Legislators' Surveys Draw Cool Response

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID STEVES The Register-Guard

SALEM - At the Capitol, phrases like "limited options" and "no good choices" pepper descriptions of the difficult task faced by the governor and legislators in dealing with a $482 million budget hole.

No good choices? How about this one: "I think the state should cut nonessential services to balance the budget."

This option was one of two posed in a survey sent by Rep. Jeff Kruse, R-Sutherlin, to 11,600 constituents in Lane and Douglas counties.

The other choice? "Yes, I think we should raise taxes to balance the budget."

Taxes vs. cutting nonessential services.

It's a choice that many lawmakers wish they faced, but one that some believe has little to do with their reality.

"It's nutty. It's crazy. It's biased. It's a waste of taxpayer dollars," says Rep. Bob Ackerman, a Eugene Democrat.

He said there's nothing wrong with statistically representative, unbiased polls to inform officials about public opinion on taxes, borrowing and budget cuts - the three main options before the Legislature in the year's fifth deficit-related special session.

But surveys such as those mailed out by Kruse and House Speaker Mark Simmons don't accomplish that goal, Ackerman said.

The objective of such surveys he said, "is to get a poll that bolsters their political stance. It's a political tool."

Kruse defends his survey, which cost about $2,900 for printing and postage - to be paid for with state dollars. He said that he genuinely thinks the Legislature should approach the budget shortfall as a choice between more taxes and of trimming non-essential programs.

"The scenario that's been painted is that we're in a crisis," he said. "Neither the governor nor the speaker have really talked about whether there are any nonessential programs we can cut."

He cites as examples the reductions he and Rep. Dan Doyle, R-Salem, proposed in late August as ways to absorb the $482 million revenue shortfall without raising taxes, borrowing or making across-the-board cuts to education, human services and public safety. Among the steps Kruse and Doyle have advocated as ways to reduce nonessential state spending:

Cutting state agencies' funding for unfilled positions.

Reducing public pension payments by updating life-expectancy tables more aggressively than the Public Employees Retirement Board did last month.

Suspending state mandates requiring schools to provide certificates of initial and advanced mastery.

Privatizing liquor sales, which are now made through state agents.

Kruse said he mailed the survey to households in his district, targeting all residences where a voter participated in two of the last four elections. As required for any such mailing paid by legislative funds, it did not target members of any one party, but went to homes of Democrats, Republicans, minor-party members and independent voters.

House Speaker Simmons' survey is by far the most widely distributed among those sent out by legislators. …