Senator tries to brighten grim budget report

On Friday Oregon legislators sank their teeth into a meaty budget deficit, but couldn't agree on which bites to take.

Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, made a whirlwind tour of Hood River County on Thursday to update citizens about the "angst" facing elected officials the following day.

"I do believe as difficult as this time is now, it too will pass," said Metsger during a presentation to senior citizens at Hawks Ridge Assisted Living Community in the Heights.

He said in spite of a great reluctance among the legislature, the severe budget crunch would likely bring at least some cuts to many existing programs. To prepare citizens for that grim news, Metsger toured Hood River Valley High School and Cascade Locks School and met with employees at Full Sail Brewery, which could be adversely affected by Gov. John Kitzhaber's proposed 5-cents-per-drink increase in beer taxes.

While he was making those stops, Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, was in Salem working on the Joint Interim Committee on Economic Stimulus and Public Policy to address budget-balancing issues prior to Friday's special session.

"Patti is holding down the fort while I escape from the committee today to meet with constituents from our districts," said Metsger. "I wanted to get away from Salem and let you know where we stand."

He told his Hawks Ridge audience of seniors that education, human services and public health and safety programs would probably face some level of cuts. Metsger said that move seemed inevitable, especially with news that $121 million of emergency reductions from the estimated $815 million budget shortfall last Friday were likely to be added back with a further decline in revenue projections.

He said at issue in the Feb. 8 special session would be a sharp debate between Kitzhaber and Republican leaders over whether $100 million should be borrowed from the Common School Fund, a move he believes will threaten a legacy for tomorrow's students.

However, Senate and House members of both parties contend that borrowing $100 million from the fund's $732 million principal would see Oregon through its immediate crisis -- without further burdening taxpayers during a time of high unemployment. Metsger said Democratic leaders were more in favor of borrowing that same amount of funding from the lottery-fed school endowment fund -- and there was bi-partisan agreement against raising taxes.

"Why should we institute long-term tax policies for a short-term fix?" asked Metsger.

He said there would probably be an added tax placed on cigarettes but the majority of legislators were opposed to an increase in beer and wine taxes. He said Kitzhaber's other revenue options would most likely be challenged.

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