Due to the state's budget shortfall, more than $1 billion may have to be cut — and that could mean a three-week-shorter school year, fewer law enforcement officers on the streets and a reduction in human services programs available to low income people, for at least the next two years, Oregon Sen. Alan Bates said Monday night.

Due to the state's budget shortfall, $1.3 billion may have to be cut — and that could mean a three-week-shorter school year, fewer law enforcement officers on the streets and a reduction in human services programs available to low income people, for at least the next two years.

That's what Oregon Sen. Alan Bates said Monday night at a town hall meeting he held at the Ashland Elks Lodge.

"We have a very serious budget problem in this state and the worst economic crisis in this state since '29, '30, '31, '32," said the Ashland Democrat who is a member of the Oregon Senate's Ways and Means Committee, which handles financial matters.

Funding for the state budget for the next two years is about $4 billion short, Bates said. If the state uses its Rainy Day Fund and its federal stimulus money, Oregon will still be $1.3 billion in the red, he said.

"That is a huge amount," he said.

In order to fill that gap, the state will either have to slash funding for programs or raise taxes. "I expect that it'll be a combination of both," Bates said.

Bates supports a proposed 1 percent tax increase on people making more than $125,000 per year, he said.

"I really believe that we are our brother's keeper," he said. "I think we have a responsibility to step up in tough times and help each other."

In about a month, the Ways and Means Committee should come up with a plan on what to cut and what to tax, and then members of the committee, including Bates, will travel around the state to present the package and gauge the response to it, he said.

Bates plans to return to Ashland at that time and hold a meeting on the budget, he said.

Bates answers questions

After giving a short speech on the happenings in Salem, the senator took questions from the 50 audience members.

Answering questions, Bates, a former doctor, said he opposed putting fluoride in public water and he supported vaccinations, although people should be able to opt out of them for personal or religious reasons, he said.

For safety reasons, the senator also said he would support bills that would ban driving while talking on cell phones and would require older adults to get driving tests regularly after a certain age.

When asked about chemtrails, which is a term for pollution that some people believe is purposefully leaked out of planes, Bates said that since the trails would be coming from federal planes, he didn't have jurisdiction over the issue and couldn't comment on it.

After a would-be Southern Oregon University student said she was among the one-third of qualified students who were turned away from the psychology master's program, Bates said he would talk to the university's president, Mary Cullinan, about the matter.

"You have a valid problem there and I'll look into it for you," Bates told the applicant, Dawn Sturgeon.

The democrat said he also was concerned about the area's high school drop-out rate and that he supports non-traditional schooling methods that enable kids to do more hands-on learning.

In response to another question, Bates said he was not taking a position on the proposed Interstate 5 rest stop that would be located in Ashland.

"I think some local people have some real concerns, but I haven't made a final decision on that yet," he said.

Budget cuts a concern

Although many topics were discussed at the meeting, the state's budget crisis loomed largest in the Elks room Monday night for David Lane, a retired social worker who lives just outside Ashland.

"I'm horrified that we would have to face these kinds of cuts," he said after the meeting. "I know that there are thousands of folks that will have the quality of their lives reduced. I think it's serious enough that some folks will not survive because of these cuts."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.