Anti-tax groups launch spending limit campaign

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — With little fanfare, anti-tax activists have begun a signature-gathering drive to ask Oregon voters this November to clamp a tight new limit on state government spending.

If the measure wins a spot on the ballot, it will touch off what’s expected to be a high-spending campaign battle between tax foes who want to restrict government spending and those who say such a limit would put schools and important social services at risk.

Jason Williams of the Taxpayers Association of Oregon says thousands of petition sheets have been mailed to volunteers across the state asking them to help collect signatures for a new spending limit to replace the current one.

Paid signature gatherers might be brought in later to help round up the 100,000-plus signatures needed by the July deadline to qualify the spending limit proposal for the fall ballot, Williams says.

The current state spending limit, which is tied to Oregonians’ income, is so loosely drawn that it doesn’t really curtail state spending, Williams says.

“This issue really does resonate with people. They feel that a getting a real spending limit is long overdue,” he says.

The proposed initiative would limit state spending to the percentage change in inflation plus the percentage change in population growth.

Any override of the limit would require a two-thirds vote from both the House and the Senate and the approval of Oregon voters in a statewide election.

Williams’ group is teaming up on the new ballot initiative with FreedomWorks, the well-financed Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for lower taxes and smaller government in Oregon and other states.

In 2004, the two groups joined forces in a campaign that referred the Oregon Legislature’s $800 million tax increase to the statewide ballot, where it was soundly rejected by voters.

On the other side of the coming spending limit fight will be labor groups and advocates for education, public health and public transportation programs who will argue that such a limit will decimate public services.

Patty Wentz of the Our Oregon Coalition cites state estimates that such a limit, if it had been in effect since 1990, would have reduced by 25 percent the amount of state revenue available “for our schools, our roads and our seniors” in that time.

“It’s a pretty drastic proposal,” she said.

Wentz also noted that government spending limits suffered back-to-back voter defeats in Colorado and California last fall, which she thinks indicates that the American public is turning against the idea of imposing stringent fiscal restraints on government.

Most noteworthy, she said, was the election last November in Colorado, in which voters suspended that state’s spending limit and agreed to relinquish more than $3 billion in tax refunds to restore programs that were cut in recent years.

“We saw what happened in Colorado. It didn’t work there, and it won’t work here,” she said.

But a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for lower taxes and restrained government spending, says the spending limits proposals still have momentum around the country.

Ed Frank says voters in Ohio and Maine will decide on spending limit ballot measures this fall. Also, he says efforts are under way to place such measures on the ballots in Oklahoma, Nevada and Arizona as well as Oregon.

“Anybody who thinks the spending limit movement suffered a crushing defeat last year is going to be sorely disappointed in 2006,” Frank said in an interview from Washington. “The idea of restraining spending remains very popular with Americans from coast to coast.”

Still, Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said a spending limit “will not be an easy sell,” even though Oregon voters have rejected tax hikes in recent years.

“While I don’t see any great voter enthusiasm for additional taxes, neither do I see a lot of enthusiasm for a measure that could have unintended consequences” for public programs, Hibbitts said.

Plus, Hibbitts said he thinks unions, education groups and others likely will spend a lot of money on TV ads and other forms of campaigning to urge voters to reject the spending limit.