Progress, but no deal, seen in talks

By Dave Hogan and Jeff Mapes | The Oregonian | September 8, 2002

Summary: Budget negotiators, who will meet again today, are split on whether voters need to approve a tax increase Legislators and Gov. John Kitzhaber continued negotiating Saturday to fill a $482 million state budget shortfall but with no quick agreement in sight.

Negotiators said they would meet again today, but the House and Senate were not scheduled to return until Monday to consider any package. Negotiators are trying to agree on a plan that would include borrowing, budget cuts and a tax increase of some kind.

“I believe we’re making substantive progress,” said House Speaker Mark Simmons, R-Elgin, adding that he still wants any tax increase referred to voters — on the Nov. 5 ballot if possible.

Steve Marks, chief of staff for the Democratic governor, also said some progress was made but “there’s still a great deal to be sorted out.” Lawmakers are focusing on many of the same issues that have dogged them throughout the year’s fifth special session, which began last Sunday.

With the November election approaching, Democrats and Republicans want to avoid cutting school funding and other state services. Other points in the negotiations include:

  • Republicans are hesitant to raise taxes and prefer voter approval for any such plan.
  • Democrats want to approve a tax increase without referring it to voters.
  • Kitzhaber is insisting the plan also reduces the more than $1 billion deficit being projected for the 2003-05 budget.

Several Republicans, including Senate President Gene Derfler of Salem, also are pushing for changes in the state’s Public Employees Retirement System to reduce the pension system’s estimated $8.5 billion shortfall.

But Senate Democrats are resisting that effort.

“I do agree PERS ought to be fixed, but now is not the time,” said Senate Minority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland. She said lawmakers need to remain focused on the immediate budget shortfall.

Kitzhaber and about a dozen legislators and staffers met twice Saturday afternoon in a conference room in the governor’s office. At the same time, a House budget committee headed by Rep. Ben Westlund, R-Bend, began holding hearings on Simmons’ proposal that he announced Friday.

Simmons proposed $300 million from bonds or other one-time revenue sources, $50 million in permanent cuts, $150 million in one-time cuts and $350 million from a temporary income-tax increase that would cancel the one-time cuts if approved by voters. In the negotiations, Sen. Steve Harper, R-Klamath Falls, said although there was “no agreement on anything,” he was encouraged everyone was continuing to talk.

Harper said he thought it was a good idea for Simmons to put his plan out because “that gets the train started” for quickly moving a bill through once an agreement is reached.

“The clock’s ticking. We’ve got to get these things done,” Harper said.

But House Minority Leader Deborah Kafoury, D-Portland, said she was frustrated by the pace.

“There’s nothing going on,” she said, “and the speaker needs to get off the dime and get the process going.”