Second shot fired in spending limits battle

PORTLAND— Opponents of a proposed ballot measure aimed at capping state spending have quietly filed a competing measure that would exempt schools, police and social services from any voter-passed spending limits.

The effort, backed by the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is an early, peremptory shot in what’s shaping up as one of the defining battles of the 2006 political season.

Spending limits advocates, emboldened by Oregon voters who’ve consistently rejected proposed temporary tax increases, are targeting the state with a plan to limit government spending to rates of population growth and inflation.

State revenue analysts have said the limit could force at least a $2 billion reduction in state spending.

If backers, led by the Washington, D.C.-based FreedomWorks group, can gather the requisite 100,840 signatures, the measure would appear on the November 2006 ballot, during a gubernatorial election year that should see high voter turnout.

But during that same election, voters could also be asked to consider the competing measure, which, by exempting schools, public safety and social services from spending limits, would essentially leave the limits plan toothless: Those three items will consume the bulk of the state’s $12 billion general fund-lottery budget in the 2005-2007 fiscal cycle.

Education alone, for example, eats up more than 50 percent of the state’s general fund.

Oregon Education Association lobbyist Chip Terhune was circumspect Wednesday about the proposed counter-measure, saying that the teachers’ union and its allies still need to size up the landscape, and have not firmly decided to press ahead with gathering the needed 100,840 voter signatures.

“Conversations about the extreme spending limits coming to a state near you been going on for some time,” Terhune said. “Folks are very concerned that seniors get the care they need, and our children are educated in a fashion that puts Oregon’s economy ahead rather than behind.”

Russ Walker, who leads the Oregon chapter of FreedomWorks, said this is the first instance he knows of in the country where a spending limits proposal has drawn an immediate counter ballot measure.

“It’s a new tactic,” he said. “They will do anything they can to keep government from being fiscally responsible and creating efficiencies.”

Next month, Colorado voters will weigh in on two referendums asking them to roll back a similar spending limit, which caps growth in government spending at 6 percent a year and requires voter approval of any tax boosts. But that roll-back vote comes more than a decade after the Colorado measure — considered the most stringent in the nation — first passed in 1992.

If the competing constitutional amendments do wind up on Oregon’s ballot next year, and both are passed by voters, then Oregon law dictates that the one which garners the most votes would prevail, state elections officials said.

And there is always the possibility that the two competing measures could wind up in a court-moderated showdown, Terhune said.

Even if the exemptions measure does not make it to the ballot, the spending limits proposal is likely to attract well-organized, well-financed opposition from unions, municipalities and the some leaders of the business community.

“To impose an arbitrary limit like this would force severe reductions in services people care about,” said Tim Nesbitt of the Oregon AFL-CIO, the labor federation that’s expected to be active in the anti-spending-limit campaign, whatever its form. “The initiative filed by the Oregon Education Association helps to make that point.”

FreedomWorks’ opponents will be trying to replicate their previous success in persuading Oregonians to turn down government spending limit proposals.

In 2000, a proposal to limit the state’s spending to no more than 15 percent of the personal income of Oregonians was roundly defeated, losing by almost 200,000 votes out of about 1.4 million cast.

But that proposal would also have limited the state’s ability to spend federal dollars, an idea that proved unpopular with Oregon voters. The new spending limit proposal contains no such restriction, said Jason Williams with the Taxpayers Association of Oregon, another group that will be campaigning for the spending limits.

Williams said Wednesday that he was surprised by news of the proposed counter-initiative.

“There is a lot of nonessential spending that goes in essential services,” he said. “You can’t give blanket amnesty because you are under the banner of education and public safety.”