The Oregon legislature was forced into its third special session of the year last week and voted to take the "profits" from the state's accident insurance fund to keep the state solvent.
A new drop of $87 million in projected revenues brought to $500 million the likely falloff since the legislature adopted a $3.3 billion general fund budget for the 1981-83 biennium. Most of that reflects a decline in state income taxes paid by Oregonians battered by the worst recession in memory.
Bound by the state constitution to run a balanced budget, the legislature made up $313 million of the deficit with spending cuts and accelerated tax collections in a rancorous 37-day special session last January. Another $100 million was pared or "found" in a one-day session in June.
This time, as in June, Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh and leaders of the Democrat-controlled legislature agreed to tap the "earned surplus account" or profits of the State Accident Insurance Fund for $81 million.
SAIF, an independent public corporation that writes most of the workers' compensation insurance in Oregon, returned $52 million in dividends to its 40,000 policy holders last year. But its surplus is still expected to reach $200 million this year. Since SAIF pays no taxes, the proposed levy of $81 million is being presented as a one-time payment in lieu of taxes.
Others called it a "raid." State Sen. Richard Groener (D) said the money "belongs to the employers for the benefits of the injured workers." SAIF's board chairman, Roy Livermore, said, "I do not in any way endorse this attempt to take trust funds of the company." But Attorney General David Frohnmayer cleared the legality of the action.
In a 12-hour session last Friday the legislature also made another cut of $10 million in property tax relief payments. Atiyeh is seeking reelection in November, as are most members of the legislature. Raising taxes or cutting still more from agency budgets and services held little appeal two months before Election Day.
Tapping the SAIF surplus may prove to be a tempting precedent. Oregon's economy is not expected to improve much until mortgage rates drop nationwide, stimulating housing construction and reviving the depressed wood-products industry. The new legislature that meets in January will find a lean cupboard, and another dip into SAIF's profits may seem unavoidable.