Senate President Courtney calls for ‘game-changing’ funding increase for children’s mental health

By Christopher David Gray, The Lund Report, March 5, 2013

childrenA pathway has appeared to the game-changing funding levels that Senate President Peter Courtney signaled for community mental health — at least for children – when the increased funding made a list of priorities when the co-chairs released their two-year spending plan Monday morning.

Courtney’s proposal called for a funding increase of $331 million for community mental health, including $46 million for children and adolescents — $28 million more than what Gov. John Kitzhaber had earmarked.

“We’re gonna get there or we’re gonna get close,” said Courtney’s spokesman Robin Maxey after the press conference.

Part of that increased money would be included in the $4.3 billion dedicated to human services, while the rest would be part of the $275 million in new taxes by eliminating some unspecified corporate and individual tax write-offs.

“We should treat our tax expenditures and deductions the same way as we see our regular expenditures,” said Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin.

The co-chairman’s budget projects $75 million from these new resources for children’s mental health and other healthcare priorities such as the tobacco prevention program, the Farm to School program, the Oregon Health & Science University Rural Scholars Program, mandated physical health education and an increase in payments to home care workers.

The details for the budget still must be worked out through the various Ways & Means subcommittees and could definitely change, according to Devlin.

That budget also keeps the funding levels consistent with the governor’s budget for coordinated care organizations and the state mental hospital. The proposal also presumes the Medicaid expansion will take place, giving Oregon Health Plan coverage to 250,000 newcomers next year however those dollars will come from federal coffers, not the state’s general fund.

Devlin and fellow co-chairman Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, called for a $16.6 billion discretionary budget over the next two years, which assumes $705 million in savings to the Pubic Employee Retirement Savings — which is more modest than the $865 million in the governor’s budget.

“It’s trying to thread a needle in the dark,” Devlin said. “We need to find a path that is both fair and proposals that will have both short-term and long-term savings. … Higher levels that don’t hold up in court don’t do anyone any good.”

The budget also assumes the savings projected by Kitzhaber from prison reform.

Education funding would be $6.55 billion over the next two years, an increase from Kitzhaber’s $6.15 billion and local districts would realize $50 million less in savings from PERS reforms than the governor proposed. Meanwhile, the human services budget would bump up by 9 percent.

The minority Republicans also presented their own budget proposal, one that would hold revenues at current levels while promising $1.8 billion in PERS savings, despite the tricky legality of scaling back public employees’ promised pensions.

Republicans including Rep. Dennis Richardson of Central Point and Sen. Doug Whitsett of Klamath Falls said they were shut out of the budget discussions brought forward by the majority Democrats, unlike last session, when the House was split between the two parties.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the Republicans have chosen to politicize the co-chairs’ budget,” said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.

The Republicans matched the Democratic co-chairmen’s numbers on education funding but sought to hold the line to roughly 2 percent annual increases for human services, roughly the current rate of inflation.

Richardson argued that the number of people seeking social services should decline as the economy recovers. “The caseloads should be decreasing,” he said.

He pointed out that human services represented 21 percent of the budget in 2005-07, yet absorbed 26 percent of the general fund last biennium because of the 2008 economic collapse. At the same time, the percentage of discretionary funds spent on education has declined from 44 percent to 38 percent.

“We’re placing the expansion of social programs on the backs of our children,” Richardson said.

Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, said the Republicans would be hard pressed to support any tax increases as Oregon’s unemployment rate clung to 8.3 percent.

But while tax increases require a bipartisan three-fifths majority vote, allowing tax expenditures already scheduled to lapse to actually expire does not require a similar majority.