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Posts published in “Day: January 15, 2010”

No, Virginia

The last post made a reference to the forces opposed to Oregon's measures 66 and 67 as proposing "a few too many specious arguments." On example was given there; another really should be noted here. As, also, a case study in the wisdom of double-checking potentially unclear facts before speaking.

Like other states, Oregon annually issues an annual financial report, and on page 14 of the most recent one you can find this statement: "As of June 30, the State's government funds reported combined ending fund balances of 44.4 billion. Of this amount, approximately 25.1 percent was reserved for nonspendable items, such as inventories and permanent fund principal, or specific purposes, such as debt service. The remainder was classified as unreserved, undesignated fund balance and was available for spending, subject to statutory and constitutional spending constraints."

Reading it cold, you could reasonably think: Wow! So Oregon doesn't really have a revenue shortfall at all: In fact, it has a big pile of money ready for spending. What do we need Measures 66 or 67 for with all this money available?

That was the essence of what Senators Chris Telfer, R-Bend, and Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, suggested a few days ago, just as the ballot-casting on the measures were getting underway.

Given that these two senators were enmeshed in the budget-setting through the first half of last year, you might think they'd wonder where this massive pile of money, invisible to them and everyone else then, suddenly came from.

Turns out, as you probably expect by now, it doesn't exist.

The Oregonian checked in with Kathryn Ross, who drafts the reports, which like many other accounting reports the world over is full of what you might call "terms of art." It is written as it is to comply with national standards for such reports (Washington and Idaho do about the same), and that means it has to be read carefully - many things aren't always what they initially seem. Ross: "I'm always amazed that people could think there's a pot of gold here that no one knew about except the state controller's division."

Ballots away


Our ballots arrived, have been filled out, and sent, in the first election in the Northwest in the new decade. And a fairly significant one, as it turns out (the so-far sluggishness of ballot returns notwithstanding). Ballots are due January 26. Watch the news that day.

The stakes in the specific outcome of the election are substantial enough. Measures 66 and 67 are public votes on tax increases passed last session by the Oregon Legislature, one on individuals - applying to income over $125,000 per person (or double that per two-taxpayer family) - and one on a subset of corporations. Both amount to relatively modest increases in most cases, somewhat larger in a small number. They were imposed because of to state revenue shortfalls; after a series of cuts were imposed, these were passed to fill the rest of the gap. They are expected to bring in around three-quarters of billion dollars. If the voters reject them, the gap would have to be made up another way, either through further and fairly massive cuts (which is what legislators project is what would happen) or, possibly, some other form of tax increase. Which in turn might be subject to another referendum.

Our sense that there are flaws in these measures. In one place, gross rather than net income for corporations would a basis for taxation, which would unduly hit businesses with a large money pass-through (car dealerships, say) but a small profit margin, or even no profits. There's some fair issue too, a smaller one, with an element of retroactivity that would apply in some cases. On the other hand, the cuts in services would stand to be enormous. A legislative session begins in February, and will deal with whatever the fallout is. After all the talk of massive cuts if these measures fail, legislators may be hard pressed to do anything else.

This is an Oregon-specific issue, of course. But the implications are worth watching beyond the state's boundaries. After all the talk about government spending, taxes, and all the rest in recent times, here we have something that functions as a voter decision on these things. In Oregon the battle has been high-profile and hard-fought; TV is becoming swamped by commercials on them (on both sides), and in rural areas signs about "job killing taxes" are all over. Both the Yes campaign and the No campaign are well-funded and very active.

Some conclusions probably can be drawn, with some legitimacy, from the numbers we see when these vote-by-mail ballots are counted.

Our take is that the No side has used a few too many specious arguments, from its contention that tens of thousands of jobs will be lost (said to be developed by economists, but the analysis is full of holes) to this commercial . . .

Set in an clearly-marked Paula's Bake Shop, it turns out that it actually was set in Paula's Bake Shop . . . in Auburn, California. (The eagle eye catching it was Kari Chisholm of Blue Oregon.)

For the Idahoans for whom a tax increase is something simply not to be put on the table, period, ever ever ever . . . or the Washingtonians trying to craft some sort of revenue increase in their short session this year, the Oregon vote will be worth watching.