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Oregon looks at budget deficit despite Medicaid tax approval

The dome of the Oregon state Capitol as seen Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. (Photo: Steve Benham/KATU.com)

Oregon's Legislature faces a likely budget shortfall as it prepares for the 2018 session that starts next week, the Senate president said on Monday.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said at an Associated Press forum that the Legislature "got a break" because voters last week passed Measure 101, which imposes a tax on hospitals and health insurers to help pay for Medicaid for low-income residents.

However, Courtney said "we've got a serious budget issue" because of an expected deficit of $200 million to $300 million stemming from changes to federal tax laws that likely will have to be addressed.

Democrats in the House intend to focus on establishing a right to health care, investing in public education and mitigating climate change, among other priorities, said House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland.

That's too ambitious of an agenda for the short legislative session, Republican Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte told reporters.

"All I've got to say is, wow, all in 35 days," he said. "Abuse of this short session has brought us to the point of questioning how we operate. The session has turned into a propaganda session and a campaign session."

Courtney also voiced concern about the Legislature taking on too much when he appeared separately with the Senate leadership panel.

"Already the expectations are well beyond what you can do in a 35-day session, well beyond, in so many areas" Courtney said.

In the November 2010 election, Oregon voters approved a measure to change the number of times the Oregon Legislature met, from every two years to every year, with a 160-day session in odd-numbered years and 35-day session in even-numbered years.

Courtney said holding long sessions every year, as suggested in a column in the Bend Bulletin newspaper on Saturday, seems improbable the way the Legislature is currently structured.

"If you do that, you've got to recognize there has got to be (more) pay, there has got to be staff, and I don't think the state's there," Courtney said.

Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said she expects lawmakers to act quickly to put a referral to Oregon voters on the national popular vote. A bill in the rules committee would also require presidential and vice presidential candidates who want to be on the ballot in Oregon to fill out financial disclosure forms or release their tax returns, Burdick said.

Republican President Donald Trump won the 2016 election by an Electoral College vote but lost in the popular vote. He has refused to make his tax returns public.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said a "one-time hit" on the budget is anticipated from the federal tax overhaul.

But McLane said the tax changes passed by the federal government will increase money coming into state coffers, will make Oregon's economy grow, and will reduce taxes most Oregonians pay.

"If taxpayers behave in certain way, then it's possible that in the short run, the state government may have a reduction," McLane said. "But all projections and the state economists have said the tax plan passed by Congress and signed by the president will increase the amount of money coming into the state government."

Appearing separately before reporters, Gov. Kate Brown outlined her five priorities for the legislative session:

Encouraging job creation and affordable housing in rural Oregon; driving down unfunded liability in the pension system for public employees; prohibiting people convicted of stalking or domestic violence from buying guns; provide those addicted to opioids with mentors, often people in recovery themselves; and cut state procurement costs.

Brown did not mention among those priorities a cap and trade plan to reduce carbon emissions in Oregon. California and some Canadian provinces have already adopted their own.

Jackie Winters, a veteran lawmaker from Salem who is the new Senate Republican leader, said the short session shouldn't take on major policy issues.

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