SALEM, Ore. (AP) — In a year where Oregon has weathered a global pandemic that has killed more than 900 residents, forest fires that ravaged 1 million acres and ongoing protests in the state's largest city, Gov. Kate Brown’s budget proposal attempts to mitigate the effects of the turmoil.
The Democrat's 2021-2023 proposed budget and policy agenda, which was released Tuesday, relies heavily on securing additional coronavirus relief funds as current monies are set to expire on Dec. 31. For months Brown has urged Congress to immediately reinstitute the $600 supplemental benefit for unemployment and enhance federal employment compensation.
“2020 has challenged Oregon in unimaginable ways. We have been tested to the core, and the most vital needs of Oregon families — health, safety, education, housing, and the ability to learn a living — have all been challenged in new ways,” Brown said.
Brown said not everyone would be happy with the budget.
“The pandemic has led to a state budget shortfall that will require not only scrapping plans for long-needed investments, but also making small but difficult cuts in services and programs that affect Oregonians’ lives daily,” the budget document said.
A significant amount of the cuts fell on public safety and included the closure of three prisons in the next two years.
In addition Oregon faces a $718 million budget gap for the Oregon Health Plan, largely due to the pandemic.
Some of that gap will require “cost savings and asking our already-stressed health system to share in the sacrifice.” This could include lower than anticipated compensation for healthcare providers, which resulted in hospitals decrying the budget.
“She has chosen to propose direct cuts to hospitals in the middle of the biggest public health crisis in a century,” said Becky Hultberg, the president and CEO of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. “Cuts of this magnitude could force hospitals to reduce service to Oregonians during a pandemic.”
However, Brown’s budget would keep the state’s main school fund relatively unchanged at $9.1 billion. In addition the governor’s budget stabilizes education funding by drawing $215 million from the Education Stability Fund for public schools.
The governor’s recommended biennium budget spending plan is $100.2 billion in total funds spending, including $25.6 billion in General Fund and Lottery Funds. It will be considered by lawmakers when they convene in Salem in January. The Legislature is controlled by Brown's fellow Democrats.
As lawmakers wait to see if Congress will pass another COVID-19 relief package, Brown’s proposed budget calls for federal funds for COVID-19 testing, health services, rent forgiveness, targeted mortgage relief, additional $600 payments in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Insurance, a renewal of the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, child care support and more flexible Coronavirus Relief Fund support for local and state governments.
In addition to applying federal funds towards pandemic response, the governor’s budget invests $30 million in public health modernization “to better prepare Oregon’s public health system to respond to events like the current pandemic.
The budget also includes $17.9 million in investments in a range of strategies to protect seniors living in assisted living and nursing homes where there have been an abundance of COVID-19 outbreaks. Oregonians who are 80 or older account for more than half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
Those also struggling during the pandemic are small business owners and workers.
Restaurants have been forced to close their doors, only allowing takeout, as an effort to slow the spread of the virus and sometimes results in closing their doors for good. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, about 200 restaurants, or 2%, have permanently closed in the state.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating financial impact on many Oregon businesses and working families,” said Charles Boyle, the governor’s deputy communications director.
The governor’s budget also seeks to maintain funding for the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, Oregon Worker Quarantine Fund, and the COVID-19 temporary paid leave program, to continue to support Oregon workers during the pandemic. In addition the budget maintains funding for the Oregon Employment Department to ensure Oregon workers are paid the benefits they are owed, as well as for Oregon OSHA, to ensure workplace protections continue to be enforced.
As people have lost their jobs, their housing at times has also been at risk.
Brown is also proposing that $65.9 million be invested into housing and homelessness, $350 million be used for rent assistance and $250 million for affordable housing development funds.
While COVID-19 has put economic stress on Oregonians, Portland has also been rocked by ongoing protests over police issues.
The governor is calling for reforms in the justice system, from expanding police accountability measures, reforming courts and stabilizing the Department of Corrections budget going forward.
In addition, the pandemic has exacerbated disparities in education. One of the largest challenges for rural and impoverished students is access to the internet. Brown is proposing an investment of $118 million in broadband expansion statewide will connect an additional 50 urban and rural communities that currently lack access.
Lastly the governor is working to tackle the issues of wildfires, which burned a million acres, destroyed hundreds of homes and killed at least nine Oregonians this year.
Brown's budget dedicates $189.5 million to rebuild communities impacted by the fires. In addition, the governor’s Wildfire Economic Recovery Council will also have access to an additional $170 million of community development resources. Funds will support debris cleanup, tree removal, sheltering and housing, food assistance, and community infrastructure
The proposed budget invest $30 million in the Oregon Department of Forestry and sets aside $40 million to address recommendations from the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response. The budget also invests $73.7 million in fire preparedness, response, and prevention resources.
Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.