Ever the optimist, even Betsy Johnson's usual broad smile held a tinge of fear at what is ahead for Oregon.

"We are staring down the barrel of a $3 BILLION out of balance for 09-11," the North Coast's state senator told an audience in Astoria Sunday afternoon.

The budget ax is falling even as advocacy groups marshal their efforts to lobby for priority funding and lawmakers return to Salem this week to make tough choices.

"I shudder to think how bad it will be for the first billion," she said.

Johnson, D-Scappoose, was joined by the North Coast's two state representatives, Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, and Deborah Boone, D-Cannon Beach, in a series of town hall meetings that began Sunday morning in Seaside and progressed to Astoria, Clatskanie and Scappoose. Saturday, lawmakers hit Nehalem, Tillamook and Pacific City with the same bleak message.

Johnson said upcoming discussions in Salem about the current budget that ends in July and the new one for the years 2009 to 2011 won't just be about what gets cut.

"We are going to engage in a new conversation about what constitutes essential services," she said. "With the economy in the shape that it's in right now, there just isn't enough to pay for everything."

The Astoria gathering in the Kern Room of the Columbia River Maritime Museum attracted 120 people, many standing around the perimeter once all the chairs were taken. The mood was gloomy, although there were several rounds of applause for the trio of lawmakers.

Some 25 people spoke during the 90-minute meeting, with topics ranging from fish allocation controversies to education, the treatment of veterans, the mentally ill and seniors. More details will be highlighted in Monday's edition of The Daily Astorian.

The proposed liquefied natural gas terminals on the Columbia River were on several attendees' minds. At least eight people wore red anti-LNG T-shirts and three spoke, urging lawmakers to support anti-LNG efforts at state level. Two others spoke in favor of LNG, highlighting the jobs the terminals would create.

Witt said the biggest problem facing Oregon was the fact that the state relied on personal income tax at a time when so many people were unemployed. He said the recently announced 9.9 percent state unemployment rate actually masked a figure perhaps as high as 15 percent because many people who worked up to three part-time jobs were not able to apply for benefits if they lost one of their jobs but were still working.

"They are locked in a never-never land," he said.

He attacked the "bunch of shysters" who had allowed dubious mortgages, knowing they would get paid upfront and not have to deal with the consequences. He said the key to Oregon's revival will be putting people back to work so they can boost the economy by spending, while at the same time regaining trust in financial institutions.

A quick show of hands showed overwhelming support in the room for abandoning the "kicker" tax refund and returning the money to the state. Witt said this would return $800,000 from individuals and $200,000 from businesses.

"My hat is off to every one of you," he said.

However, a call for Oregon to introduce a sales tax attracted a little over one-quarter of the room raising hands.

* Watch for more on this story in Monday's edition of The Daily Astorian and on this Web site later Monday

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