State legislators plugged ahead without much change of course during the 2010 special session.

More specifically, they plugged a $185 million hole in the current budget by depleting state reserve funds, rerouting money from state agencies and capping certain tax breaks.

Even so, early projections call for a $2.5 billion shortfall in the revenues needed next year to maintain services at their present level.

Salem's stay-the-course approach followed a dramatic election, when voters challenged fiscal fashion and approved two state tax measures. Apparently legislators viewed this as a vote to extend the status quo. That's not how others saw it.

Liberals hailed the outcome as a sign that both rural and urban voters now understand more money is needed to fund public services. Many urged lawmakers to replenish rainy-day funds by placing the state's kicker law on the ballot.

Conservatives, by contrast, warned of a backlash if legislators grabbed more revenues from citizens. The slogan "Taxed Enough Already" was popularized by protesters.

In other words, a change order at the ballot box was greeted by the same old political chest-beating. Taxes good! Taxes bad! For decades these two Tarzans have battled for control of our public purse. In the process it's become normal to assume that budgets can't be balanced without continually sacrificing services or raising taxes.

Things might be different if we plowed up the old polemics and took a closer look at budget priorities. Liberals might learn to oppose government spending on things that undermine progressive values. Conservatives might challenge capital projects and private contractors with the same zeal applied to social services and public employees.

Things might be different, for example, if liberals and conservatives had teamed up to oppose a tax-and-spend transportation bill passed by state lawmakers last year. The bill raised gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to fund more than $900 million in big earmarked projects, the largest being $192 million for part of a half-billion-dollar Dundee bypass.

The sprawling earmarks prompted a scathing review of the bill from Rick Attig, associate editor of The Oregonian.

"This is the way they do it in Congress, now writ small in Oregon," wrote Attig in a May 27 editorial, "trading off projects to win support, and using power and political calculation, as much as traffic and congestion, to decide where the money goes. That's how Congress wound up approving Alaska's infamous Bridge to Nowhere."

Critics of the transportation bill suggested the huge Dundee bypass earmark was a gift to the political ally of a leading anti-tax activist, essentially a bribe to keep the bill off the ballot.

It worked, if that was the strategy. Conservatives chose not to challenge the tax-and-spend highway bill, in spite of earlier statements to the contrary. Instead they referred Measures 66 and 67 to voters, blowing a boatload of money on two major defeats and damaging their cause.

The choice was highlighted by a leading proponent of Measures 66 and 67 during a campaign debate in January. Steve Novick pointed out that those who opposed a small increase in taxes on corporations to fund schools were OK with raising the gas tax for earmarked highway projects, even though the latter will cost the typical Oregon family more of its gross income.

"Why do you believe that roads are more important than schools, and corporations deserve better treatment than families?" asked Novick.

When his opponent said gas taxes were used to employ people and improve infrastructure, Novick countered without pause. "There are jobs in education, and health care and public safety too. Transportation jobs aren't the only jobs in the public sector."

Novick was among those who urged lawmakers to reject the highway bill last year. At a May 26 news conference hosted by 1000 Friends of Oregon, Novick noted how lawmakers blatantly ignored the governor's pledge to veto any bill with legislative earmarks.

"This raises significant concerns about whether public money is being spent based on sound transportation policy decisions or based on political muscle," said Novick.

Salem didn't listen. Governor Kulongoski broke his pledge without batting an eye after legislators passed the earmarked bill. We didn't hear much more about it until Novick brought it up, eight months later, while debating in favor of two tax measures.

It would have strengthened Novick's position if 1000 Friends and their allies had sent the earmarked bill to the ballot and opposed it on budgetary grounds. Yet I've seldom seen such groups oppose new taxes as long as some of the funds are targeted for things they want - like bike paths and mass transit. I've observed this to be true even when much of the additional revenues are spent in ways that expand urban sprawl (further boosting budget costs).

There's never a right time to blow political capital on tax-and-sprawl earmarks; certainly not when we're nearing the budgetary brink. Salem's status-quo won't suffice. Oregon needs a coalition of cost-conscious liberals and civic-minded conservatives to ensure our tax dollars go toward public priorities - like fixing and maintaining existing infrastructure, and securing core services for the long haul.

Watt Childress owns Jupiter's Books in Cannon Beach and is a regular columnist for the Cannon Beach Citizen. E-mail him at (wattchildress@yahoo.com)

Tags