photo by Matt Davis
photo by Matt Davis

ALMOST EVERY HAND went up in an audience of close to 300 people at a forum on the economic crisis in Gresham last weekend. The hands rose in response to a moderator's question: "How many of you have friends or family members who have had their hours cut or have lost their jobs?"

Portland's creative class may have been mostly insulated from the recession so far, but the story in neighboring Gresham is a different one indeed. On the road from Portland to the forum at Gordon Russell Middle School last Saturday, April 11, people waved signs on street corners advertising closing sales, while strip malls with vacant stores bore optimistic slogans and occasional clusters of limp balloons.

"The crisis we're facing today is unlike anything we've seen in modern times," said Democratic State Representative Nick Kahl, who was elected to the house last November in a Gresham seat formerly held by a Republican, Karen Minnis. For Kahl, like many Democrats nationwide, the timing of his recent election could be better: The $15 billion state budget is facing a likely $3-5 billion deficit this year, which means education, healthcare, and public safety will all be cut.

Kahl shared the bad news about the budget with the audience along with State Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson and State Representative Greg Matthews.

"The hole is too deep too fill strictly with revenue, and strictly with cuts," said Matthews, calling for "bold leadership" at the state level to hammer out a solution to the crisis. Most likely, that will mean new taxes for Oregon's richest and a fresh look at the state's controversial $10 minimum tax for corporations. The state's budget-deficit projection will be finalized on May 15, with lawmakers aiming to balance a budget by the end of July.

New taxes may be economically necessary, but they are politically difficult—especially in traditional swing districts like Gresham—even though the new taxes are unlikely to affect Gresham's middle or working classes directly. The Mercury asked Kahl whether lobbying for new taxes at the same time as cutting services in Gresham is likely to endear him to his constituents.

"It's my job to make them supportive," said Kahl. "I'm going to go out and talk to them, and get them on our side."

Meanwhile, the forum sought to place a human face on the looming crisis.

"Our programs are facing the elimination of 300 beds for youth offenders and the loss of 500 staff who ensure accountability," said Franklin Delano Weaver, who works in gang prevention for the Oregon Youth Authority.

"No one should have to be alone and suffering for the last days of their life," said Patty Brost, speaking about the potential impact of the cuts on caregivers for the elderly.

"Staff around me are being cut, we are seeing the elimination of jobs, and today, the reality is that if I need books about Thomas the Tank Engine to motivate kids, I need to buy them myself," said Jean Black-Groulx, who works for the Gresham-Barlow School District. "I don't know what next year will bring."