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Some question state efforts to curb spending.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - If there's one thing about politicians that drives Lyle Young crazy, it's the way they try to force voters into choosing between higher taxes or painful cuts in public services.

What tax-wary Oregonians want, according to the retired engineer and Waldport resident, is the kind of belt-tightening that tough economic times demand.

"Coming up with new and fresh ways of being more efficient, doing the grunt work of cutting - they don't want to do that," said Young, 62. "It's much easier to mount a campaign and try to convince voters to give them more tax revenue by blackmailing them with threats of cutting off their services."

From the strategists working to defeat next month's Measure 30 tax increase to the rank-and-file voters such as Young who are planning to vote against it, skepticism runs rampant about efforts to rein in spending.

Oregon Republican Party Chairman Kevin Mannix, one of Measure 30's most prominent opponents, describes the statehouse crowd as if its only response to the past two years of vanishing state revenues has been to grab more spending money and cut vital programs.

"When are we going to get the message and reform the structure of Oregon government and say to our legislators and governor, enough!" he asked before answering his own question. "When the `no' vote comes in, as I predict it will, then we'll have a serious discussion of real reform in state government, and not before."

Such rhetoric makes Canby veterinarian Kurt Schrader see red. Schrader is a state senator who served during last session as his chamber's budget chief. He said critics continue to call for the Legislature to trim excessive spending on the Public Employees Retirement System and to squeeze more value from taxpayer dollars - even though the Legislature spent months on such efforts last year before ending the longest session in history by passing an $800 million package of tax increases.

"You really ought to prioritize? We did that. You ought to get PERS reform? We did that. And we will continue to do all of these things in future sessions," the Democratic lawmaker said. "We did more in terms of making your state government accountable and more efficient than any other Legislature in history."

Schrader said he's not talking about the widely publicized program and service cuts: the trimming of school days, the elimination of prescription drug coverage for low income people and the cutting of long-term care for thousands of seniors.

Rather, Schrader said, he's referring to efforts to instill more accountability into state government, to "true up" agencies' budgets and to make sure programs concentrate dollars in the delivery of services instead of letting them slosh around in the bureaucracy. To those ends, he cites such steps by the 2003 Legislature:

Scrutinizing every agency's roster of unfilled vacancies, a process that led to the removal of 1,016 unfilled positions.

Tracking state agencies' month-to-month spending, so that unspent dollars can't be hoarded and then spent in the final months - allowing agencies to come back and say they need at least as much money as the previous year.

Reducing pension benefits for current and future public employees - resulting in a savings of $300 million from the state general fund for 2003-05.

Freezing all state employees' pay by withholding "step" raises for increased experience, a move that's expected to save $41 million. In addition, the state halted cost-of-living adjustments for two years.

Requiring state agencies to explain how they will use their appropriations to meet performance standards, such as reducing the number of released inmates who commit crimes or increasing the number of welfare recipients who find work.

Sen. Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield, has pushed for this notion of "performance-based budgeting" since entering the Legislature in 1999. He said it's discouraging that such policies go unnoticed. Voter cynicism is fed by such news as reports that a handful of Republican legislative aides received pay increases and bonuses at a time when rank-and-file state workers were under a pay freeze.

"That's an an example of how we do have accountability," said Morrisette, who supports Measure 30 and voted for the tax increase. "But that doesn't resonate the way bonuses do."

State Rep. Lane Shetterly, R-Dallas, helped craft the temporary boost in income taxes and other revenue raisers that became Measure 30 after opponents gathered enough signatures to force a referendum vote. He said the push for taxes was a final resort - coming after the Legislature borrowed, shifted funds and cut budgets.

The state general fund, set at $12 billion for 2001-03 when the Legislature wrapped up its 2001 session, fell to $10.3 billion after a series of special sessions to rebalance the budget as income-tax revenues plunged. The 2003-05 budget, $11.5 billion if voters approve Measure 30, would have been about $13 billion if all of the state's programs from 2001-03 had been allowed to continue, along with the increases needed for inflation, pay and benefit increases, and bigger caseloads and growing classroom enrollment.

Shetterly said he doesn't think enough Oregon voters are aware of the tightened spending that was accomplished before tax increases were considered.

"Public perception lags behind the new realities in terms of our revenue and budget picture," he said.

Bruce Mackey, a 53-year-old pet food salesman from Eugene, said he's opposed to Measure 30, but rejects the notion that he's just not up to speed on what's happened in Salem. With a wife who works as a school secretary, Mackey said he is well aware of the steps taken to balance the budget and the resulting squeeze in education and public services. The problem, he said, is that efforts to control personnel costs just haven't gone far enough.

"We're upside down. State government exists first for state workers and only second, if there's money left over, will we provide services," said Mackey, who added that public employees unions are ultimately responsible for policies that he thinks protect state workers' financial interests.

Those who think the tax increase was necessary, such as public finance expert Chuck Sheketoff, say no amount of reprioritizing spending, squeezing out inefficiencies and budget tightening will satisfy those opposed to unions that represent teachers and other public employees.

"As long as there are unions, as long as teachers are unionized, they will never be satisfied," said Sheketoff, executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy, a Silverton think tank that analyzes the effects of tax and spending policies on low-income people. "They just want to starve government."

EFFICIENCY IN GOVERNMENT

Here's a list of efficiency measures undertaken in state government:

Consolidating the state's 32 data centers into one or two operations, its 14 computer networks into one or two, and reducing its e-mail systems, which currently number 70. Annual savings: up to $15 million.

Making all state agency purchases of desktop computers and other equipment and supplies through fewer vendors, allowing the state to use its purchasing power to leverage deeper discounts. Expected savings: $10 million.

Consolidating the 7,800 state-owned vehicles into a single motor pool, resulting in fewer service and repair shops.

Auditing phone bills for errors, the state has saved $1.4 million since September. The company is paid through a "finder's fee" arrangement.

Holding vacancies open for at least 30 days to reduce personnel costs. If a position is filled sooner, the next position to become vacant must be left unfilled for 60 days.

Restricting state employee travel. All agencies must submit requests to send employees and administrators on business trips.

WHERE WE RANK

Here are some recent rankings on Oregon's taxes and spending compared with the rest of the United States

Overall taxes: Ranked 44th in 2002 in state tax revenue per capita.

Household taxes: Portland had the 12th highest taxes (income, property, sales and auto) for a family of four with $50,000 income.

Business taxes: Ranked 48th in business taxes as a share of all state and local taxes for the 2003 fiscal year.

All spending: Ranked 11th in 2000 for total expenditures per capita.

State spending: Ranked 27th in 2000 in expenditures per capita, excluding federal dollars.

Per-pupil: Ranked 20th in 2001 for per-pupil spending in elementary and secondary schools, at $7,614 per pupil.
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Title Annotation:Ballot Measures; Foes of Measure 30 insist government can become leaner and more efficient, but supporters say that's already been done
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 25, 2004
Words:1374
Previous Article:A reason to smile.
Next Article:Warning: Voting could be hazardous.


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