through June 30.

Before that restoration, Wheaton said he was down to a three-day supply of medication, some of it obtained from others. He is worried that the state cutoff will stand – and he has not received any free or reduced-price medications from drug manufacturers.

“For me, it’s difficult to watch my pill supply dwindle,” said Wheaton, who’s 29 and looking for work. “It has become an hourglass of my life. I see those pill boxes getting smaller and bottles getting emptier. I see death coming.”