Wave of cutbacks hits Oregon

July 29, 2010

Tim Koch reports on how thousands of Oregonians will suffer from new budget cuts.

THE STATE of Oregon's Office of Economic Analysis recently announced a $563 million dollar additional shortfall for the current two-year budget cycle.

The newest budget gap came about as a result of lower-than-expected tax revenue due to the continued high unemployment rate in Oregon.

Immediately after the announcement, Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski held a press conference and ordered all state agencies to slash their budgets by 9 percent across the board. The governor is required by state law to immediately cut from all departments equally when faced by a lack of operating funds. "There will be layoffs," Kulongoski promised.

Oregon's budget woes are hardly unique. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 46 states face a deficit for fiscal year 2011--down from 48 state governments facing budget gaps in FY 2010. State after state is facing devastating cuts to basic services, while the Washington politicians squabble over what level of fiscal austerity is appropriate.

In Oregon, Measures 66 and 67--successful ballot referendums that raised taxes slightly on corporations and the richest residents of the state--helped stave off the most draconian cuts in the previous fiscal year. But the newest numbers illustrate that the measures didn't go nearly far enough.

Oregon voters rallying for Measures 66 and 67
Measures 66 and 67 staved off the worst of the cuts last year, but the budget ax is falling again

Oregon lawmakers are maneuvering with an eye to the upcoming midterm elections. Oregon Republicans have called for an emergency session of the legislature in order to make the cuts targeted rather than across the board(which the legislature can do legally, unlike the governor). The Democrats, who have a majority in the statehouse, blocked the special session in a bid to buy time, hoping that there will be more aid from Washington.

THE CUTS will have a terrible and immediate impact on thousands of the most vulnerable Oregonians. Even the mainstream daily newspaper, the Oregonian, which editorialized against Measures 66 and 67, acknowledged the devastation the cuts will cause. According to a July 1 report:

The Department of Human Services has started notifying seniors and people with disabilities that the state can no longer afford the services they receive. Approximately 2,400 letters were mailed Thursday to Oregonians who get more than 20 hours per month of state-paid in-home help, such as bathing or preparing meals.

"We are sorry to tell you that those services will end on July 31, 2010," the letter says. "The reason for this change is that Oregon's poor economy has resulted in reduced dollars for important public programs."

Home care assistance goes primarily to parents who need help in caring for a special needs child, and to seniors who need a little extra outside help to be able to continue living at home. Without this critical program, parents may be forced to put their special-needs children into the state foster care system, and many seniors will face the nursing home in order to continue receiving a basic level of care.

And the cruel irony of these cuts is that while in-house assistance costs the state around $630 on average per month per individual, the cost of foster care and nursing home care carries a bill of anywhere between $4,200 to $7,000 per month per individual. That's before you layer on administrative costs.

The cuts will also hit hard at public schools, which are already on a shoestring budget. Without federal assistance, K-12 schools will face a $237 million cut.

How different school boards will deal with the cuts is uncertain, but ideas already floated include teacher and classified staff layoffs, forced furlough days, pay cuts and elimination of sections of the curriculum. The Portland school board has proposed eliminating physical education for Kindergarten through middle school.

The reductions will filter through a long list of state-provided services--from acute care assistance to adults with severe mental illness, to Employment Related Day Care, which helps low-income workers provide child care while they're at work. Losing benefits from a program like these will force some to leave a job in order to stay at home to care for children, putting an even greater strain on working families.

For Oregonians, these cuts represent the first cold splash of an austerity tidal wave that's certain to strike unless we can build a movement to defend our schools, our basic services and our jobs.

The super-wealthy are all too happy to talk about the need to "spread the sacrifice" and be "fiscally responsible"--even after they collapsed the financial system with their speculative greed and then demanded (and quickly received) massive taxpayer bailouts.

The answer to this new wave of attacks is solidarity. Here in Oregon, we can begin by linking up the fights against K-12 cuts, and against tuition hikes and privatization schemes at the colleges, with the fight to save benefits for the disabled and the elderly. When we march against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the occupation of Palestine, we can and must tie the incredible expense of those useless wars abroad to our deficits at home.

And workers everywhere of whatever legal status need to stand staunchly against attempts to scapegoat immigrant workers for the crisis, because this weakens our class solidarity and hobbles our ability to fight back.

The fight for Measures 66 and 67 showed us that it's possible to untangle the twisted top-down logic of tax breaks for the rich, and service cuts and layoffs for everyone else. We need a renewed grassroots tax-the-rich movement in Oregon--one that can defend our interests as workers and show the people at the top that we won't pay for the crisis they unleashed on us.

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