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By Janie Har June 26, 2012

Does Salem traditionally wait 'until the money is almost gone' to pay for education?

Education is pretty much always in vogue in Salem, with politicians clamoring they are for it, not against it.

For example, Rep. Shawn Lindsay, R-Hillsboro, issued a press release last week, highlighting support from local school board members. He strongly believes that the K-12 budget should be approved early in the legislative session, say March or April, so that districts can start making plans.

"Families across Oregon set priorities and pay for the most important things out of their bank accounts first, not last," noted Lindsay (in the release). "Yet in Salem they have traditionally waited until the money is almost gone to pay for the most important things in our state’s budget."

That didn’t sound right. Lawmakers, as far as we know, do not parcel out money on a vote-as-they-go process. Instead, chief budget negotiators on the Joint Ways and Means Committee have a rough idea of how much they can spend for the next two years, and they start piecing the puzzle, knowing they have a minimum for some programs.

In an interview with PolitiFact Oregon, Lindsay said the Legislature has a history of approving budgets for lesser needs -- natural resources, employment department, housing -- before passing a K-12 schools budget. He thinks the process should be reversed. 

"The education budget is held until late in the session after less important budgets have been pushed out early. Those less important budgets are pushed out early so there’s less money in the coffers," he said.

Again, that continues to sound inaccurate. We turned to Ken Rocco, Oregon’s legislative fiscal officer. He’s the person who works with legislative budget co-chairs to piece together a spending plan for Oregon, a job he’s done for a long time. The 2011-13 general fund and lottery budget, for some perspective, is nearly $15 billion with $5.7 billion for K-12 schools.

Rocco confirmed what PolitiFact Oregon suspected.

Lawmakers know roughly what they have to spend. If they agree to a budget figure for K-12, that needs to fit within an overall budget that contains enough money to keep prisons open, provide social and health services, and pay for the state patrol. In other words, no individual budget exists in a vacuum.

"You need to have an overall plan," Rocco said. "You can pass the K-12 budget first, but you still need to know what that leaves for the rest of state government."

Schools have been receiving a shrinking share of general fund and lottery money, as other needs have grown. There’s no question there’s politics in budgeting, as legislators fight over issues such as compensation, regulations and standards. And there have been legislative sessions when K-12 was among, if not, the last budget to pass -- but not because that was all the money that was left over in the end.

We leave you with one final thought before our ruling. In 2011, lawmakers approved a schools budget early in the session, allowing the governor to sign it in April. But Lindsay did not vote for it. He said that while the early approval gave certainty to school districts, the amount was inadequate in his opinion.

Do legislators in Salem traditionally wait "until the money is almost gone" to pay for important programs, such as schools? They do not. Lindsay paints an inaccurate picture of the budgeting process. We rate the statement False.

Our Sources

Shawn Lindsay campaign, "Lindsay draws support from education leaders," June 21, 2012
The Oregonian, "Oregon's K-12 schools get shrinking share of state budget," April 17, 2011
The Oregonian, "Oregon K-12 school budget, at $5.7 billion, takes first step toward approval," April 7, 2011
Oregon House Republicans, "Republicans endorse measures to fill current K-12 budget gap, fund 2009-11 K-12 budget by 81st day, " Feb. 16, 2009
Interview with Rep. Shawn Lindsay, June 26, 2012
Interview with Ken Rocco, Legislative Fiscal Officer, June 26, 2012
Email from Rep. Peter Buckley, Democratic House co-chairman, Joint Ways and Means Committee, June 26, 2012

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