One of the final items Oregon lawmakers checked off their to-do list during the 2018 session was an omnibus budget bill to authorize a wide variety of mid-biennium spending, from paying 2017 wildfire fighting bills to establishing Gov. Kate Brown’s new Carbon Policy Office.
Lawmakers even managed to scrounge up at least $6.4 million for half a dozen special projects around the state, despite concerns they will face a budget crisis in 2019.
Altogether, House Bill 5201 will allow the state to spend an additional $93 million of general fund and lottery money by 2019 according to the Legislative Fiscal Office, if Brown signs it into law. The two-year budget is roughly $21 billion. These types of mid-budget changes are one of the reasons the Legislature meets for short sessions in even-numbered years.
The largest single item in the appropriations bill is an additional $27.5 million to cover the costs of fighting wildfires in 2017, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. The bill will also allow the state’s child welfare program to spend an additional $15.7 million to hire more caseworkers and other staff to help foster children and families, a change requested by Gov. Kate Brown.
There is $5.2 million from the general fund to pay for emergency winter housing and shelter around the state. Oregon State University’s Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center netted $3 million for a wave energy test site. The state’s environmental agency will get $1.9 million for a new data system and the state’s emergency preparedness program will receive $1.6 million to repay federal funds it misspent.
One controversial line item is $1.4 million from the general fund to pay for a new Carbon Policy Office headed by the governor’s current carbon policy adviser, Kristen Sheeran. It’s supposed to support help a joint legislative committee develop a plan to cap greenhouse gas pollution that can pass during next year’s longer legislative session.
“Do we have any idea what the purpose of this is for?” Rep. Mike McLane, a Republican from Powell Butte and House Minority Leader, asked during a meeting of the Joint Ways and Means Committee on Friday.
Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat and co-chair of the committee, acknowledged to McLane that “this is an awkward moment.” He then explained the role of the new office in developing the carbon cap and trade plan.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat from North Portland, said during a meeting of a Ways and Means subcommittee on Friday that due to the difficult budget approaching in 2019, legislative leaders who developed the budget bill had to say “no” to many requests for money.
“There are some disappointed people out there wanting to restore cuts and fund new programs,” Kotek said. “We are trying to be very strategic about what we do … We did our best, and I think people need to focus on how we deal with our major budget problems next year.”
Kotek’s staff anticipates the state will need $1.2 billion more in the next two-year budget than it is projected to take in just to continue current programs. The Legislature has increased spending on education, child welfare and other programs in recent years as the economy purred along and tax and lottery revenue increased. But governments from school districts to state agencies anticipate big cost increases because they will have to pay more to the state’s public pension fund, which has a projected long-term shortfall of approximately $22 billion.
Cash to cover the additional spending in the remainder of the current budget period largely comes from unspent funds in the last budget and higher-than-anticipated lottery revenues. Legislative economists estimate the state will gain an additional $140 million if a corporate tax plan, Senate Bill 1528, becomes law, but directions on how that money will be spent are not included in the budget adjustments approved Saturday.
Lawmakers allocated $3.3 million to cover the cost of the January special election on health care tax Measure 101. They directed $3 million in lottery bond proceeds to the construction of a secure adolescent inpatient facility at the Children’s Farm Home in Corvallis operated by Trillium Family Services and $2 million in lottery bond money to construction of a new treatment center to be operated by DePaul Treatment Centers.
The bill also includes $6.4 million for projects around the state:
- $1.1 million for a northeast Portland nonprofit founded in 2014, the National Urban Housing and Economic Community Development Corporation, to implement “an affordable homes, skills training and jobs program for unemployed prior offenders, at-risk youth and veterans”
- $1.9 million for a Rogue River Valley Irrigation District canal
- $1 million for the city of Maupin’s civic center project and $500,000 for a fiber optic internet connection to Maupin
- $300,000 to expand the public library in Milwaukie
- $300,000 to help restore the Gem Theater, a 1901 building in Athena that started out as a saloon before transitioning to a theater
- $200,000 to help Benton County make the transition to ranked choice voting this year, a change that voters approved in 2016
- $100,000 for a study of the “Silvies River and its drainages.” The stream system is located south of John Day, where Silvies Valley Ranch owner Scott Campbell “has been building artificial beaver dams and other water diversions” for more than a decade without seeking state and federal permits, Willamette Week reported.