Let's say you are a prudent person. That distinguishes you from Oregon state government right there (but I digress).

Let's say that you are also responsible for a growing family but that your savings account is running dry.

Now assume that you win some money in the lottery. What would you, a prudent person, do with your windfall?

Would you spend it?

Or - thinking of your family's welfare - would you tuck that little bundle away and save it for an emergency?

We know what you would do if you were the Oregon legislature. You'd dish out the dough and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

Welcome back to the world of Oregon's so-called income tax "kicker."

The kicker rebates tax revenue in good times, when tax collections grow because the economy is growing. But the kicker also leaves the state with little in the bank for difficult times such as these - when a deep recession has triggered large budget deficits, early school closures, and a higher-than-normal need for "safety net" services for a population with the nation's highest rates of unemployment and hunger.

Most legislators and the governor know it's crazy to run the state this way. But after a record eight-month legislative session, they'll soon let the legislature adjourn without doing a thing about the problem.

This reason is hard to swallow. Most of this state's "pols" are either, a) frightened by any whiff of criticism about taxes or, b) ideologues who believe in any contrivance to reduce taxes - no matter how small the amount and regardless of the damage it may inflict on Oregon as a community.

Crazy numbersWhat a shame! The kicker's rebate for the average family is rarely enough to cover and evening out at a good restaurant. But in the aggregate the kicker costs the state hundreds of millions that could be saved for a rainy day.

But that's not the half of it.

To really understand how crazy the kicker is, consider this:

By the end of 2001, as the legislature prepared to convene for the first of five special sessions to fill an ever-growing hole in the budget, the kicker almost simultaneously rebated $250 million to taxpayers.

That's right, the state was preparing to reduce the deficit even as it increased it - no small feat of contortion.

How could this craziness have occurred? Simple. The kicker is based on a two-year prediction of tax collections by the state economist. After he makes his guess, if the state collects two percent more revenue than he predicted, Salem must rebate the excess to taxpayers, plus the two percent.

The current recession was nowhere in sight when the state economist made his revenue prediction for 2001-2002. It was still in the distance when mid-2001 tax collections were robust enough to trigger the kicker.

By year's end the recession had arrived with a vengeance. The economist's two-year hunch proved way too optimistic. But it was too late. No one could stop the rebates even in the face of the looming 2002 deficit. The kicker law wouldn't allow it.

Politicians who support the kicker are among those most inclined to say that government should be run like a business. The fact that no successful business would run its affairs so chaotically is a paradox those pols usually dismiss by changing the subject.

But the public seems to be wising up. A man stood up in a Roseburg meeting recently and told State Treasurer Randall Edwards - a kicker foe - that he "would be happy to give up a few hundred bucks if it would keep the schools open." The audience burst into applause.

This occurred in Roseburg - not Ashland, Eugene, or Portland, but Roseburg, one of the most conservative precincts in Oregon.

It's raining nowIf this legislature and governor wanted to perform a useful service - rather than acting like Nero impersonators who fiddle while Oregon burns, they would replace the kicker with a rainy day fund before the legislature adjourns.

As any prudent household would do.

Former Congressman Les AuCoin is an Ashland writer and a professor of political science at Southern Oregon University. His e-mail address is aucoinl@sou.edu

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