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Legislature’s Monumental Task: Oregon’s Strict Tax-Limit Measure

November 12, 1996

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ Fed up with higher property taxes, Oregon voters have approved one of the most severe tax limits in the country, leaving the Legislature with the daunting task of figuring out how it will work.

For more than half the state’s voters, warnings that the measure would harm public education and police and fire departments were not persuasive.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, his three predecessors and nearly all other elected officials opposed Measure 47, as did major industries, labor unions and groups as diverse as the Oregon Farm Bureau and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.

Next year’s Legislature has to sort out the complicated measure and help decide what services might have to be cut as a result of less revenue for the state.

``It’s going to be terrible,″ said Burton Weast, executive director of the Oregon Fire Chiefs Association.

``I would say having fewer ambulances, fewer fire trucks, fewer fire stations clearly is not in the public’s best interest,″ he said.

The measure directs any revenue redistribution by the Legislature to give top priority to public safety and schools, a provision that added to the nervousness of other state departments, including higher education.

Oregon has no sales tax, and voters have repeatedly turned down proposals to impose one. Revenue for local services comes almost entirely from property and income taxes.

The new leaders of the Legislature, elected Monday, had no clear idea of what the new measure means, let alone what could be done to lessen its impact.

``I don’t think anybody really understands what it entails,″ said the new House speaker, Lynn Lundquist, a Republican.

New taxes are unlikely, though.

``The people of Oregon did not say, `Please give us another tax to replace the revenue,‴ Lundquist said.

The measure rolls back property taxes for the 1997-98 fiscal year to either the amount paid in 1994-95 or to the amount paid for 1995-96 minus 10 percent, whichever is less. The measure also restricts how local governments can raise money.

Six years ago, Oregon voters approved a property tax limit by 52 percent to 48 percent, the same margin by which Measure 47 was passed last week. But the earlier measure, known as Measure 5, phased in the limit over five years.

Increased property taxes over that time all but erased any savings to homeowners, especially in the most populous parts of the state.

Oregon’s booming economy helped ease the impact of the previous property tax limit because increased income tax revenue left the state with more money to help make up for the cuts.

For now, local government officials are holding back on cuts until they see what the Legislature does.

``What we’re telling our members is that this is not a time to panic,″ Weast said.

Perhaps, some suggest, Measure 47 will force a solution to the state’s tax mess.

``It may be that this is the wake-up call that we’re all going to have to sit down and figure this out all together,″ said Joseph Cox, chancellor of the state System of Higher Education.

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