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Oregon Parents Push Sales Tax To Raise Funds for Schools

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Spurred by the threat of a financial crisis looming over Oregon schools, a new grassroots parents' organization is leading a campaign to create a 5 percent state sales tax earmarked for education.

If Oregon voters approve the new tax, it is expected to generate $387 million over the next two years for the state's financially strapped public schools, which are looking at an 8.4 percent budget cut this fall and further reductions in the future.

The legislature last month approved a bill to hold a referendum on the sales-tax proposal on Nov. 9.

The referendum would also cut $304 million in property taxes in the 1993-94 biennial budget and $682 million in 1995-97.

The current budget shortfall was precipitated by Measure 5, a property-tax-limitation law approved by voters in 1990. The initiative required the state to reimburse school districts for lost property-tax revenues during a five-year phase-in period. As a result, the state is expected to restore some $1.57 billion to districts in its 1993-95 budget, and $2.6 billion in 1995-97.

Unfortunately for the schools, however, nothing in Measure 5 prevents the state from reducing general-fund aid to districts to balance its budget. The budget approved by the legislature this year provides $1.06 billion in aid, or about $300 million less than school officials say they need to maintain current services. (See Education Week, March 3, 1993.)

The group behind the tax plan, Citizens for Oregon's Schools, was founded in February by parents from six school systems. It currently has organizers in 60 of the state's 300 districts.

Looking Down the Road

Members say they hope to generate support on a local basis by showing voters what will happen to their local school budgets if the tax measure is rejected.

The impact of the impending cuts is already visible, according to Jeffrey P. Chicoine, the group's president. Districts have eliminated dozens of teaching positions, increased class sizes, and curtailed library purchases.

"We'll just continue to see the schools deteriorating'' if the tax is not approved, he contended.

Mr. Chicoine became concerned about the school-finance crisis after sitting on a budget-reduction committee for the West Linn-Wilsonville schools in suburban Portland. A hearings officer with the state employment-relations board, he has two children who attend elementary schools there and a preschooler who will soon join them.

"I expect to have my kids in school for the next 15 years,'' he said, "and I'm looking down the road and I don't like what I see.''

Rejected in the Past

History does not offer much encouragement for the plan's prospects. At least 10 efforts between 1933 and 1990 to create a sales tax have failed, with the most recent attempts, in 1969, 1985, and 1986, rejected by margins of more than two to one.

A 1990 advisory vote that would have directed the legislature to pass a sales tax also failed, with 63 percent of the voters opposing it.

Still, supporters of the measure believe that this year they will be able to overcome Beaver State residents' traditional aversion to a tax on purchases.

What might make this sales tax more palatable, advocates say, is that it is dedicated exclusively to education, and that it will be terminated after four years unless voters agree to continue it.

"The choices are different than they have been in the past,'' according to Sarah Ames, a spokeswoman for Gov. Barbara Roberts, who is backing the proposal.

"At this point, if people want a strong education system,'' Ms. Ames said, "you can't accept the status quo anymore.''

Nevertheless, Ms. Ames acknowledged that it is "likely to be a tough campaign'' to pass the measure.

Opponents charge that the plan is a regressive tax that will hit low-income families the hardest.

"In this world, folks live or half-live on sometimes very uneven incomes, yet those with the highest incomes prefer and insist that we share our tax burden equally,'' said Russell Farrell, the chairman of Consumers Opposing the Sales Tax.

An alternative solution proposed by COST, which is one of at least four independent groups that are fighting the sales-tax proposal, is to raise income taxes on the wealthy.

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