Looming tax vote has state workers unsettled

SALEM — Cuts in Oregon state government are likely to occur if voters reject Measures 66 and 67 at the ballot box in the Jan. 26 special election.

But no one's quite sure where those cuts will come from, leaving state workers uneasy and unsettled.

"I think the biggest concern is the uncertainty about what's going to happen," said Brian Burger, a corrections officer at Santiam Correctional Institution. "It's not what we know. It's what we don't know that worries us the most."

That leaves state workers with no clue where the axe will fall. Rumors are running rampant.

Some folks are pretty sure they'll be jobless if the measures fail.

Michael Botkin got a seasonal job in September as an order picker at an Oregon Liquor Control Commission warehouse in Milwaukie.

"I pull the liquor for the liquor stores' orders," he said.

Botkin has applied to be an equipment operator, which would make him a permanent employee, but the ballot measures have cast a shadow over his chances.

"The distribution manager came out and told me if these measures don't pass I could be laid off," he said. "I'm telling everybody and their brother they have to vote yes; otherwise I'll be out of a job again."

Before getting this job, Botkin had been unemployed for about a year. Losing this job would be a tough blow.

"It was the thing that was going to save my sanity," he said. "Being unemployed for a year in a hard economy with nobody hiring, you get frustrated. You start going crazy after a while."

Given that the state is the Salem-Keizer area's major employer, state job cuts could have a larger impact on the local area than others. But not everyone sees it that way.

The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce has come out against Measures 66 and 67. Executive Director Mike McLaran said the cuts that state government might have to make would cause short-term pain, but not increasing taxes on business will lead to long-term gains for everyone.

"Creating an atmosphere where the private sector can create and maintain jobs is the foundation, then, of what will provide the revenue in the way of income taxes to support public sector jobs," McLaran said.

He added that the state can target its cuts to make sure the most essential functions of government are preserved.

"Instead of across-the-board cuts, they need to take a look at the priorities of state government and make cuts based on those priorities," McLaran said.

All of Oregon's agencies provided legislators in November a list of potential cuts that reflect about 10 percent of their total budget.

However, the failure of the money-raising measures would only require about 5 percent in cuts.

"We asked agencies for 10 percent in cuts so the legislature would have some options," said Ken Rocco, an officer with the Legislative Fiscal Office. "There are more cuts on those lists than we need, so it really depends on what is selected."

Rumors also have started flying from the potential cuts lists provided to the Legislature, as people read them and assume they are fact rather than possibility.

For example, one rumor held that the Oregon Department of Administrative Services would be firing all its janitors and replacing them with contractors. That is a cut proposed in the list DAS provided the Oregon Legislature, spokesman Lonn Hoklin said, but it isn't something the agency wants to do if it can be helped.

State employees also are not sure what to make of very drastic cuts proposed by the heads of their agencies.

For example, the Oregon Department of Corrections has proposed closing several smaller prisons, including the Mill Creek and Santiam correctional institutions.

Burger said the closures could lead to layoffs and overcrowding at the prisons that remain open.

Closing the minimum-security facilities could create other problems, as well. For example, Burger oversees prison work crews that clean road trash, repair guard rails and help clear snowed-in mountain passes. Those crews likely would no longer be available because maximum-security prisons don't have work crews.

Those are the drawbacks. The problem is, no one in the prison system is sure how seriously to take the plan, Burger said.

"We hear conflicting stories about it," he said. "It comes and it goes. What we're hearing now is that the likelihood is very low, but even keeping prisons open you're looking at serious cutbacks."


Information from: Statesman Journal, http:www.statesmanjournal.com

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