Spending lid looms as possible election issue

SALEM, Ore. — A proposal to clamp a tight limit on state spending could become a key issue in the 2006 Oregon’s governor’s race, especially for Republican candidates who will have to figure out how to defend the idea to different election-year audiences.

Anti-tax activists led by Washington, D.C-based FreedomWorks recently launched an initiative campaign to ask Oregon voters to adopt a spending limit similar to one in Colorado, which is considered the nation’s toughest.

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

Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who’s running for a second term, and other potential Democratic challengers are united in their oppostion to the state spending limit, saying it would damage public services and do little to promote government efficiency.

Portland political activist Steve Novick said Republican contenders Kevin Mannix and Ron Saxton may have a tougher time defending a spending cap than Democrats will have in opposing it.

“For them the choice will be between the anti-government wing of their party and responsible business community folks whom they’ll both be looking to fund their campaigns,” said Novick, who’s with the Our Oregon Coalition, which advocates for adequate school funding.

The spending limit issue apparently is so politically volatile that Saxton declined to be interviewed about the proposed initiative.

Saxton, who faces a GOP primary rematch with Mannix, “would support the concept of a limit,” said Saxton campaign spokesman Felix Schein.

But Schein added that that is the “position of the campaign” and not Saxton’s personal view of the pending FreedomWorks initiative.

Mannix, who won the 2002 GOP primary but then was narrowly defeated by Kulongoski in the general election, said he backs capping spending.

“I favor a spending limit tied to the growth of our state,” Mannix said. “It needs to rationally provide for growth in population and inflation.”

Another GOP candidate, state Sen. Jason Atkinson, said while he’s a “bigger fan of tax cuts as a way to jump-start the economy, a spending limit is part of the solution.”

Among the Democrats, Kulongoski believes “just putting a ceiling in place doesn’t work” to make government more efficient, said spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor.

The governor, who was on vacation earlier in the week, “is more concerned with reforming government to make it work better. The Colorado spending limit has not delivered that result,” said Richter Taylor.

Lane County Commissioner Peter Sorenson, who will oppose Kulongoski in the Democratic primary, and potential Democratic challengers Sens. Rick Metsger and Vicki Walker all denounced the planned Oregon ballot initiative.

“It would be much more fruitful for people like Russ Walker to participate in how we can move the state forward rather than move it back into the Stone Ages,” said Metsger, who says he is seriously considering challenging Kulongoski.

Walker, who says she will run against Kulongoski in the primary if she can raise enough money, said Colorado’s voter-imposed limit has hamstrung government and that Colorado has dropped from one of the nation’s top job growth states to near the bottom of the list.

Sorenson contends that a spending limit would discourage, not stimulate, economic investment. Spending cap advocates “are going exactly in the opposite direction of where public policy should be going,” he said.

Political analyst Bill Lunch said since spending caps are popular with Republicans and not with Democrats, a key could be what independents — more than 20 percent of registered voters_ think of the idea.

Lunch, who teaches political science at Oregon State University, said most fiscal battles in Oregon the past two decade have been over taxes, not spending.

“To propose cutting taxes is popular because it means people pay less. If you propose potentially cutting services, the idea of a spending limit may be a bit harder to sell,” Lunch said. “But I don’t mean to say for moment that proponents of a limit can’t prevail.”