Plan demanded to address $17 million state budget hole

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – A key Republican lawmaker demanded Wednesday that Gov. Ted Kulongoski and state social services officials present a plan next week to wipe out a $172 million gap facing the state’s programs aiding low-income, elderly and disabled Oregonians.

"If there is no plan of action, it means there has been a dereliction of duty," Rep. Dennis Richardson said after a House task force he heads heard testimony from human services officials about how the budget gap occurred.

Richardson said the Kulongoski administration must be prepared to spell out details of its budget fix when the Legislative Emergency Board, which handles budget matters between sessions, meets Jan. 19-20.

The political pressure by the Central Point lawmaker came as the various sides in the debate struggled to reach a consensus on how to fill the budget hole.

The governor has said there’s no need to rush into a solution, and that the issue can be dealt with administratively for now without making drastic cuts in services for the poor.

Kulongoski spokesman Lonn Hoklin said Wednesday that the governor continues to meet with human services officials to talk about improving the department’s forecasting of caseloads and pushing for more aggressive fiscal management of the state’s largest agency.

Hoklin said he wasn’t sure if the governor would be ready to present details of the plan to the Emergency Board.

"There’s a lot of work to be done on this," Hoklin said. "Whether it will be done by next week is uncertain."

Meanwhile, Senate President Peter Courtney on Wednesday repeated his call for a special legislative session to ensure that the human services agency remains able to provide health care and other services to low-income, elderly and disabled Oregonians.

The Emergency Board has only limited powers and won’t be in a position to tackle a $172 million problem, the Salem Democrat said.

"The governor and others are saying, ‘Let’s go slow and not do something precipitous,’" Courtney said. "The fact is, everything I’ve seen tells me the most responsible approach to this would be a special session."

The comments by Richardson came after his House Department of Human Services Review Task Force heard several hours of testimony on the budget gap facing the human services agency.

Department officials have said the budget hole was caused by a reduction in federal matching funds and an unanticipated increase in people seeking health care paid by state-federal Medicaid funds.

Agency director Bruce Goldberg said that, among other things, the department will be emphasizing getting more frequent updates on how many people are being served by the state’s health and social services programs.

"We need to look at the caseload forecasting month by month," Goldberg told the task force.

Earlier, the panel heard assurances by human services officials that they were not adding to the agency’s budget problems by allowing illegal immigrants to sign up for services they aren’t eligible to receive.

A group called Oregonians for Immigration Reform and some lawmakers have raised concerns that illegal immigrants from Mexico are causing financial problems for the state by signing up for health coverage under the Oregon Health Plan.

Agency officials responded that the emergency services and health care the state affords to undocumented immigrants are required by state or federal laws and that those services have not been a significant factor in the current agency shortfall.