23 Mar

Kicker and kindergarten craft the legislative session

SLATIVESALEM – The major funding issues of this legislative session come down to two inheritances from previous sessions, each sweeping down on the general fund from opposite directions:

Kicker and kinder – as in kindergarten.

For anybody seeking Oregon’s long-awaited reinvestment opportunity, that could make this session a clunker.

Four years ago, legislators expansively declared that Oregon would finally move to full-day kindergarten – widely considered not only a good idea but an overdue idea – and that this session would figure out how to pay for it.

That’s going to come to $220 million, not counting glue sticks and juice boxes.
In a reviving economy, that could still leave some revenue for some other investment – except for a powerful punt from Oregon’s unique tax kicker.

The kicker, a legacy from a much earlier legislature trying unsuccessfully to avert a tax limitation measure, declares that if state revenue over a two-year period exceeds projections by 2 percent or more, the state has to return all the additional money. The chances of this happening this year were increased by another legacy from a previous legislature, the 2013 special session that found some more money for schools but also created a $100 million head start toward reaching the kicker – something it took numerous people in the building rather a while to realize.

So now, the budget faces $220 million for full-day kindergarten plus as much as a $300 million to $400 million cost for the kicker.

Which makes a considerable blow to expectations of reinvestment.

With that situation, said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, last week, “You can’t do game-changing investments. You can’t do anything substantial.”

For example, “The kicker projection will not allow us to do more for higher ed.”
The higher education forces, the universities and the community colleges, have been among the most energetic seekers of reinvestment, pointing out that other parts of the budget have returned to pre-recession levels faster than they have. Supporters of K-12 education also argue that their budget, aside from full-day kindergarten, looks too much like the current budget to be an advance, or even holding ground.

Thursday, members of United for Kids, an emerging alliance of 65 children’s advocacy groups, met to discuss organization and lobbying for some Oregonians who may never have heard that the recession ended. According to one of their documents, child poverty in Oregon is up 10 percent since 2009, and 25 percent since 2007.

Oregon has had discouraging numbers for children for a while, and over time, said Tonia Hunt, executive director of Children First for Oregon, “The numbers really haven’t changed, and in fact, many have gotten worse. I believe this is where kids could flourish. I’m sorry to say it has not happened yet.”

Along with a Progress Report – if “progress” is the word we want here – the group offered a Children’s Agenda and an extensive rollcall of bills it was supporting in the legislature. Some of them, such as an increased minimum wage and mandatory statewide sick leave, wouldn’t cost the state much. But a number of others, such as expanding the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and bolstering day care programs, especially Employment Related Day Care, would indeed require some of what you might call reinvestment.

Strengthening day care has also been a priority of the speaker, something she was targeting well before the session began. The proposal, somewhat larger back then, now comes to a $16 million bill achieving several day care goals, notably insuring that several thousand families receiving state subsidies for day care would be assured of a year of support. The proposal would also encourage the seeking of quality day care, a major objective of the education reform system set up by the previous governor.

All the budget planning, of course, hangs on the May revenue forecast, which in the great suspense tradition of Oregon fiscal planning could make things better, worse or not change anything. It could also raise the question of what the legislature wants to do with the kicker money, which, by a two-thirds vote in both houses, it could decide to retain.

The legislature could ask Oregonians, Kotek suggests, what they want: “Is it a $100 tax credit, or $200 million for your schools?

“I would like us to have that conversation.”

The legislature has kept the individual kicker, back in the 1980s, in more desperate times. It’s a question whether legislators, including some Republicans, would be willing to do it for reinvestment.

Or, it seems, whether we’ll ever get to reinvestment.

NOTE; This column appearedin The Sunday Oregonian, 3/22/15.