Anti-tax advocates turn in referendum signatures

SALEM – Opponents of the Legislature’s $800 million tax increase turned in 147,000 signatures by their count Tuesday, nearly three times the amount needed to let voters have their say on the tax package.

If at least 50,420 of those signatures are declared valid, the tax increase will be blocked until a special Feb. 3 mail election.

“We’re confident the referendum will qualify for the ballot,” petition drive leader Russ Walker said at a news conference before submitting the petitions to the secretary of state’s office.

Tuesday was the signature deadline, and election officials have until Dec. 9 to determine if the signatures are from registered voters.

Error rates – because a petition signer isn’t registered to vote or for other reasons – seldom run above 30 percent of total signatures.

Lawmakers passed the tax package in August to balance the 2003-05 state budget and end a record-length session. Most of the plan is income tax increases, with the biggest share a three-year tax surcharge.

Analysts say the surcharge would cost $36 a year for an Oregon household with the state’s $41,000 median annual income and filing a joint tax return.

Defeat of the measure would trigger $544 million in automatic budget cuts by May, unless legislators convened a special session to revise the budget. Walker said he believes that would happen if the tax increase loses.

But Senate President Peter Courtney, who supports the increases, said he doesn’t know what might happen if the taxes are rejected.

The Salem Democrat said lawmakers struggled for nearly eight months with the budget “and felt this is probably the best we could do. If the public doesn’t want to go there, what can you do?”

Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski backs the tax increases and said the effort to overturn them “contributes to economic and educational instability in our state.

“When schools don’t know whether they can provide funding for a full school year with reasonable class sizes, our kids face instability,” he said.

Polls have indicated the proposed tax increase is opposed by a majority of voters. A smaller income tax increase was defeated by voters in January.

“Citizens are outraged by what the Legislature has done,” Walker said.

He said lawmakers had other options for dealing with budget holes caused by declining tax revenue, such as adding new Lottery games, squeezing more savings out of the public employee pension system and borrowing through bonds.

Legislators supporting the tax increase said they were out of good choices after dealing with two years of revenue declines, and further cuts could severely damage schools, social services and other programs.