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Fate of new tax package nowhere near certain.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - It was January's statewide vote on taxes that led the way to Oregon's tumultuous year of program cuts and efforts to stave them off.

And it could well be that one year and six days after Measure 28s defeat, Oregonians end up right back where they started: deciding whether to raise taxes to keep state-funded programs going.

Some worry that Oregon's schools, colleges, universities, public safety agencies and human services will be in as much trouble as they were a year ago if this summer's $800 million tax package gets referred to the Feb. 3 ballot and defeated.

Al Levine, manager of Lane County Mental Health Office, said he's worried things could be even worse if the $545 million income-tax surcharge and other tax increases are voted down.

"If a ballot measure in February reverses the surcharge, it's entirely possible that the hole becomes much deeper," he said, warning that many elements of the Oregon Health Plan would "cease to exist" or be drastically scaled back.

Supporters and opponents alike say the odds are good that the anti-tax forces will gather the 50,420 signatures necessary by Nov. 25 so that voters may decide whether higher taxes are a necessary tradeoff to preserve state services. But if that happens, there could be some new plot twists.

This time, Oregonians will be able to draw on the experiences of the past year. That includes watching programs shut down and medically needy and elderly people facing the possibility of losing life-sustaining medical care. The past year also saw some school districts end the academic year early or eliminate core functions - a development dramatic enough to make it into the panels of the cartoon Doonesbury.

Last time around, the pre-election campaign largely delivered to voters the choice of higher taxes or painful cuts. Once again, lawmakers passed "disappropriation" legislation requiring programs to reduce spending should the tax fail. But this time, tax opponents have vowed to provide voters with a specific set of alternatives to the cuts.

Oregon Republican Party Chairman Kevin Mannix, who lost a bid for governor last year, said he is just starting to work on a "reform laundry list" of cost-saving ideas that he will promote to voters. Should the tax go down, he will bring his list to legislators, who would be under pressure to come up with ways to avoid the most onerous program reductions.

"I will come forward with a list of re-engineering proposals with price tags attached indicating the savings," he said.

So far, the ideas Mannix is looking at would make up for only a fraction of the $800 million that would vanish if the tax is referred and defeated. Among them: putting more inmates to work on reforestation and state parks projects, privatizing liquor sales, relaxing educator certification requirements to slow teachers' ascent up the pay scale, changing school district collective bargaining laws and eliminating the mandates associated with the school system's certificates of initial and advance mastery.

Mannix said he also is counting on the economic recovery to produce increased revenues to offset the need for higher taxes.

Another big difference between the defeat of Measure 28 and the possible tax vote in February: Lawmakers spent the longest session in history exhausting what they considered their viable options before finally passing the tax plan in late August.

Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem said promises like Mannix's to find an alternative to taxes or cuts "are no longer relevant.

"It's just rhetoric. We've plowed this field and plowed this field and there are no tin cans," he said. "There's no more magic."

As difficult as the last session was for lawmakers and others to piece together a budget and soften program cuts, Courtney said the rejection of the Legislature's budget-balancing tax package would make the job even tougher next year.

"It's going to be a holy hell," he said. "It was a hell. Now it's going to be a holy hell."

Register-Guard Reporter Jeff Wright contributed to this story.
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Title Annotation:Measure 28's defeat may have taught legislators and voters a few things, but how the latest plan will fare is anyone's guess; Government
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Previous Article:Study shows Oregon's hunger ranking declines a smidgen.
Next Article:Struggles go on after Measure 28 failed.

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