Rainier, Clatskanie school districts brace for key vote on Measure 30

Columbia County voters, along with voters in the rest of the state, will decide whether to confirm or reject the tax hike that the Oregon Legislature used to balance the state’s budget through 2005.

The election pits those who oppose what they call the “biggest tax increase in Oregon history” with those who fear an 8 or 9 percent cut in next year’s local school budgets.

If voters reject the taxes, that would mean $515,000 less for Clatskanie and $650,000 to $700,000 less for Rainier in the 2004-2005 budget — about an 8 to 9 percent loss from this year’s budgets from both schools — according to local school officials.

“We’ll see if we have the support of the voters,” Rainier Superintendent Michael Carter said. “We’re tired of beating a dead horse.”

Measure opponents say the campaign is not about cutting funding to schools, but is about fighting high taxes, said Russ Walker, the Oregon-based director of anti-tax advocates Citizens for a Sound Economy, a national anti-tax group. The group led the petition drive to get the measure on the ballot.

Opponents say state officials could balance the budget by eliminating vacant positions, using reserves, and recognizing savings in the state employee retirement system. They also say that higher taxes would drive businesses out of Oregon.

Speaker of the House Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, told reporters earlier this week that legislators could have cut more so that they would not have had to increase taxes.

“If we had been more modest in our expectations, we could have had a different outcome,” she said.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who supports the measure, warned against predictions that Oregon would turn into “Appalachia” if the tax does not pass.

Nevertheless, if the schools lose the money, it would mean fewer classes, said Clatskanie Superintendent Mike Corley.

“It will have a significant impact on the (class) offerings,” Corley said.

Carter agreed, and he said the school has frozen spending on employee development and field trips in preparation for the failure of the measure.

“Anytime you get (cuts) that high, you’re going to hit programs and positions,” he said.

In August, state legislators approved an $800,000 tax increase, though a three-year income tax hike.

But opponents gathered enough signatures to put the tax on the Feb. 3 ballot. Now, voters must decide whether to approve the surcharge, which is from one to nine percent, depending on the taxpayer’s income. There is no surcharge for those who earn less than $10,000.

Some tax deductions would be eliminated, and the discount for paying the entire amount by the November would be limited to 1.5 percent.

Ending the tax automatically would trigger $544 million in cuts to the state budget, including $338 million to all state schools. There also would be cuts to the state Department of Corrections and the Oregon Health Plan.

Measure 30 Q & A

What is Measure 30?: It is an initiative put on the ballot by a citizens’ petition drive to confirm or reject a tax hike that the Legislature passed last year.

What does it do? A “yes” vote affirms a three-year personal income tax surcharge from 1 to 9 percent depending on income, extend a 10 cent cigarette tax surcharge until 2006, and raises by one year each year the minimum age for a medical expense income tax deduction and reduces those deductions. Businesses would lose depreciation deductions for some vehicles and would raise some corporate taxes. A “no” vote rejects the taxes.

How much money would the taxes raise?: $800 million over three years.

What if voters reject the tax hike?: That would trigger $544 million in cuts to education, health care, senior services and public safety, unless legislators reconvene in special session.

When are ballots being mailed out?: Friday. Ballots are due back to the Columbia County by Tuesday, Feb. 3. Voters may drop off ballots at the Rainier and Clatskanie libraries during library hours, or at the County Courthouse in St. Helens at a 24-hour drop box. They also may mail their ballots in time to reach the courthouse by the Feb. 3 deadline.