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A bad idea for Oregon's future

Measure 48 would stop the budget's recovery in its tracks

Live in Oregon for very long, and you'll soon become familiar with this state's boom-and-bust system of financing state government. Oregon relies on the state income tax for nearly all of its revenue, so when the economy is good, the state has plenty of money. When the economy bottoms out, so do state coffers.

Despite a great deal of discussion, some studies and a few specially appointed committees over the years, the Legislature has never succeeded in revamping the tax structure to even out the bumps. And Oregon voters have steadfastly refused to accept a sales tax &

8212; the "third leg" of the funding stool that most states use to keep their governments from tipping over.

So what could be worse than going along as usual, cutting and scraping through the lean years and bickering over spending in the good years? Cutting the legs out from under the state just as the economy comes roaring back.

That's exactly what Measure 48 would do to Oregon, and that's why the Mail Tribune Editorial Board recommends you vote against it.

Known by the acronym TABOR, for Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, Measure 48 comes to you courtesy of the same national anti-tax, anti-government activists who are pushing similar measures in other states. In 1992, Colorado voters approved a TABOR measure, and the anti-tax forces hold that up as the model of voters controlling government spending. Many Coloradans might have other words for it.

In 2005, Colorado voters used a clause in the TABOR law to allow the state to keep and spend revenue in excess of the law's limits for a period of five years. They did this because the TABOR law did not allow the state budget to grow as fast as the economy recovered, leaving essential state services such as education and public safety scraping for money in otherwise good economic times.

The rationale behind Measure 48 sounds reasonable, as initiatives of this sort usually do. The measure would amend the state constitution to limit the percentage growth in state spending to no more than the percentage increase in state population, plus inflation.

What's wrong with that, you ask?

Plenty.

The initiative measures "inflation" by the Consumer Price Index. That sounds reasonable, too &

8212; except that the Consumer Price Index reflects the price of a "market basket" of goods and services for an individual consumer. The state is not an individual consumer.

The costs of health care, energy and education rise faster than inflation as defined by the CPI. To make matters worse, the state must pay the health care costs of people who are sicker than the general population. In addition, prison populations and the population of seniors are growing faster than the population as a whole.

Limiting state spending growth to less than what it actually costs the state to provide basic services means those services will be steadily starved of the money needed to provide them. That's what Measure 48 would do.

What's more, this measure ignores Oregon's unique reliance on the income tax. When the economy is growing, as it is now, state revenues increase as more people work and pay income tax. Under normal circumstances, the state could use this extra money to make up for cuts made when the economy was slow. But if inflation is low and the state's population is growing more slowly than the economy, Measure 48 would prevent the state from making up that lost ground.

Estimates of the cost to state services from this measure are staggering. The measure would slash government revenues by $1.1 billion a year.

Opponents say that if Measure 48 had been in effect since 1990, there would be 25 percent less money available for essential state services.

That's 25 percent less for K-12 schools, where we already have among the shortest school years and largest class sizes in the nation, and 25 percent less for higher education, where too many kids are already turned away from college by the cost. That's 25 percent less for police protection, 25 percent less to deal with critical issues such as the meth epidemic and 25 percent less for health care for poor families. If you like the funding problems we have now, you'll love what happens if this measure passes.

We recommend a no vote on Measure 48.