Tax issue key in some legislative races

The tax increase trounced by voters three months ago has once again emerged — as a key issue in some state legislative races in which challengers are trying to unseat incumbents in the May 18 party primaries.

Just 11 of the 72 legislators up for election this year face foes on the primary ballot, all of them House members and seven of them Republicans.

In some of the GOP races, challengers are focusing almost solely on the tax issue.

The $800 million tax increase — mostly an income surtax — was approved by the 2003 Legislature to head off further cuts in education and social services. It gave anti-tax forces ammunition against lawmakers who backed the measure.

The campaign against the tax boost made Citizens for a Sound Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based group with a chapter in Oregon, the state’s major player in fighting taxes and curbing government spending.

The group gained prominence by leading the petition drive that referred the tax increase to voters, who thumped the measure by 59-41 percent on Feb. 3.

The organization has been active, if low-key, in past campaigns. The group spent $280,000 to help favorites in the 2002 legislative elections, according to Oregon director Russ Walker of Keizer.

Walker estimated the group will spend between $30,000 and $40,000 in the primary and has made three-term Rep. Vic Backlund of Keizer its main target.

Backlund is one of two House Republicans who voted for the tax measure and who have drawn primary foes who are trying to clobber them with the issue.

He’s opposed by small-business owner Kim Thatcher, who says Backlund’s tax vote “is a major issue with people supporting me.”

Out of perhaps a hundred people she has talked with, Thatcher says, “one or two said we need higher taxes because we’re responsible to pay for schools.”

Walker said besides Backlund’s support of the tax ballot measure, he has voted for dozens of lesser tax and fee increases.

“He would be considered a tax and spender even in the Democratic caucus,” Walker said.

Backlund, a well-known former high school teacher and sports coach who easily has won his past elections, said Walker is off base and distorting his record because he has opposed numerous proposed tax raises. And he said most people aren’t worked up about the issue.

Backlund said a month of knocking on hundreds of voters’ doors revealed “a handful of people who are angry at me” about the tax vote.

He acknowledged that more people likely will be made aware of his stance once campaign advertising goes in the mail. That often starts when ballots are mailed, which occurred this weekend.

The tax increase has also become a campaign issue in Douglas County, where Republican Rep. Susan Morgan of Myrtle Creek is fighting off a primary challenge from Carol Malmay.

Morgan supported the tax boost.

Malmay, a Canyonville shop owner, said her challenge is getting that message to Republicans in the county where 72 percent of voters rejected the tax measure.

Morgan has said she supported the measure only because it seemed the only way to end the long budget haggling in the record-length 2003 session.

Walker said his group supports Malmay but that available money is spread too thin to give her much financial help.

“This is pretty much a grassroots campaign,” Malmay said in an interview. “If word was out about her vote, I don’t think there would even be a contest.”

Walker’s group also is giving some help to its friends in contested primary races where taxes might not be a big issue.

The organization supports two-term Rep. Bill Garrard, R-Klamath Falls, against a comeback bid by former three-term GOP Rep. Del Parks. Garrard held fast against the tax measure “under tremendous pressure from the spending lobby,” Walker said.

An oddball issue in that race is Garrard’s residence. He owns a home in Las Vegas, where his wife lives for health reasons, as well as a house in Klamath Falls.

Parks says Garrard shouldn’t be running for another term because he spends too much time at the Nevada house.