Libertarian group eyes budget process

Richard Burke spent Monday in Salem, making the rounds of legislative staff to get a feel for the political climate in the Capitol while lawmakers were busy on the floor or elsewhere in the building.

Burke, who heads Oregon’s Libertarian Party, feels the temperature may be more or less right for a coalition of Libertarians, Republicans and other conservative activists to leave a stamp not only on the state’s nearly $12 billion budget, but possibly even on the process lawmakers use to draft one every two years.

“You see a little bit of the coalition creeping in there,” Burke said Monday. “Now that we’re in a limited-dollar environment, we’re getting more of a receptive ear.”

The coalition Burke refers to is the New Budget Coalition, formed last summer before the campaign of 2004 heated up. Though it was launched by Libertarians, it counts some conservative Republicans among its members, including Yamhill County’s Sen. Gary George.

Its roster of founding members reads like a “Who’s Who” of Oregon’s conservative heavy-hitters. In addition to Burke, it includes Lou Beres, who heads the Oregon chapter of the Christian Coalition; Jason Williams, who runs anti-tax activist Don McIntire’s Taxpayer Association of Oregon; Russ Walker, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for a Sound Economy, which successfully campaigned against a tax increase early in 2004; Sublimity’s Rep. Jeff Kropf, who regularly lends his voice to the chorus of right-leaning talk radio heard on Portland’s KXL 750; and Bob Ekstrom of Scappoose, chairman of the Oregon Constitution Party, whose candidates support limited government based on “constitutional law rooted in biblical law.”

The coalition’s spokesman is Hillsboro’s Tom Cox, a Libertarian candidate for governor in 2002 and a House seat in 2004.

The coalition also picked up a few Republicans, but was dissed by the party’s leadership. GOP chief Kevin Mannix went so far as to tell the party rank-and-file to “stop paying attention” to the Libertarians on the far right.

“One of the things about being multipartisan is that when you’re slighted that way, you try to rise above it,” Burke said.

The group wants the House to approve a one-page budget that establishes fiscal boundaries within which lawmakers must remain. Burke, a former aide to George in the Senate, calls it “a tool for fiscal discipline.”

Charles Sheketoff, who heads the liberal think-tank Oregon Center for Public Policy, calls it “a thinly veiled attempt” to cut the Democratically controlled Senate out of the budget process. The coalition, he said, is run by “radical right Libertarians.”

“They see it as a way of trying to downsize government,” he said Monday. “It’s bogus, this idea of having a one-page budget.”

George could not be reached for comment Monday.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Donna Nelson of McMinnville said she is not a member and has not been active with the group. But Rep. Kim Thatcher of Keizer, who represents the Newberg area, is listed as a member on the group’s website.

Burke said it’s not yet clear how much sway the group will have this session. But since it’s not an election year, he hopes the coalition will no longer be perceived by Republicans as a group trying to catapult Libertarians into office.

The group is even angling to exert some influence on Capitol Democrats.

Members recently met with Theresa McHugh, chief budget adviser to Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, and came away with a favorable impression. “We’re happy to see that some aspects of the governor’s budget incorporate some of our principles,” Burke said.