March Sadness: The Budget Final Four

By NerdNerd March 8, 2009

nerdnerd21 This was the plan for Wednesday night: Let's get drunk and debate the budget. It was a plan some political kids and I schemed up. These political kids are gainfully employed organizing events to "engage Portland's youth voters" for the local PAC, The Bus Project.

Their events typically incorporate free cupcakes, a megaphone and someone in a media-friendly costume, meaning—gold stretch pants. I am dangerously close to becoming one of these kids, who speak in talking points and laugh coyly if you ask if they'll ever consider running for public office. But I've never been that good with a megaphone, so I stay behind the scenes.

I forget how we came up with the idea for March's outreach event, but it was very collaborative. Which means we are all to blame. So you know March Madness? The basketball thing? Okay, what if instead of basketball teams, you had experts on imperiled pieces of the Oregon state budget, which is facing grim cuts of up to $1 billion. The experts would face off against each other one-on-one, arguing why their special programs and services should be saved from the chopping block. The audience would vote which of the pair to spare and that expert would advance to the final four or, god be praised, win the event and not get cut. It's old folks versus public schools! The environment versus child care! It's the Oregon State Budget in 2009!

We decided to call the event March Sadness. This is what happens when you tell liberal arts college grads to organize an event: There is an 80 percent chance that they will plan the entire affair around a single cringe-worthy pun.

My task for March Sadness was simple: obtain two dozen donuts and also create a giant bracket to put onstage. I spent the day before the mock budget face-off crafting the ceiling-high bracket diagram from cardboard and left it outside to dry, where it was promptly rained on. As I left for work the next morning, I noted, with a tear, the pulpy melted-cardboard mess by the front door. I scraped together a new bracket after work and showed up to the preordained budget debate bar 30 minutes late and covered in paint but with two dozen donuts and a brand-new bracket victoriously stuffed under my arm.

By the time I arrived, my friend Henry Kraemer ("Oregon's youngest and least-paid lobbyist," he'll remind you) already had megaphone in hand and was idling near the stage. The gold stretch pants were nowhere in sight, but my friend Hannah was decked out as a referee, talking with the MC—ubiquitous and good-natured Oregon politico Steve Novick.

The crowd was ready. The donuts were in place. The youths were out in full force and I flagged down the bartender for an Oatmeal Stout. The experts launched into their two minute debating death matches.

In the first round, Public Safety went down in flames against K-12 Education funding. No surprises there, Portland. But the next vote was much tighter, as the Child Care rep debated for funding against Affordable Housing. Affordable Housing won some hearts and minds by pointing out that while Washington spends $186 million every two years on affordable housing, Oregon only invests a measly $7.8 million. Child Care was knocked out by just a few votes.

 That's when the cuts really got tough. Senior Citizens versus Small Business.

"Vote down their budget and they WILL DIE," said Meghan Moyer of the Service Employees International Union, which represents the estimated 17,000 home care workers for seniors and disabled people who will lose their jobs if the current budget cuts pass.

"I can't believe you played the death card," complained Tony Fuentes, a small business owner. "We've got this big budget hole, how do we dig ourselves out of it? If we want to save future grandpa we've got to invest in small business."

The vote was tight, but small business triumphed. Moyer was handed a hobo bindle and escorted from the stage. Host Steve Novick, for one, had little sympathy. "If the grandparents die, they'll definitely be more shovel ready," he joked.

In the end, K-12 Education triumphed over all the other budget items, heralding a tragic 2009 in which no one can afford to save the environment or the elderly.

After the political kids dumped a bucket of fake money over the school rep's head, Novick took a minute to stump about the budget cuts. "The Republicans took a knife to the most stimulating part of the president's package," said Novick, referring, of course, to education dollars, "They did a Lorena Bobbit on it." And everyone laughed. The puns. They will never stop. They engage the Youth!  

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