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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Legislative Session To Kick Off Amid Budget Questions

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network

The 2017 session of the Oregon Legislature kicks off Wednesday. Talk of how to bridge a budget gap of roughly $1.8 billion will dominate this year's session.

And the answer to that question likely won't be known for months.

"It's going to be a difficult session. I think everyone understands that,” Senate Democratic leader Ginny Burdick said.

Burdick has served two decades in Salem and said she can't remember a more challenging time to be in the legislature. Lawmakers essentially have to decide whether to cut state services or attempt the politically challenging task of raising taxes.

Republicans, for their part, aren't ruling out a tax hike entirely.

"We're willing to tackle these issues,” Senate Republican leader Ted Ferrioli said. “I said to somebody yesterday, ‘our love is not unconditional, but we're willing.’”

Democrats still need GOP votes

Republicans serve in the minority in both chambers but Democrats would need a handful of GOP votes in order to pass a tax increase. Ferrioli and most others in his party say any tax hike would need to be paired with cost-cutting measures, including to the state's public pension system.

At a preview ahead of the legislative session, a reporter asked House Republican leader Mike McLane if he could give a detailed list of cuts he'd like to make.

"Well sure I could,” McLane responded. “But you'd have to endure a 45 minute presentation with slides.”

But McLane said there's a general principle he'd follow if he were in charge.

"One of the ways you have to do it is to just not accept the premise that everything you did last year has to be done this year,” he said.

Foster care and human services

At a late January Salem rollout of an expanded effort to recruit foster parents in Oregon, Rep. Duane Stark was introduced as a champion of improving the state's foster care system.

Stark is a southern Oregon Republican whose family has hosted several foster children in their home. And he has plenty of ideas on how lawmakers should continue to invest in boosting the quality of foster care.

"That'll be a horn that I blow throughout session, that we need to be able to fund something like that and when we make our priorities, we need to make sure that is a priority,” Stark said. “So there will be a lot of other things we'll be talking about, but this is one that we need to get done."

But while improving foster care is a concept few would oppose, Stark will have to compete with plenty of other funding proposals this legislative session. And what makes his ideas an even tougher sell is that the state is roughly $1.8 billion in the hole when it comes to funding the services it's already providing.

Majority Democrats including House Speaker Tina Kotek say the cost of providing state services goes up in part because there are simply more Oregonians each year. Kotek said it's important that cost-cutting doesn't leave vulnerable people out in the cold.

"Ninety percent of our budget is education, human services, and public safety,” Kotek said. “And for us to continue what we're doing, we can't do that with our current tax structure.”

Lawmakers and the governor's office are in talks with business and labor groups to see if some kind of deal can be reached before the session is scheduled to end in early July.

‘I'm not sure we can do it’

At least one person in the building thinks it's going to be tough sledding: Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney.

"I have sent signals that I'm not sure we can do it because of the magnitude of the task and because so few people in the building have experienced what we're up against,” he said.

Courtney has floated the possibility of a special session later in the year if lawmakers can't beat the constitutional deadline to adjourn. And though budget issues will loom large, lawmakers also hope to sign off on a transportation funding package.

They'll also debate how to expand the state's roster of affordable housing, as well labor-friendly measures such as paid sick leave and requiring employers to offer more predictable scheduling for workers.

Another wild card? How to respond to actions by the Trump administration, especially if the President follows through on threats to withhold federal dollars from states and cities that protect people who are in the country illegally.