Oregon's New Governor Has to Wield Paring Knife

Veteran officeholder Roberts has her plan in hand

INCREASINGLY through the 1980s, Californians trekked north to settle in the more relaxed towns and beautiful countryside of Oregon. Now, another trend that started in the Golden State has arrived here, and it's brought with it some troublesome baggage. This is a measure to limit property taxes, which traces its genealogy to California's Proposition 13 of 1978.

By a very slim margin, Oregonians in November passed ``Prop. 5,'' which limits the tax on property to $15 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The results are likely to be cuts in social services, public education, and police protection at a time when the state is facing major declines in other revenues due to the nationwide economic slowdown.

It is not the happiest kind of beginning for Barbara Roberts, a liberal Democrat who was sworn in Monday as the state's first woman governor.

She has warned that the property-tax limit could ``cripple Oregon and put it permanently on the economic back burner.''

Budge cuts detailed

But Governor Roberts, a veteran of six years as secretary of state and four years in the state legislature, fully intends to fulfill her legal obligation to produce a balanced budget.

Even before she took over from Neil Goldschmidt, a fellow Democrat who decided not to run for reelection because of marital problems, Roberts detailed a 1991-93 budget that includes major cutting: elimination of 1,570 state jobs, including 500 in higher education and 89 state police positions; the closure of three state mental health wards; reduction in drug and alcohol treatment, and an $80 million decrease in the state's contribution to basic education.

Such cuts at the state level are necessary because, under the initiative, Oregon must replace property tax revenues lost to local school districts. Without new sources of revenue, in other words, that portion of the state's general fund dedicated to basic education will increase from 27 percent at present to 68 percent by 1996 - necessitating cuts in other areas.

``It was a very painful process,'' said the governor as she settled into her new offices in Salem. In all, lawmakers this year will have to make up for more than $800 million lost in property tax and other revenues.

As Prop. 5 is fully implemented over the next five years, that figure will rise to nearly $3 billion - a considerable sum for a state with fewer than 3 million people.

Roberts's job is made even tougher because Oregon already has the 12th highest state income taxes in the country (as a percentage of personal income), and it is one of only five states that does not have a sales tax. The others are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, and New Hampshire.

And unlike California 12 years ago, Oregon does not have a huge state budget surplus to cushion the blow.

Cities to lose revenues

Local governments, too, are likely to be hit by the effects of Prop. 5., with some cities losing 20 percent or more of current revenues.

Portland Mayor Bud Clark said last week the tax limitation measure was one reason he decided against running for reelection.

Like her opponent in the gubernatorial race (Republican Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer), Roberts favors a 5 percent sales tax on goods and services to be used only for public education.

Such a tax, she says, would not apply to food, housing, utilities, or medical care, and it should have ``ironclad, tamper-proof constitutional guarantees'' against political or bureaucratic fiddling.

One advantage of such a tax, proponents point out, is that it would tap the millions of tourists who come for the beaches and mountains and cultural activities every year, many of them from the land of Prop. 13.

Sometime between November and next May, Roberts will ask Oregonians to once again consider the sales tax.

Getting Oregonians to accept this, however, will present a major leadership challenge for the new governor.

Early in the century, Oregon was the first state to pass initiative and referendum legislation, and voters eight times in the past have rejected a sales tax. Organized labor is gearing up to fight it.

Republicans control House

Until this week, Democrats controlled both House and Senate in the Oregon legislature, and this might have helped Roberts.

But Republicans gained a majority in the House last fall. What Roberts does have going for her, however, is a good reputation among lawmakers of both parties.

And in a state where the legislature truly is part time (meeting for about six months every two years) and less partisan than in many other states, Roberts's down-to-earth style is a plus.

A descendant of pioneers who came to Oregon more than 100 years ago, Roberts got her start in politics by single-handedly lobbying on behalf of special-needs children (one of her sons was autistic). While a bookkeeper and office manager, she worked her way up the political ladder on boards and commissions. Married her senior year in high school, Roberts continues to earn credits toward a college degree.

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