It's not difficult to imagine the following fictional memo circulating among administrators of state agencies in Salem:
Well, folks, it almost worked. The Legislature and outgoing governor gave us the reins, and we whipped the old mare. Too bad we didn't have another two weeks for our allies to convince voters that the state needs more money. Oh well, there's always next time. Meanwhile, let's take a moment to reflect on some lessons from the failure of Measure 28.
Lesson 1 - Don't get greedy. When the Oregon Legislature defers to agencies to choose spending reductions, it's probably prudent to throw in a pay freeze here and there to satisfy the nay-sayers. We may have shot ourselves in the foot this time around by overreaching. In the words of the Wall Street Journal, pro-tax advocates look like they're trying to "frighten the bejeebers out of folks by telling them that unless they agree to higher taxes, government is going to shut down the prisons and throw grandma out in the snow." Next time, we need to take a more cautious approach. On the bright side, voters never did learn the discomforting truth about Measure 28: A vote against Measure 28 wasn't a vote to cut spending; it only meant putting a dent in the state's increase in spending. Overall state spending still will rise by 5.5 percent. Keeping this fact under the table marked a small but significant victory for our cause.
Lesson 2 - Would somebody please put a sock in the mouth of the Oregon Libertarian Party? Why do we have these loose cannons traveling around the state right at our peak period of public persuasion? We need to find a way to coddle them into our ranks. Here's a typical quote from Tom Cox (as published in an opinion piece in the Statesman Journal): "The state of Oregon has 47,000 employees. ... But the 200 employees we find to lay off are state police officers?" Ouch. Cox didn't help our cause with this kind of pointed observation. Of course, he tried to convey the big picture of state budgeting (thankfully, the other two parties, with a handful of troubling exceptions, largely stood on the sidelines with their mouths closed). The goal of our allies was to focus on individual hardships caused by a "no" vote. This strategy almost worked. The lesson here is: Big picture is bad. Emotional anecdotes about cut-threatened employees are good. Speaking of the big picture. ...
Lesson 3 - We need to scuttle attacks on the Public Employees Retirement System. Majority Leader Tim Knopp of Bend is our biggest problem. He wants to disqualify members of the current PERS board. Lawmakers like him will force us to take smaller pensions (almost like the private sector). At the same time, he will thrust the issue of retirement compensation into the public eye. We can hear the opposition now: "Too many of those government employees retire with golden parachutes. We want to see PERS reformed before we agree to raise taxes." Let's strategize a way to silence these critics. Maybe we could devise a cosmetic "reform" of our retirement system through sympathetic legislators without actually changing the board's prerogative to dole out generous donations to our retirement accounts. An unfunded actuarial liability of $15.7 billion ain't chump change, voters might say, but, hey, who's to blame for that? We didn't appoint the board.
Lesson 4 - Representative Jeff Kruse is another thorn in our side. He drew attention to the 80 employees hired by the Department of Education who work on the CIM/CAM programs - programs which cost the state an estimated $500 million. One of our great success stories was our ability to focus the media's attention on kids in the classrooms and keep the curtain drawn on some of the bureaucratic excesses in Salem. Moral of the story - focus on teachers and kids, not wasteful spending, when discussing state school funding.
Other troubling information we need to squelch -
Oregon state and local government rank us as the eighth largest spending state in the nation per capita. (Total State & Local Revenue Table. 1999 U.S. Census Bureau)
Oregon had the fastest growing government in the nation in fiscal year 2000. (Association of State Budget Offices, 8-2000)
Oregon spends 93 percent of what other states spend on teacher wages, but spends 141 percent of what other states spend on health and retirement benefits. Oregon also ranks "average" on instructional spending and high on support services such as counseling, medical and funds for principals' offices. Overall Oregon spends 98 percent of the national average on instruction and 112 percent of the average for support services. (Milwaukie Clackamas Co. Review)
A state audit demonstrated over $700,000 in questionable spending by the Oregon State Lottery. Lottery staff held many meetings that created over 400 bills costing a total of $92,500. Most of the meetings reviewed included food. The lottery had an annual staff meeting where it spent $30,000 on speakers, one of whom addressed the topic "Beep Beep: Competing in the Age of the Roadrunner." The Roadrunner is a cartoon show. The staff meeting also included $1,000 for candy, prizes and decorations. The entire bill for the staff meeting ran to $38,000. The Oregon Department of Education did not follow competitive bidding practices, costing taxpayers as much as $62,600. An audit found questionable travel expenses and reimbursements that cost taxpayers $12,900. Seventy percent of the Education Program Specialist employees started their positions at the top salary rate. This was not in accordance with state policy.
OK, folks, those are the uncomfortable facts. You can see that we have our work cut out for us. As a point of discussion, we could consider a change in tack and promote a sales tax. Any takers?
Anyone with comments about "Editor's Opinion" can contact David Carkhuff by calling 575-0710 or by e-mail at email@example.com.