Voters to decide tax increase

Oregon voters will get the final say on whether they should pay more taxes to ease the state’s budget crisis.

Critics of a $1.2 billion tax-increase package passed by the 2003 Legislature gathered more than double the number of petition signatures required to place the issue before voters.

Secretary of State Bill Bradbury said Wednesday that the referendum will appear as Measure 30 on a special Feb. 3 statewide ballot. His staff determined that more than 118,000 valid signatures were submitted — far more than the 50,420 required.

“We had over 30,000 people circulating petitions,” said Russ Walker, leader of the campaign and Northwest director of Citizens for a Sound Economy. “The Legislature grossly misunderstood the feelings of Oregonians when they passed this tax increase in late August.”

Defenders of the tax package, and the services it would preserve, also claim many supporters.

“So many people care about these issues that we feel we have thousands of people who are willing to talk to their neighbors about stability for schools, for prescription drugs for seniors and for police on our streets,” said Morgan Allen, spokesman for the Our Oregon Coalition.

The referendum outcome could have far-reaching effects on Oregon’s schools, human services, public safety, economy and political climate. And Oregonians’ pocketbooks.

A yes vote on Measure 30 would sustain the tax package and leave the state’s 2003-05 budget intact. As a result, the state could wriggle free from the budget crisis that has engulfed Oregon since mid-2001.

If Oregonians vote no and overturn the tax package, that will trigger $545 million in automatic cuts to schools and state services in May. Additional cuts likely would be needed, unless lawmakers agree to another batch of money-raising ideas to replace the lost taxes.

A no vote also spares Oregonians from a three-year income-tax surcharge that dinged middle- and upper-income voters the most. It also erases a boost in corporate taxes, a reduction in elderly medical expense write-offs, a 10-cents-per-pack cigarette tax enacted in 1993 and other tax increases.

Voters earlier this year rejected a similar tax referred by the 2002 Legislature, 54 percent to 46 percent.

The referendum likely will dominate discussion in next year’s legislative races and could cloud the Legislature’s plans to meet in a special session next June to reform the state’s tax system, which now relies on income taxes.

Many Democrats and moderate Republicans, along with organized labor, educators and human service advocates, had hoped the special session or a separate initiative campaign would result in a tax-reform measure on next November’s ballot.

The referendum could sour the atmosphere for any tax reform in Oregon.

“I think it kills the chances of a tax-increase measure next November,” Walker said. “I think it’s going to mean that politicians are going to have to think carefully whether to raise taxes in the future.”

Even Measure 30 supporters admit it will be hard to persuade voters to raise their taxes while Oregon is suffering the nation’s worst jobless rate.

“All I know is that most of those I’ve run into want a statewide election,” said Lee Hazelwood, a Stayton senior advocate who supports the tax package and fears that more senior services will be cut.

Chuck Adams, a Salem political consultant advising the anti-tax campaign, said that the signature-gathering was historic because so many petitions were collected in such a short time. Polling showed that support for the tax increase dwindled from 35 percent of voters at the start of the signature drive to 25 percent, Adams said. “I think that’s as far out of reach as any initiative that I can think of,” he said.

Steve Law can be reached at (503) 399-6615. Peter Wong can be reached at (503) 399-6745..