How much worse can it get? With the state working through the last round of budget cuts, lawmakers and the public received the news this weekend that an updated forecast showing projected revenue has plunged by $244 million since the last predictions in December. That number could drop by another $100 million by the next update in mid-May.
The economic slump has forced tax revenue down by $2.1 billion since lawmakers adopted a $12 billion budget in mid-2001. The current two-year budget cycle ends June 30, and Oregon law requires a balanced budget.
Pendleton and Umatilla County officials and civic and business leaders are concerned. Some, such as city manager Larry Lehman, are worried that the latest economic news will only heighten the pressure to re-examine other options. Chief among those could be the closing of Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute.
That move was taken off the table by incoming Gov. Ted Kulongoski prior to the new Legislature being seated. He made that pledge on more than one occasion during visits to eastern Oregon and repeated that during a discussion with state newspaper representatives during his first weeks at the Capitol.
But with the economic outlook worsening, that's raised fears anew that EOCI would be placed back on the list of cuts.
Local officials have said that closing the prison, and with it the loss of hundreds of family-wage jobs and those peripheral jobs that would also be impacted, would be devastating. Our local state lawmakers remain hopeful that won't happen.
"That's one of the issues the governor and the Legislature are in agreement - the need to keep correctional institutions intact as part of the public safety system," said Rep. Greg Smith.
"The governor and the Legislature have made that commitment - to keep prisons in their present condition," said Sen. David Nelson.
"I don't see a shutdown of any one of them. I don't think it's perceived as a big area to save money."
Both Smith and Nelson pointed out new prison construction had been put on hold and that would help assure the need for maintaining existing prisons.
Legislative leaders said major spending cuts now would shut down entire agencies.
Most admit, "we are at the place where we have no other options."
As state lawmakers work through the process of finding more money to balance the budget, we urge that cuts that could cripple a local economy, such as the closing of EOCI, not be reconsidered.
Doing so would restrict our chances to survive the downturn and likely wipe out our ability to keep and attract existing and new business ventures.