Measure 30 needs better news media coverage

During the past month, I’ve gotten complaints about our news coverage of
Measure 30, the tax-increase plan before voters on Feb. 3.

As people prepare to cast ballots, I expect the criticism to intensify in
response to more stories, columns and editorials.

Some Measure 30 foes already are accusing us of dredging up “sob stories” to scare or blackmail Oregonians into voting for the $1.2 billion plan to balance the state budget with three years of income tax increases.

They say the state has plenty of money for essential programs and services but
must cut red tape, fire “overpaid” managers and privatize more state agencies.

Typical of that view is an e-mail I got last month from Rich Peterson, who
wants more stories about how to cut waste and balance the state budget without higher taxes.

“I have a feeling we will see a lot of stuff in the SJ over the next few weeks
to tap at the voters hearts,” he wrote.

“We don’t want all this sappy stuff. Hold the legislators accountable without additional money.”

On the other side, some who rely heavily on public services or work for the state are complaining that reporters aren’t holding tax foes accountable for their “reckless” antigovernment rhetoric.

Liz Toy, who says Measure 30 is a responsible budget solution, has chided me for portraying the tax debate as a battle between Republicans and Democrats and liberals vs. conservatives – and for predicting that Measure 30 will fail.

“There are those who are tired of shallow stories underestimating our
intelligence and of sensationalism and ‘this group vs. that group.’ Last time I checked, individuals return individual ballot envelopes, which are then checked against signature files,” she wrote Dec. 29.

“Just because there are those who like to portray all politics as groups
battling while ordinary voters stay on the sidelines, those voters have the
habit of thinking for themselves.”

Those are fair points, well worth considering.

The news media needs to do a better job covering Measure 30 and other complicated issues.

In this case, we’ve been there before: voters last year rejected a similar tax-increase plan – Measure 28 – after a long and contentious campaign in which
readers voiced similar criticisms.

So, to get an even sharper analysis of the news coverage of Measure 30 thus
far, I contacted three people at the heart of the tax battle:

.Morgan Allen, a spokesman for Yes on 30: For Our Oregon, a coalition of
seniors, educators, business owners and social service groups that favors the
tax plan.

.Russ Walker, the Northwest director of Citizens for a Sound Economy and the
chief petitioner for the referendum.

.Kevin Mannix, the chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, a 2002 candidate
for governor, an ex-legislator from Salem and a Measure 30 foe.

Surprisingly, none was especially critical of the news media or its coverage of the tax plan.

“We’re very happy whenever there’s any coverage about Measure 30,” Allen said.

He said he welcomes stories explaining the consequences of its defeat.

“Schools could be looking at closing early. Seniors will go without services. People will lose health coverage, and there will be a dismantling of state police forensics labs,” Allen said.

Far from being “scare stories,” it all happened last year when Measure 28 was
defeated, he said.

“There are 1,000 fewer school teachers in public schools than there were a year ago. Was Hillsboro losing three weeks of school days a scare tactic? Was losing 100 state troopers last year a scare tactic? There’s no way anyone can say this is a scare tactic.”

Walker also thinks that the news media has done a “good job” covering Measure
30 and said that most reporters haven’t shown a pro-tax bias.

He said it is appropriate for the news media to report what will happen if
Measure 30 fails, including the programs and services that might be cut.

“But I think sometimes these articles can focus too much on the ‘what-ifs,’ and sometimes agencies focus on the wrong things. It appears to people on our side that agencies are holding hostage the things people care about.”

Walker also wishes the news coverage focused more on ways to make government
more efficient and improve the economy.

“The connection is never made about why so many companies are leaving,” he
said. “We have to have a discussion of how to attract business, and when you
raise taxes, you don’t make yourself competitive.”

In the final analysis, Mannix said, fairness is in the eye of the beholder.

“When we talk about fairness of the media, I think both sides have a slanted perspective,” Mannix said. “My view is that both sides are engaged in a careful calculation on how to present their arguments in the best light to produce the result they want to achieve.”

State Editor Richard R. Aguirre can be reached at (503) 399-6739 or raguirre