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Aug. 7, 2020

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Close prisons, save schools? Oregon faces tough budget options

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SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The state’s top budget writers have proposed closing two Oregon prisons as lawmakers try to balance a huge budget shortfall created by the COVID-19 pandemic and business shutdowns.

In May, state economists predicted that a hit to income taxes, lottery revenue and business sales could result in Oregon taking in $2.7 billion less than expected for the two year budget cycle that ends in June 2021.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that lawmakers are considering shutting the Shutter Creek Correctional Institution and the Warner Creek Correctional Facility, prisons that can hold a combined 795 inmates.

At the same time, lawmakers have prioritized protecting the $9 billion state school fund, which pays for K-12 education in the state. Lawmakers also hope to keep intact money for early learning and statewide initiatives slated to be funded by a new sales tax on businesses, and maintaining funding for universities and community colleges, according to Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, a co-chair of the Legislature’s budget writing committee.

“We think that this next year is going to be extremely critical in terms of providing services for vulnerable Oregonians,” Rayfield said. “We were leery about making cuts (to those things), which caused us to look at other cuts.”

In a 13-page framework, the budget co-chairs — Rayfield, along with state Sens. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward and Betsy Johnson — said they tried to “protect essential investments in public education, health care, child welfare, housing, economic development, and other critical areas during this unprecedented public health and economic crisis.”

Among those “other critical areas,” the proposal maintains funding for Oregon State Police troopers and fighting wildfires.

While not a final product, the ideas include a mix of nearly $400 million in cuts and administrative savings, pulling another $400 million from a state reserve fund for schools, and tapping a series of resource adjustments that allow the state to close a nearly $1.1 billion budget gap.

Those numbers could look far different if Congress passes another aid package to help states struggling with COVID-19, something the governor and other state leaders have called for repeatedly. Oregon already received $1.4 billion from the $2 trillion CARES Act passed earlier this year.

The proposed prison closures would be staggered. Shutter Creek, a 302-bed facility in North Bend, would close quickly under the plan. Warner Creek, a 492-bed facility in Lakeview, would close during the budget cycle that runs from 2021-23. Despite the closures, the budget framework contains funding for the current prison population.

Cuts to agencies within the human services realm represent the largest portion of the budget realignment, with more than $180 million in reduced spending.

More than $80 million of that comes in the form of holding positions vacant, reducing services and supplies spending, restricting travel and actuarial adjustments. But lawmakers have also proposed eliminating some services at the Oregon State Hospital, which would include laying off 22 “non-direct care staff.” The details of those changes are not laid out in the framework.

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