On occasion we are reminded that the budget process used by the Oregon Legislature and state agencies is a bit curious, if not lacking.
According to the Oregon Blue Book, the state’s revenue budget for the current biennium is $85.8 billion. Of that, 26.1% is the general fund, which comes from the state’s corporate and personal income taxes, cigarette tax and the estate tax.
About 44% of the state’s revenue comes from money agencies take in as fines and fees. Some of that money is dedicated under law or constitutional amendment to specific agencies or purposes.
About 1.5% of the revenue comes from the state lottery.
Instead of having all of the state’s revenue from taxes, fees and the lottery flow into the general fund and allowing legislators to set funding priorities, it flows into cubbyholes within various state agencies, where much of it usually stays.
As a result, when legislators write the budget they are debating the highest and best use of their lunch money. Most of the rest of the state budget — about 75% — is already spoken for.
This results in haves and have-nots among state agencies and a sort of budget panhandling exercise as some department heads try to make ends meet.
An example: the Oregon Water Resources Department administrator, Tom Byler, recently paid a visit to a legislative committee asking permission to raise fees for water transactions and dam inspections by 17% just to keep those divisions functioning. Even with the increase, several people would be laid off.
The implication is the legislature doesn’t have the money for OWRD and some other “have-not” agencies to do their jobs. Add to that list the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which is seeking permission to increase fees for food safety and brand inspections. Presuming the public has a vested interest in food safety, wouldn’t it make sense to pay for the cost of those inspections from the general fund?
The state Department of Parks and Recreation is an example of a “have” agency. Under a couple of constitutional amendments, 7.5% of state lottery proceeds are earmarked for the department. In the department’s proposed biennial revenue budget, that’s $147.2 million — about equal to the OWRD’s entire budget. The rest of the Parks and Recreation budget, $159.0 million, comes from user fees and recreational vehicle registrations.
Of that, the department proposes spending $259 million, only half of which would be on direct services. The rest, 49%, would be for “community support and grants,” park development and central services.
Assuming that transferring water rights and inspecting dams are important, it should be up to legislators to assure OWRD is adequately funded. That is not currently the case, because of the cubbyholes in other departments.
We cannot tell legislators how to put together a state budget, but we do know that the current system leaves some “have-not” agencies dependent on squeezing every penny out of farmers, ranchers and others who need water, state-mandated inspections or other services that are in the public interest.
At the same time, the “have” agencies such as Parks and Recreation have more than enough money to carry out their missions.
The time is long overdue to discuss this budget process shortcoming that leaves some agencies chronically underfunded and others overfunded.