SUNRIVER – Dressed-down Gov. Ted Kulongoski never got as loud as his Hawaiian shirt when he addressed the state’s district attorneys at Sunriver’s Great Hall on Thursday afternoon. But he did promise to kick off a statewide discussion about just how much of the government’s tight dollars should go to locking up more prisoners under the tenets of Measure 11’s mandatory minimum sentences.
The governor, friends with many in the crowd from his years as attorney general, praised the DAs and county legal counsels for efforts to cope with very tough budget times that shut courthouse doors on Fridays for several months. But he couldn’t promise any major improvement in the situation, and seemed to be looking beyond the climactic final weeks of what soon will be a record-length legislative session.
Instead, he told the Oregon District Attorneys Association that he will lead a statewide effort over the next couple of years about whether “the right balance” is in place between the need for prison space and the competing needs of education, environment and health care, among other crucial areas.
Kulongoski also said he is pushing lawmakers to agree to a November statewide vote on a constitutional amendment that would allow Oregon State Police patrols to be funded from state highway (gas tax) funds – a revenue source the OSP was cut out of years ago, resulting in a patrol force at present that equals the ranks back in 1960. That would be in addition to a planned September special election on a proposal to refinance state bonds and take advantage of lower interest rates.
After his remarks, the governor huddled with advisors, then sent a memo to Department of Administrative Services chief Gary Weeks, saying he had “reluctantly signed” a second continuing resolution to keep the state’s finances afloat, pending an elusive final budget agreement.
While the “unprecedented” second resolution authorizes continued operations through Aug. 31, the governor’s memo – also sent to legislative leaders – made clear: “I do not want to sign a third continuing resolution. I am very concerned about the Legislative Assembly’s ability to adopt a balanced budget in a timely manner.”
And so, the governor is directing Executive Branch agencies without approved budgets by Aug. 15 to prepare “operational contingency plans … in the event they must shut down their operations,” if and when the second continuing resolution expires.
After his speech, however, the governor told bend.com/The Bugle that he does expect the Legislature, eight months into its work, to wrap up its business before August is through. Asked if there’s any chance of the state declaring bankruptcy, as some have mused, he said, simply: “No.”
Gov sees red-ink tide `flattening out’
Facing budget woes similar to, if not worse than what other governors around the nation have faced, and mired in yet another Salem budget battle so familiar to his fellow Democratic predecessor, Kulongoski still found reasons to smile, when asked if the job was what he expected it to be when he was sworn in amid all those good wishes back in January.
“I enjoy my job as much as I though I would – probably even more,” he said. Still, he had hoped an economic turnaround would kick in just as he took office, and that he could be taking credit by spring, instead of a string of dismal revenue shortfalls that made a bad situation worse.
“My guess is, we’ll start to see a flattening out” of the recent revenue drops in the next state revenue forecast, due out in September, Kulongoski said – and perhaps, even an improvement, for the first time this year. “We’re seeing good things happening in the Oregon economy now.”
The state’s jobless rate still leads the nation, but the governor said “there’s a whole statistic you have to keep in mind. People are continuing to move to Oregon, and they may not have a job. Or they may be a two-wage earner family, and one has a job, the other does not, so that one is out in the job market. Don’t get me wrong, the unemployment rate is a very serious problem.”
Greeted with a standing ovation – not something quite likely in the halls of the state Capitol – the governor’s opening quip razzed host Deschutes County DA Mike Dugan, who wasn’t yet in the hall, for landing him on Page 1 of the papers. The Catholic Diocese of Baker decided not to let local Democrats host Kulongoski – who is pro-choice – for a fund-raiser at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Sunriver Thursday evening, so it was shifted to a private home in the resort community.
“Well, as my wife told me, `That’s okay – you have to go to confession this weekend anyway, you can lay it all out,'” Kulongoski said, drawing a laugh.
The DA group’s current president, Crook County DA Gary Williams, had noted in his introduction that Kulongoski was not just a bowler and ex-Marine, but a former boxer – a job whose skills could come in handy in Salem. But the governor noted, “I was a bleeder when I boxed,” and no doubt there’s been enough blood shed at the Capitol of late.
The governor said district attorneys are “neither paid enough or thanked enough” for protecting Oregonians’ way of life – something Clatsop County DA Josh Marquis attested to while waiting for the governor’s arrival. The former Deschutes deputy DA said he’s paid $67,000 by the state and $12,000 by the county, but that the total is less than an assistant school principal makes in Clatsop County.
Cuts to cops/courts could have been worse
Patting himself on the back a bit, Kulongoski noted that when he was attorney general, much work was done to fix a “broken” juvenile justice system, as well as to crack down on elder abuse and those who target seniors for fraudulent deception. “I don’t watch much television,” he said, but guessed aloud that “Law and Order” has been popular for so long because “the public just likes prosecutors – and for a good reason. You are the people’s lawyer.”
“Just as I could not succeed as attorney general without you, I cannot succeed as governor without you,” he told the prosecutors. “That would be the case, even in a good economy, and … it’s really true now.”
The governor said that while “the public safety budget is less than we need,” it’s more than many in public safety, when there was talk of a $200 million hit to that area of the budget. That big a cut, he said, “was simply an unacceptable figure.”
“Right now, it looks as though the public safety budget will take an $87 million hit,” he said. “Even at $87 million, this is a step in the wrong direction, but this is a manageable step.”
“The Legislature cannot pass the buck on this issue,” Kulongoski said. “They need to put real money on the table, and if they don’t, they need to raise it – not with borrowing or one-time gimmicks. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening in this biennium.”
But the governor found “good news” in some facets of where the budget is heading: “All adult prisons will remain open. Two of the four juvenile facilities that were shut will reopen. My goal is to reopen the other two as soon as possible. We did not lay off corrections officers, and there were no early releases of prisoners.” Forensics labs
“The message for those looking for a `get out of jail free’ card is: Stop waiting. Santa Claus is not coming,” the governor said. “All courts will remain open five days a week. There’s a substantial increase in the number of background checks for people in sensitive positions,” although he added, “We need for the federal government to keep its word on funding homeland security” activities.
The state’s public safety training facility is “back on line,” he said, noting that “Oregon law enforcement has the lowest training requirements in the country: 10 weeks. I want to step that up to 16 weeks, and we will when the new facility is on line.”
Gov eyes November vote on OSP-gas tax funding
Kulongoski praised OSP troopers as “heroes” and called it wrong that “every time we have a budget crisis, our troopers lose.”
“We must have a stable source of revenue” for OSP patrol functions, he said, calling for putting them back in the state highway fund, with 1 percent of the gas tax dedicated to that important task. Some lawmakers don’t agree, so he’s putting his weight behind Senate Joint Resolution 13, a constitutional amendment to allow highway funds to be used for OSP patrols, with a goal of a November statewide vote.
Lawmakers in this session have made no changes to Measure 11’s mandatory sentencing provisions, Kulongoski said. “I believe that Measure 11 has had a positive impact” on the reduction of violent crimes, he said, with sentences “two to three times longer than before,” which also has boosted the state prison population by 60 percent.
The state could spend $5 billion “locking people up,” the governor said. “The fundamental issue is, what price are we willing to pay as a citizenry for the deterrence that Measure 11 and other mandatory sentencing measures offer? And what are we willing to sacrifice, in other to have that deterrence?”
Corrections costs have reached $1 billion a biennium, Kulongoski said, and that doesn’t include $240 million for the Oregon Youth Authority.
“The question we have to ask ourselves is, should schools and health care and the environment all take a back seat” due to that growing cost, he said. “Are we willing to see major increases in property crimes? Because that, too, is part of the legacy of Measure 11,” he said, cutting prosecution of crimes such as car theft and identity theft. “Oregon is No. 6 in the nation (per capita) for property crimes,” the governor said.
And so, the governor announced he “will lead an unflinching look at public safety during the interim” between sessions. “to be sure Measure 11 doesn’t cast too wide a net for certain crimes, and no net at all for others. There must be a balance between keeping Measure 11 offenders locked up, and giving property crime offenders something on the order of free rein. I’m not convinced we’ve found the right balance.”
“I need your help,” Kulongoski told the district attorneys, as “chief law enforcement officers in the state.” He vowed a close review of all elements of the criminal justice system, from emergency response to crimes against vulnerable populations, property crimes and the impact of the rising use of methamphetamine on the system.
Another issue, he said, will be whether “the juvenile justice system is too focused on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation – or is it the reverse?”
“My goal is to improve not just the policy, but the nuts and bolts of the system in ways that help you do your job better, the governor told the county prosecutors. “Yes, we need to make sure we’re spending the right amount of dollars in the right areas.” But he said the system needs to be treated just as that – a system – so that “no part fails.”
The governor also said he’s been working to fill a state Supreme Court vacancy since taking office. “There is no `short list’ of candidates,” Kulongoski said, but he vowed “to make this appointment very soon” – as well as to fill circuit court vacancies in Josephine, Clackamas and Marion counties, slots left unfilled during the recent budget troubles.
“Public safety is as much an important part of our quality of life as the environment,” the governor said.