June 2nd, 2011 | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: Legislature, Politics

Lawmakers Punt Litmus Test 911 Bill

Oregon State Capitol.Oregon's Capitol Building

An obscure bill heard Wednesday in an obscure state legislative committee served to underscore a far larger point—it will be extremely difficult to get lawmakers to give up one of their semi-secret weapons: the ability to "sweep" special funds designated for specific funds into the general fund. That is a tool that lawmakers have historically used to balance the state's budget, and a privilege they do not want to relinquish.

At issue in the sleepy Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on June 1 was House Bill 2076. That bill had, to use one of the Legislature's greatest phrases, was a "gut-and-stuff" bill. In effect, Rep. Deborah Boone (D-Cannon Beach), had taken a dead bill, HB 2741, and stuffed into it one of her top priorities—legislation that would place funds collected for 911 operations into a trust account, rendering them off-limits to lawmakers looking for extra cash with which to balance the budget. 

"This concept had overwhelming support in the House Judiciary Committee," Boone testified. "Then it sat there and did not receive a work session [consigning it to death]."

Boone and Hasina Squires, a lobbyist for the Special Districts Association of Oregon (which includes fire districts and others dependent on 911 service), argued that "sweeping" money from the state's 911 account violated the spirit of the agreement with telecom companies. (Lawmakers have tried this six times in the past decades, and three of those attempts got vetoed.) The telecom companies collect 75 cents a month for each land or cell phone line capable of accessing 911, excluding pre-paid cellphones. More importantly, it violated the intent of ratepayers who assume their money is being used for emergency services.

The tax generates about $40 million a year for the state's 911 service providers, about a quarter of their total budgets. Much of the money flows through to the city and county providers but sometimes when lawmakers are short of money, they grab the funds not yet distributed. In 2009, for instance, they "swept" $3.6 million  from the state 911 fund.

"People expect these monies to be used for the purpose for which they were collected," Squires testified. "What this bill would do is restore the public's faith and trust that monies collected for this purpose would not be used for other purposes."

Although a few funds are Constitutionally protected from sweeps, many funds, such as unemployment funds college tuition dollars to fees collected from professionals such as accountants are not. So putting 911 funds in a metaphorical lock-box would have been a big deal, as Squires reminded lawmakers.

"It is wrong and inappropriate for the legislature to sweep those [911]," Squires said. "We hear a lot in this building that sweeps are bad. Here's your chance to put that in statute."

But in a session that has seen more inaction than action, the four members of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Chairman Brian Boquist (R-Dallas), Peter Courtney (D-Salem), Laurie Monnes Anderson (D-Gresham) and Andy Olsen (R-Canby) punted the issue to an interim work group.


 
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