On occasion, we are reminded that the budget process used by the Oregon Legislature and state agencies is a bit curious.
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 mainly from the state corporate and personal income taxes, the cigarette tax and the estate tax.
About 44% of the state’s revenue comes from money state agencies take in as fines and fees in return for services. Some of that money is dedicated under law or constitutional amendment to specific agencies or purposes.
About 1.5% of the revenue comes for the state lottery.
Instead of having all of the state’s revenue from taxes, fees and the lottery flow into the general fund, much of it flows into cubbyholes within various state agencies instead.
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 is already spoken for.
This results in haves and have-nots among state agencies and a sort of legislative panhandling exercise as agency heads try to make ends meet.
An example: 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 will be laid off.
The implication is the Legislature doesn’t have the money for OWRD and some other “have-not” agencies to do their job. The reality is the money is tucked away elsewhere.
The Oregon 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 current biennial budget, that’s $107.3 million — more than twice the OWRD’s entire budget. Much of the rest of the Parks and Recreation budget, $98.7 million, comes from user fees, and stays within the department.
Assuming that transferring water rights and inspecting dams in a timely manner are important, it should be up to legislators to assure the agency is adequately funded. That is not currently the case, because of the cubbyholes.
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 and ranchers and others who need water, inspections or other state-mandated services.
At the same time, the “have” agencies, such as Parks and Recreation, have more than enough money to carry out their missions of managing state parks and campgrounds.
The time is long overdue to discuss this shortcoming that leaves some agencies chronically underfunded and others overfunded.