January 19, 2004
Measure 30: Impact of 'no' vote on state is hotly disputed
By David Steves
SALEM - If voters pass Measure 30, funding for schools and colleges, health care and public safety programs will remain much the same for the next year or so.
And if voters turn down the measure - and its $800 million in tax revenue for 2003-05 - state programs could be in for big changes.
But just what those changes will entail is turning out to be a big part of the debate leading up to the Feb. 3 election date.
Current law and the present political climate suggests those changes will take the form of cuts from education, human services, state police and the prison and youth corrections systems. But opponents of the tax increase say those cuts aren't really necessary - except as a political weapon wielded by supporters to threaten voters into passing Measure 30.
When the Legislature drew up its package of temporarily higher income taxes, a boost in corporate taxes, and a handful of smaller revenue raisers, it also passed what could be called "Plan B." In the event that opponents gathered enough signatures to force a referendum vote, leading to a repeal of some or all the taxes, a separately passed law would trigger automatic budget cuts. Because one of those taxes were not subject to the referendum - a nursing home tax meant to generate more money for senior care - the smaller of two sets of cuts, totaling $545 million, are to go into effect starting May 1. Those cuts, under the law, will come in specified amounts:
• $299 million from education.
• $188 million from health and human services.
• $58 million from public safety.
Affected state agencies this month released detailed plans for how it would absorb those funding reductions. Among the casualties include schools, with the possible loss of nearly a month's worth of school days or the layoff of thousands of teachers. University and community college students would face higher tuition or fees and more competition to get into the classes they need. Counties would lose funding for jails, the juvenile prison system would close beds and reduce supervision programs, and tens of thousands of lower-income workers and the poor would lose government-paid health care.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski said it's wishful thinking to hold out hope that less painful alternatives can be found if Measure 30 fails. He cited two years of tough decisions forced by a $2 billion drop in revenue from the levels budgeted before the recession hit Oregon in 2001: cutting public employee pensions and freezing pay, halting new hiring, reducing services for seniors and cutting people off from health care, boosting tuition and other reductions. What's left, he said, is a general fund that puts 55 percent of its dollars into education, 24 percent into human services and 15 percent into public safety - and the Legislature distributed the cuts the same way.
The Democratic governor said he's convinced that lawmakers will remain opposed to coming back to Salem to undo the cuts because they've already concluded that they're the only remaining option if voters say no to higher taxes.
"Why they're doing it that way? You follow the money," Kulongoski said. "I don't like it either, but that's where the money's at."
But advocates for Measure 30's defeat say taxpayers expect and deserve a different response if the tax increase goes down.
The Legislature and governor should prioritize government programs and spending, hold a special session before the cuts take effect and repeal the "disappropriation" bill so they can reduce the budget without harming the most essential programs.
Russ Walker of the Taxpayers Defense Fund said the two years of tough fiscal times have led to modest reductions in 1990s-era government expansion and a reining-in of excessive spending for nonessential programs - but not nearly enough. He said letting the cuts go forward would amount to a "missed opportunity" to bring government spending back to basics.
"If we can't address what programs we fund, when we fund them and prioritize those programs now, I don't think we're ever going to address them," said Walker, one of the chief petitioners on the signature drive to force Measure 30 on the ballot.
"We won't address them once the economy recovers for sure, because once the economy recovers, we'll have a broader revenue base and we'll begin once again the process of spending every dime that comes through the door."