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Measure 48 – Back to the Future

It's little known, but it happens to be a fact, that Oregon already has a spending limit for state government. If that's the case, why all the fuss over this fall's ballot measure 48, which would limit the growth of state government to inflation plus population?

In the 1970s, Oregon's Legislature went on a spending binge. During that decade, state spending jumped dramatically as Oregon's timber-based economy boomed. In response, voters went to the polls in 1980 and overwhelmingly approved our '2-percent kicker' program, and another provision tying state government spending increases to increases in personal income. The two were a perfect match - the kicker would limit revenue and the spending limit would limit, well, spending.

Unfortunately for the voters, both these measures were only statutory, that is, they were 'only' laws. Since passed, the kicker has been violated by the legislature several times - and threatened every time it 'kicked' - until voters got fed up and put it in the state constitution a few years ago.

The spending limit suffered an even worse fate. Since its adoption in 1980, legislators have not allowed that spending limit to limit one penny of spending. The Legislature has voted to violate the voter-approved spending limit every single legislative session since 1981. That's 13 straight times.

Any questions about why Oregonians distrust government?

So now, after another decade (and a half) of watching the Legislature spend every single penny available, and then running into a recession without sufficient savings and raiding every trust fund the state had to fund current spending, voters are ready to say enough is enough. They are ready to put a reasonable spending limit in the Oregon Constitution.

Ballot measure 48 is a direct reaction to the Legislature's profligate ways in the 1990s. Oregon's economy boomed, and the Legislature spent. The rainy day amendment would allow continued spending growth but would limit growth to increases in inflation plus Oregon's population.

Any revenues that came in above the limit, which current estimates predict could be 1 billion per year, would be left in the state treasury, earning interest.

The next time there's a recession, this money would be available to spend on needed programs. The Legislature could also spend it in non-recession times, provided they first get voter approval.

With Measure 48, Oregon will have the kicker to limit excessive revenue growth, and the rainy day amendment to limit excessive spending growth.

Working hand-in-hand with the kicker, measure 48 would give Oregon voters what they asked for from their Legislature a quarter of a century ago and have been denied ever since: a reasonable growth allowance for state government spending.

Jason Williams is the executive director of the Taxpayers Association of Oregon.