Legislative Counsel paints bleak picture of consequences of not passing budget

As the Oregon House of Representatives continues to work valiantly on bills doomed to fail unless Senate Republicans return from their strike, a new statement from the office of Oregon Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson paints a bleak picture of what it would mean if the legislature does not pass a budget (which cannot be done unless Republican senators return).

The Oregon Constitution requires the Legislature to pass a balanced budget every two years to fund ongoing operations.

In short, the legislative adviser’s opinion said, failure to pass a budget would result in the state relying on what it calls “rolling resolution” to fund most basic services until September 15, 2023, when the resolution expires. (Agencies’ budgets would not increase compared to the previous biennium, meaning some services would be curtailed.)

After the resolution expires, the statement said, things would take a serious turn for the worse: K-12 schools would lose two-thirds of their funding; The work of the Oregon Department of Transportation would grind to a halt.

The other source of school funding, the property tax, has not been able to fill the gap and will not be available until well after school starts in the fall. “Municipal property tax revenues will not be available until after November 15,” the statement said. “Projects funded mainly from the state highway fund could not continue.”

Other major state agencies that rely on the general fund, such as the Oregon Health Authority, the Oregon Department of Human Services and the Oregon Department of Corrections, could close, according to senior deputy legislative counsel David Fang-Yen’s opinion.

And by law, Gov. Tina Kotek can’t do anything to extend the current order, nor can the Legislature’s Emergency Committee, which makes budget adjustments between regular sessions, do anything to remedy the situation.

“The governor cannot extend the current order,” the statement said. “The Emergency Committee could exist but not conduct business.”

Yesterday, after days of unsuccessful negotiations with Senate President Rob Wagner (D-Lake Oswego) and Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp (R-Bend), Kotek issued a bearish statement aimed at getting Republican senators back to work.

She said the 2002 House bill, a reproductive rights bill and a top priority for Democrats, remains a sticking point.

“Senator. Knopp made it clear to me that there is no way forward until HB 2002 is changed significantly or is no longer valid. “It is clear from my discussions that negotiations on HB 2002 are not an option,” Kotek said on May 31. “There’s still a window for Senate Republicans to get back to the table and get some of their policy goals for the session and deliver for Oregonians, but it’s getting tighter by the hour.”

The legal opinion finds that Illinois, which also requires a balanced budget, failed to pass a budget in 2016 and 2018, requiring court action to keep the state government afloat. Another consequence of this failure: the bond rating agencies downgraded Illinois’ debt, making it more expensive to borrow.

Many Salem watchers are skeptical that Republicans will return before the June 25 session is scheduled to close. If they don’t, Kotek could later call lawmakers in a special session to pass the budget plans, but there’s no guarantee Republicans would do so.

During a June 1 Senate session, Wagner tried to increase pressure on his Republican peers, many of whom already expect not to be able to run for re-election under Measure 113 (although that procedure is disputed).

He announced that beginning June 5, he would fine absentee members $325 a day.

This threat did not seem to motivate Knopp. “Republicans in the Senate don’t feel obligated to entertain his political theater,” Knopp said. “He has again retaliated against members who exercise their right to peacefully protest his own unlawful, bipartisan actions.”

The strike is now in its fifth week and is the longest in Oregon’s history.