Budget: Gelser Tells County Commissioners “We have to make really terrible cuts”

 Oregon is facing split projections on financially recovering from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. State budget cuts are expected to have a trickledown effect on county and city operations. 

“We’re in a lot of trouble,” State Sen. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) told Benton County commissioners at the opening of a Tuesday, May 26, teleconference work session. “We have to make really terrible cuts.” 

Also attending the remote work session was State Rep. Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis), a budget committee co-chair. He said an expected $900-million state budget gap is “manageable,” noting more than a billion dollars in reserve funds. Rayfield said future economic forecasts, including one in August, would aid the decision-making process on budget cuts.  

“Even before we got into the COVID mess, we were still projected to be in a revenue shortfall next biennium,” Rayfield said. “Now layer on top of that a decreased revenue forecast that puts us roughly in a hole of about $3.5-4 billion next biennium – that’s massive, that’s a real problem.” 

Responding to budget projections apparently not accounting for another outbreak, concerns were expressed about the possible effects on the workforce and education. There are public fears that a second viral wave could lead to a return or increase of pandemic restrictions on schools and businesses.  

The probable long and short-term hits to state and local budgets could lead to cuts across the board. Gov. Kate Brown has directed state agencies to prepare for a 17-percent reduction in the coming year. Brown recently estimated Oregon will suffer $3 billion in lost revenue this budget cycle. 

Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot said the cuts will likely hurt health-related programs she feels will be most needed – such as those for mental and behavioral health and developmental disabilities. 

I’m a firm believer in social determinants of health,” Augerot said. “We need to think about those basic things first.” 

Gelser said many of the services she is concerned about could see county-level cuts. She also said direct care health workers in Oregon have struggled with wage levels, and a lack of equity is becoming clearer in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Gelser said the people who are expected to continue working under risky conditions aren’t being appropriately compensated.  

“This crisis has really given us a pretty brutal … unmasked look at the way our economy really does disproportionately impact people, and how some of us that are very privileged really have an advantage based on the expectations we have of people that put their lives and families at risk,” Gelser said. “And many of those people are working in these human service programs.”   

Gelser also called for a special legislative session to look at more targeted budget reductions. 

By Cody Mann