Could be that the most significant event in Oregon on Tuesday passes clear outside the view of most Oregonians, partly because it will be happening in Josephine County, far from the big population centers, off in the southwest corner of the state, around Grants Pass.
It will be not a hot race for high office, but a local county tax levy, Measure 17.43. From its description in the voter guide: "Should Josephine County impose $1.99 per $1,000 of assessed value for criminal justice system operations for four years beginning 2012-2013? This measure may cause property taxes to increase more than three percent."
Voters in Portland might hardly blink at something like that, but it is earth-shattering for Josephine County. Josephine is one of the most tax averse counties in Oregon. It has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of federal forest funding, and with that in hand, kept its property taxes so low that Josephine's are the lowest in Oregon, a fraction of what people in the Portland metro area are accustomed to.
As those federal funds have been disappearing, and they are virtually gone now, the county government has moved into a crisis mode. With much of its funding gone, the logical move would be an increase in the property tax, but that has generated intense opposition as well. (As it has in other Oregon counties similarly situated, like Curry and Coos.)
Still, local county backers have proposed 17.43, which is tightly focused: On local law enforcement and related services. If the property tax increase is approved, that is where the money most specifically will go. Absent any new influx of money, those agencies will be gutted. This county of 83,000 people will have but three sheriff's deputies (on contract) and space for just 30 prisoners (the norm has been 120), both amounts only a sliver of what the county has had - barely more than no sheriff's office at all, and no more than the shell of a county government. Only the hardest cases will remain behind bars. (The local Daily Courier has summed up budget cuts now expected locally. It has endorsed passage of the levy.)
This prospect (and related issues) has begun to worry much of the Grants Pass business community a lot more than a modest tax increase, and it has generated levy support from a number of public officials who would never, under ordinary circumstances, be considered pro-tax, starting with the county commissioners and the mayor of Grants Pass.
And then there's Wally Hicks, a Republican state representative from Grants Pass, a former deputy district attorney and generally described as a conservative - and also very concerned about what might happen to law enforcement in his county. He has turned into a leader in support of the levy.
As significant as the vote is for Josephine County, its impact could be much broader. Money borrowing costs for southwest Oregon counties, not just Josephine, could shoot much higher if it fails, since the possibility of an outright failed county would be on the table. A no vote could start, as the children's story has it, "A succession of unfortunate events."
While much of the attention goes to Portland mayor and the race for attorney general, throw a spotlight over to Grants Pass on Tuesday.