No easy answers for budget problems

There is no quick, painless solution to Oregon’s budget mess.

Kevin Mannix, who kicked off the campaign against the Legislature’s budget-balancing package, doesn’t have one. Last month, the state Republican chairman unveiled a couple of dozen proposals to save the state $1 billion. But before the ink was dry, he backed off, acknowledging that some of those ideas weren’t necessarily good ones.

Russ Walker, whose Citizens for a Sound Economy bankrolled the anti-Measure 30 campaign, doesn’t have a plan, either. That is not his job, he told the Statesman Journal editorial board; it’s up to the Legislature to balance the budget.

At least they are up front about it. That is better than a year ago, when some Republican legislators torpedoed Measure 28 by promising to reveal a solution after the election.

The budget package was defeated, but no simple fix materialized. Schools closed early, sick people lost their prescriptions and state troopers became rare sights on Oregon’s highways.

Now, this year’s budget-balancing plan is before voters as Measure 30. If it fails Feb. 3, one of two things will happen.

Lawmakers could let their Plan B automatically take effect — $545 million in deep cuts to state programs and schools. As last year’s experience proved, that will make a difference in the state we love.

Schools might increase class sizes or shut down early; more than 50,000 low-income people are likely to lose health care; community college and university tuition probably will rise yet again; and state police forensics labs could close, making it harder for police to solve crimes.

“Sob stories,” some skeptics say. Maybe they are, so long as they affect someone else. Once your child falls behind because her class is so big — once your house gets broken into because a criminal is on the loose — these stories hit home.

Another, less likely scenario, has lawmakers coming back to Salem to hunt for new pots of money. Good luck. Their predecessors left the larder bare.

Legislators could hope to increase revenue by cutting more state timber or save money by putting school employees into a common insurance pool. They could ax more state jobs that are on the books but not filled — for instance, wildfire fighters who may be needed next summer. They could salvage some of the less-controversial taxes in the budget-balancing plan and pass them once again. They could revive talk of selling the state-owned workers’ insurer SAIF, a terrible move that would harm Oregon businesses.

Any of these solutions will hurt someone. Cries of indignation will arise. And a special session will stretch on once again.

Frankly, the Legislature did do its job by balancing the 2003-05 budget last summer. Legislators’ solution might not have been the best one possible, but it is the best one lawmakers could agree upon.

Rather than holding out false hopes for some magic bullet, Oregonians should vote yes on Measure 30. Let the Legislature’s budget plan take effect.