Thirteen months to go, but spending limits campaign already off and running

A potential statewide vote to impose a strict spending limit on state government in Oregon is still 13 months away, but advocates on both sides of the issue are already cranking up the rhetoric.

There’s plenty at stake: Capping how much government is allowed to fork out for public services could chop $2 billion off a state general fund budget of $12 billion, according to nonpartisan budget analysts.

Opponents say that will decimate schools, public safety and social services already reeling from several years of budget cuts; supporters counter than in lean times as in fat, government needs to live within its’ taxpayers’ means.

Spending limits are a hot issue in the West, with votes coming up in California and Colorado next month, contests that will be closely watched in Oregon.

In Colorado, Republican Gov. Bill Owens has joined forces with Democrats to push for two measures that would roll back the existing spending cap, enacted in 1992. Meanwhile, in California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is headed in the opposite direction, backing a plan to limit state spending and give his office the power to make unilateral spending cuts to balance the budget.

In Oregon, the fight over spending limits is still in the early stages. A Washington, D.C.-based group, FreedomWorks, which has successfully led two fights to spike proposed temporary tax increases in the state, is planning to put a spending limits measure on the November 2006 ballot.

Russ Walker, who directs the Oregon chapter of the group, said this week that early internal polling shows there’s support in the state for the spending limits concept, and that his group is preparing to move ahead with the effort.

They’ve got are plenty of hoops to go through. For starters, FreedomWorks will have to gather the requisite 100,840 signatures to land their proposal on the ballot, and then ward off what’s shaping up to be a well-financed campaign by opponents.

And opponents aren’t waiting for next year to get moving. A campaign to stop spending limits in Oregon is already underway, said Steve Novick, a policy analyst for Our Oregon, a coalition of groups that advocate for schools and other public services.

The anti-spending limits campaign will include groups such as the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. It has already filed a possible countermeasure for the 2006 ballot which would exempt schools, police and public services from any voter-approved spending limits.

The opposition campaign could also include the Oregon Business Association, previously at odds with the unions over the group’s earlier support for efforts to scale back public employee retirement benefits.

“It’s been a unifying several months for Oregon politics,” said Chip Terhune, a lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association. “It’s refreshing to see so many different folks coming together with a host of ideas about how to move forward.”

Oregon Business Association president Lynn Lundquist said board members are scheduled to discuss the spending limit fight at a meeting next week.

“If we become involved as I anticipate we might, if we say this is one of our major agenda items, we will have both feet in the fight,” said Lundquist, former speaker of the Oregon House.

Anti-spending limit campaigners say they’ve also already begun contacting a broad range of local officials, from school board members to county commissioners to sheriff’s deputies across the state, to mobilize against the proposal.

The pro-spending limits forces should be prepared for an onslaught, said Jon Caldara, who directs the Independence Institute in Colorado, a chief supporter of the spending limits measure in that state.

“They’ll try to scare voters, say if we don’t pass this, little old ladies will be thrown in front of buses,” he said. “We’ll see if voters buy that.”

True to Caldara’s predictions, in California, advertising by anti-spending-limits advocates has so far outpaced efforts on the other side, although Schwarzenegger has been faithfully stumping across the state for spending limit, known as Proposition 76.

“We are everywhere,” said Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for the No on 76 campaign. “We are on TV, we are on the radio, we have a web site so folks can do the online community thing. We’re advertising in ethnic newspapers. And we’ve got a coalition of 2.5 million firefighters, teachers and nurses to get out the vote and go door to door.”

Their efforts seem to be paying off. A poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 63 percent of voters planned to oppose Schwarzenegger’s proposed spending limits, while only 26 percent were in favor.

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