That's a crisis?

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board August 12, 2011 05:43 pm

The word “crisis” pretty well was worn out during discussions this winter and spring about Oregon’s two-year budget cycle, which started July 1.

Turns out we could have just let that word relax.

Considering what state officials have done — and what they haven’t done — in the past six months, describing the state’s fiscal situation as a crisis seems at best exaggerated, and at worst grossly misleading.

First, the Legislature failed to do anything to curb the cost of Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System.

More recently, Gov. John Kitzhaber, who wasn’t averse to dire predictions about the budget after he was elected last November, negotiated contracts with the two unions that combined represent most state workers.

Those deals, which have yet to be ratified by union members, look a lot more like the status quo than they do the result of a financial emergency.

The (Salem) Statesman Journal, which analyzed the contracts, reported this week that “workers will tread water in the 2011-12 fiscal year, making about the same amount of money they made the year before.”

“A set of pay increases will allow workers to make a little more money in the second half of the biennium,” the newspaper reported.

So Oregon officials, from the governor on down, seem to be saying, in essence, that treading water constitutes a crisis.

Wrong.

Drowning is a crisis.

There are hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who don’t work for the state who would readily trade their situation for “making about the same amount of money” this year and “a little more money” next year.

Many of those workers make less money now than they did before the recession.

Quite a few others aren’t working at all, an experience exceedingly rare in state agencies.

The Statesman Journal article quoted a few state workers who complained that the contract doesn’t keep pace with inflation.

Well, inflation applies to everyone.

Do state employees, who in addition to their pay raises also have generous medical insurance plans and, in the case of thousands of workers who were hired before 1996, guaranteed pensions, truly believe that they are faring worse than most other Oregonians?

As for medical insurance, the employees interviewed for the Statesman Journal story also lamented that, for the first time, they will be required to pay a portion of their premiums.

The staggering toll: 5 percent.

Here’s the thing: We don’t like to malign state employees. The vast majority of them, just as in the private sector, are diligent, competent people who do their jobs and live a middle-class lifestyle.

And they have had to sacrifice during the recession — most notably, by taking required furlough days without pay.

But it’s difficult to muster much sympathy for a group that, compared to Oregon as a whole, has come through the economic doldrums relatively unscathed.

The only real villains, though, are the state lawmakers and officials who strived to paint a woeful picture of Oregon’s budget yet, when it came to the most expensive item on the tab — personnel costs — decided it could afford to spend a little more.

The only clear crisis we can see is one of conscience.