Tax vote has state on edge of its seat

Vern Smith has stents — implanted tubes — in three arteries to keep blood flowing to his heart. The 49-year-old also is dependent on insulin to treat his diabetes.

Unable to work at his former job as a security officer, Smith and his wife are living on the $158 weekly unemployment benefit she’s getting after being laid off from a nursing job.

Smith is one of about 50,000 Oregonians who stands to lose state health plan coverage if Measure 30 is defeated in Tuesday’s election.

Rejection of the $1.2 billion tax package will trigger $545 million in automatic spending cuts.

It was a little more than a year ago — on Jan. 28, 2003 — that Oregonians turned down a $310 million income tax boost that was intended to balance the last budget.

As a result, school administrators were forced to shorten the school year, scores of state police troopers were laid off, and thousands of low-income people lost health plan services.

If Measure 30 fails on Tuesday, Oregonians can expect more of the same, officials say.

But opponents say there are funds available to keep critical services afloat if lawmakers have to do so.

“There’s no reason why we can’t go into a special legislative session to reallocate money if needed,” said Richard Burke, executive director of the state Libertarian Party, which opposes the tax measure.

Burke suggested that lawmakers could pare some of the more than $1 billion budgeted for computer upgrades or, as the party often proposes, sell SAIF Corp., the state-owned workers’ compensation insurer.

Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who supports the tax measure, says he’s not inclined to call a budget-juggling special session but to let the cuts take effect.

The latest independent polls, in mid-December, indicated most voters oppose the tax boost. Mistrust of government plays a part.

“I feel like I don’t know where the money’s going,” said barber Walt Yoder, who’s against the tax increase. “They’re not giving a very good accounting.”

“They need to do a better job of budgeting,” said David Keckler, a nursing home dietetic aide who voted against the tax boost. “And the rich should pay more.”