Wildfires mean revised state budget

Wildfires mean revised state budget

28 January 2014

published by http://democratherald.com

USA — An expensive wildfire season and a decrease in anticipated revenue will force Oregon lawmakers to rework portions of the state budget when lawmakers return to Salem for a five-week legislative session that begins on Feb. 3.

The impact on the general public will be minimal, but some agencies may have to delay replacing workers who leave or put off the start of a new program, said Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat who is one of the Legislature’s chief budget writers.

“This is really budgeting along the margins,” Buckley said. “Students in school won’t see any difference. I think the folks who rely on human services won’t see any difference.”

The opportunity to rebalance the two-year, $16.4 billion state budget in this way was one of the primary justifications lawmakers gave in seeking annual legislative sessions, which voters approved in the 2010 election. The 35-day sessions of even-numbered years were designed to leave little time for more ambitious initiatives.

Agencies are in the process of reporting to lawmakers on potential options for budget savings, Buckley said.

Several massive wildfires this summer quickly burned through the money set aside for firefighting, leaving the state with a $40 million tab. Many agencies have higher labor costs because of new contracts with public-employee unions, and some have been affected by the federal government’s across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration.

The Department of Human Services, which administers public assistance programs like food stamps and welfare, reported to lawmakers this month that it would need $100 million from the general fund to fully balance its budget.

In approving the two-year budget last summer, the Legislature warned state agencies that they may not get 2 percent of their allocated funding in the second year and should plan accordingly. Many agencies will end up getting very little of that 2 percent, Buckley and the other budget committee co-chair, Democratic Sen. Richard Devlin of Tualatin, have said. Lawmakers can also tap into $155 million they had already set aside for emergencies and employee-compensation increases, though much of it is already spoken for.

Lawmakers voted to raise taxes during a special session last year. But the additional revenue was designated for education, mental health and services for seniors, and lawmakers want to honor that commitment.

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