As Coffers Shrink, Oregonians to Vote On Whether to Adopt a State Sales Tax

Governor, who supports it, is sagging in polls; similar measures have failed eight times in the past

OREGONIANS next week will decide whether to join most of the rest of the country in adopting a sales tax.

The vote Nov. 9 is the political fallout of an initiative three years ago enacting a California-style property-tax limit that has caused budgetary turmoil from the state capitol in Salem to small towns trying to cope.

But ``Measure 1,'' as it is known, also is an important prelude to next year's gubernatorial election, in which Gov. Barbara Roberts (D) - faulted by many for failing to solve the state's money problems - is likely to be challenged by at least one prominent Democrat as well as Republicans. She campaigned for a sales tax in 1990.

Uncertainty about who will fill the governor's chair comes as politicians and pundits here scramble to gauge the impact of two other unsettling events involving Oregon elected officials:

United States Sen. Bob Packwood (R) is fighting for his political life in the face of 94 fellow senators demanding he turn over his personal diaries, which may include evidence of criminal wrongdoing as well as sexual misconduct.

Also comes the surprise announcement of Rep. Mike Kopetski (D), an up-and-coming young congressman, that he will retire after just two terms following a drunk-driving arrest.

Next week's vote will be the ninth time Oregonians have considered a sales tax. Polls indicate it is likely to fail, but the margin of opposition is narrowing. The measure would impose a 5 percent tax on goods (but not services), with exceptions for groceries, prescription medicines, motor fuel, certain farm supplies, and some other items.

Money thus raised (about $1 billion a year) would be dedicated to public schools, taking the place of school property taxes, which would be abolished. Families earning less than $24,000 a year would receive an earned-income tax credit, and low income households would be eligible for a tax refund.

The measure also ties increases in state spending to population and inflation, and there's an escape clause requiring voters to approve the new tax again in 1998.

Supporters say the tax on sales would help make up for the reduction in school funding resulting from the property tax limits enacted in 1990. Oregon these days offers a flurry of spaghetti dinners and other community fund-raising efforts to keep sports and other school programs afloat.

State superintendent of public instruction Norma Paulus (R) says Oregon ``is at a critical juncture'' regarding its economy and government spending. She calls passage of Measure 1 ``the first step out of this quagmire,'' and she asserts that the state's nationally recognized school-reform effort hinges on passage of the state sales tax.

Opponents say there's no need for a new tax, if state lawmakers and the governor would actually do all they could do to cut spending.

In 1990, Governor Roberts campaigned on the need for a sales tax (as did her moderate Republican opponent, Dave Frohnmayer). After her election, she traveled the state holding a ``Conversation with Oregon'' to build public support for a tax. But that effort fizzled, and state lawmakers were lukewarm as well.

In her reelection bid next year, Roberts's first main opponent is likely to be former state Senate president John Kitzhaber (D), the small-town physician who wrote Oregon's controversial health-care rationing plan. Recent polls show Dr. Kitzhaber, a respected figure in the state, favored in a theoretical Democratic primary election by a 10 percentage-point margin.

``Barbara Roberts's approval ratings are in the tank,'' says Oregon State University political scientist Bill Lunch. ``The last one I saw was 16 percent, which is one of the lowest I've ever seen.''

``The fact that the governor hasn't been able to find a solution to the state's budgetary problem is very serious for her natural constituents - those who use public services or believe such services are important,'' says Professor Lunch. ``She's got problems with her friends, and her enemies have not been assuaged.''

Roberts may be saved by the internecine fighting among Oregon Republicans, who range from relative moderates like state schools chief Paulus (and US Senators Packwood and Mark Hatfield) to members of the religious right for whom abortion and homosexuality are the prime issues.

As for Bob Packwood's plight, he may be helped by the Senate's trying to subpoena all of his diaries. This could tie up the issue in the courts for months (or longer). Early this year, polls showed a plurality of Oregonians agreeing that Packwood should resign. A more recent poll gives a slight edge to those saying he should hold on to his post - although this was before new allegations that he solicited a job for his ex-wife from a lobbyist in order to reduce his alimony payments.

Still, many people in this independent-minded state also are concerned about wading through a person's private diaries - even a man they would just as soon faded from public view.

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