Oregon cap on spending is in unions’ crosshairs

Can a good defense trump a good offense?

Oregon’s largest state-worker and teachers unions hope to find that out next year. They recently submitted a 2006 ballot measure that could take the wind out of a state-spending limitation offered by two conservative groups.

The new initiative petition by the Service Employees International Union Local 503 and the Oregon Education Association would exempt state spending on schools, universities, health care, senior services and public safety from any constitutional spending limits.

That would shield most of the state general fund budget from several spending-limit petitions submitted for 2006 by FreedomWorks and the Oregon Taxpayers Association.

“There are a variety of measures that are out there that would attack these basic services,” said Arthur Towers, the political director of SEIU Local 503, and a co-petitioner of the new initiative. “We want to give voters a clear opportunity to preserve those services.”

The other co-petitioner, Chip Terhune, is the public affairs director of Oregon Education Association.

“Oregonians have a real interest in making sure that issues like education, health care and public safety, and the ability for government to be able to perform its duties adequately, should not be pitted against what I would describe as extremist spending caps,” Terhune said. The initiative will give voters a choice about what kind of spending limit they want, he said.

Russ Walker, who runs the Oregon chapter of the national conservative group FreedomWorks, said the union initiative did not surprise him.

“We knew they would do everything they could to stop our attempt to put fiscal restraints on government,” Walker said. “They’re attempting to essentially exempt everything from a state spending limitation.”

FreedomWorks and the Oregon Taxpayers Association have submitted several initiatives modeled after Colorado’s strict spending limit. They would cap spending increases, pegged to the rate of inflation and population growth.

The two groups are evaluating the best measure to submit for signature-gathering, in part based on polling results. Both groups have agreed to work together, Walker said, although his group has national ties and deeper financial backing.

If both the union and FreedomWorks measures pass, the one garnering the most signatures would have more legal weight than the other.

Public-employee unions used the same strategy in 1998, when faced with a ballot measure by anti-tax crusader Bill Sizemore that would have restricted unions’ ability to collect union dues for politics.

Unions proposed a mix of popular campaign finance reforms, and slipped in a provision enabling them to continue using payroll deductions to collect member dues for politics.

Sizemore’s Measure 59 wound up failing by a narrow margin, while the unions’ Measure 62 passed easily. However, the Oregon Supreme Court struck down Measure 62 as unconstitutional, ruling it included multiple constitutional amendments in a single ballot measure that weren’t closely related.

Steve Novick, an opponent of the spending limitation who works with Our Oregon Coalition, said the dueling initiatives of 2006 are different from those of 1998.

“That was a provision to trump Measure 59 that was buried in a much-wider initiative,” Novick said. “This is straight-up.”

Voters can choose to adopt a Colorado-style spending limit, or a milder one that protects schools and other basic services, Novick said.

It’s not clear what impact the FreedomWorks measure would have on the rest of the state budget if the union proposal passed.

The general fund represents the discretionary part of the budget that relies on income and corporate taxes and Oregon State Lottery profits. The general fund provides the state’s prime source of money for schools, prisons and the Oregon State Police. It also provides state support for universities and matches federal funds for senior services and health care for low-income people.

The FreedomWorks measure would not cap spending from the federal government. However, it could affect state funds needed to match federal funds.

So far, none of the measures has proceeded to signature-gathering, and petitions aren’t due until next July.

Towers and Terhune said the unions may not go ahead with their proposal. Oregon union leaders also are discussing measures to raise corporate taxes and expand employer-paid health insurance.

While union leaders say the dueling measures would educate voters, Walker said just the opposite could result.

“It will add an element of confusion on the ballot,” he said.