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Low voter turnout could doom measures

Failure of tax requests is automatic without 50 percent turnout

Prospects looked rosy a few months ago for tax measures on the May 21 ballot.

With lively races for governor looming in both the Republican and Democratic primaries, a 50 percent turnout Ñ a requirement to approve new taxes Ñ looked like a dead certainty for May 21.

So several local governments in the Portland area put tax measures on the ballot instead of waiting until November, when a 50 percent turnout of voters isn't necessary to pass new taxes. The provision, passed by voters in 1996, is known as the double-majority rule.

Conditions don't look quite as bright now. Ballots will be mailed May 3, and polls still show large numbers of undecided voters. Indecision means that they might not vote at all Ñ and without that 50 percent turnout, tax measures fail no matter how the votes add up.

Only a few tax requests are on ballots in Multnomah County this spring, including Portland park improvements, funding for county libraries and a Mt. Hood Community College bond for repairs and improvements.

Four measures, however, have been placed on the ballot by local governments in Washington County and nine in Clackamas County Ñ three from the city of West Linn alone.

Supporters of the tax measures have reason to be nervous. Over the last two decades, turnout for a primary election has not reached 48 percent statewide. Supporters of tax measures, though, have to reach a 50 percent turnout only within their borders, a goal that's often attainable with diligence and a well-organized campaign to get out the vote.

Diane Linn, chairwoman of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, thinks that voters will pay more attention when the advertising for candidates and measures gets into high gear. Some ads appeared last week, others will start this week and soon all will be on the air.

'This is the calm before the storm,' Linn said. 'Once all that hits, all the candidates will be targeting all those undecided voters.'

Try, try again

Voters approved the double-majority rule as part of the Measure 47 tax law changes.

New permanent property taxes are no longer allowed in Oregon. Voters can approve property tax money for, say, new police officers. But the tax will expire after five years unless reauthorized by voters. So in the years to come, voters will see more renewal requests to maintain existing services, such as the sheriff's measure in Washington County and the library measure in Multnomah County.

Tax measures sometimes can beat the rule, sometimes not. Portland Public Schools turned out more than 50 percent for a tax measure on the May 2000 primary ballot. That election included a presidential primary Ñ but not a particularly competitive one by that point in the political season.

Washington County's Enhanced Sheriff's Patrol District Ñ a special tax for extra police protection in urban unincorporated areas Ñ had an even tougher challenge in an off-year election in 1997. Supporters campaigned furiously in the days before the voting deadline and saw their work rewarded when the turnout tipped above 50 percent. The district is asking voters in May to renew its funding for another five years.

West Linn has struggled with the new rules. In November and again in March, the city asked voters to renew funding for 12 of its 29 police officers. A measure to maintain fire protection and a third for bonds to buy athletic fields also were on the ballot. Supporters tried everything they could to bring out voters, including phone banks, canvassing and mailings.

Voters generally liked the measures, with 54 percent supporting the police measure and 58 percent favoring the police measure. But with nothing else on the ballot, their efforts came up short with a turnout of 47.8 percent. The West Linn City Council is trying for a third time in May but won't try again if the measures fail.

'This is our last best opportunity to get to 50 percent,' said John Atkins, the city's community services coordinator. 'If you can't get to 50 percent in a primary election, what makes you think you can get it in a September election with nothing else on the ballot to bring out voters?'

Cautious optimism

Supporters of this year's local measures say their issues will stand or fall on their own merits, not on what happens in the governor's races.

Liz Kaufman, director of both the Neighbors for Portland Parks Campaign and the Libraries Yes! Campaign, said she expects a 50 percent turnout. But it won't come without mailings, volunteers campaigning door to door and perhaps radio promotions.