August 15, 2008 Volume 109 Number 16

Oregon unions oppose slew of ballot measures

Oregon voters will see 12 measures on their mail-in ballots this fall: eight citizen initiatives and four legislative referrals.

The four referrals (Measures 54 through 57) are likely to get labor support, but all but one of the initiatives are opposed by organized labor. Unions have not yet taken a position on Measure 65, which would change the primary election. But unions and other opponents of the measures have formed a group — Defend Oregon — to oppose Measures 58 through 64. The measures are sponsored by long-time labor adversaries, including Bill Sizemore; several of the proposals have been rejected by voters before.

As he has in previous years, Sizemore appears to have written the measures specifically to tie up the resources of his adversaries. Some measures will be fought especially hard by public school teachers, others by all public employees, and one is sure to galvanize building trades union members. A pair of crime-related measures sponsored by Kevin Mannix also is being opposed by organized labor.

What follows is a summary of the measures.

Measure 58: Prohibits teaching public school students in a language other than English for more than two years. Oregon has about 74,000 K-12 public school students learning English as a second language. Most are taught in classes where the language instruction takes place in English — until they are assessed as proficient in English. But some get tutors in their own language to keep them from falling behind their peers in subjects like math and science. And it’s up to local districts whether to offer classes in other languages. In some cases, classes are offered in foreign languages both to help native speakers keep up and to help non-native speakers gain proficiency in a foreign language. Current Oregon law requires that all such programs be justified by research. Sizemore has no background in education, and has never taught public schools, but his measure would do away with much of that, mandating a two-year limit for instruction in any foreign language except when native English speakers are the ones being instructed. Similar measures have passed in California and Arizona. Oregon Education Association spokesperson Becca Uherbelau said Oregon teachers oppose the measure as an uninformed intrusion into educational practice, and an unfunded mandate that takes away local control of schools. Arizona school administrators estimate the requirement there is costing $2,741 extra per student per year. Based partly on that figure, the official explanatory statement that will accompany Measure 58 on the Oregon ballot estimates the measure could cost $203 to $253 million a year extra — for extra teaching staff needed to meet the federal No Child Left Behind requirement that all students make satisfactory progress.

Measure 59: Creates an unlimited deduction for federal income taxes on individual taxpayers’ Oregon income tax returns. When you fill out your state income tax return, you get to reduce the amount of taxable income you report to the state by the amount of federal income tax you paid — up to a limit that’s currently $5,500. That limit doesn’t affect most Oregon taxpayers, because only 28 percent are paying more than that amount of federal income tax. So removing the limit benefits only those higher-income taxpayers. Chuck Sheketoff of the Oregon Center for Public Policy estimates half the tax savings from this measure would go to the top 1 percent. And it’s expected this ballot measure would reduce revenues to the State of Oregon by $360 million the first year, $1 billion the second year, and $1.3 billion after that. That’s a hit of 9 percent of the state’s general fund, and it would rise over time. Unlike the feds, states can’t borrow money, so revenue cuts would either need to be matched with new taxes elsewhere or cuts in spending. The state spends 54 percent of its general fund revenue on schools, 13 percent on public safety and most of the remainder serving children, seniors, and the disabled. Thus, this measure could cut spending on those things — in order that higher-income earners could pay less taxes. Voters turned this down by a substantial margin in 2000.

Measure 60: Teacher “classroom performance,” not seniority, determines pay raises. Pay for performance might work in real estate, one of Sizemore’s side businesses. But do you want to pay police officers for performance? In areas where crime is a problem, is that because police are incompetent and need to be replaced? Most people would say that’s ridiculous, yet Sizemore thinks it’s teachers who are to blame when students fail. Voters rejected this measure in 2000. This time, Sizemore has made it clear teachers would be banned from receiving even cost-of-living increases. All raises of any kind would have to be based on classroom performance, which the measure doesn’t define. To make that work would require that districts develop new quantitative methods of evaluating all teachers. That could include more standardized testing, at an official cost estimate of $30 million to $60 million a year. Or it could include trained classroom evaluators, at a similar cost. Currently, teacher salaries are set through collective bargaining agreements negotiated between each local union chapter and the local school administrators. Most contracts have a single salary schedule with pay grades that reflect experience in the classroom and educational attainment. Such a schedule is very predictable and helps districts budget. If teachers are paid solely by how well students perform — with no allowances for differences in income, home life, and parental education and involvement — good teachers would likely leave low-income schools for more affluent schools that test better. Sizemore’s own kids were mostly private schooled, so this measure may be less about improving public schools than wrecking them to make private schools more attractive — and to punish public school teachers and their unions. Newly-formed Parents & Teachers Know Better PAC, backed by PTAs, school employees unions, and groups like Stand for Children, will campaign against this measure, and against Measure 58.

Measure 61: Mandatory minimum sentences for theft, identity theft, forgery, drug crimes and burglary. In 1994, voters passed Measure 11, which spelled out minimum sentences for violent crime. The measure led to new prison construction and increased rates of incarceration. Now Measure 11’s sponsor, Kevin Mannix, is back with a measure applying a similar approach to property and drug crimes. Offenses like burglary, identity theft, or making or delivering methamphetamine near a school would get minimum three-year sentences. The state prison population is 13,600 now. According to the official estimate, Measure 61 would add 4,000 to 6,000 more, at an additional cost of $161 million to $274 million a year — plus close to $2 billion over two decades to build and finance new prison construction. And the union representing most corrections officers is opposed to it. Mary Botkin, lobbyist for AFSCME, says corrections members are concerned that Measure 61 would lead to prison overcrowding, which puts corrections personnel in greater danger. Plus, Botkin said, many property crimes are motivated by addiction. “Our members understand that without drug and alcohol treatment, it’s a revolving door.” AFSCME and other unions are supporting Measure 57 — an alternative referred by the Oregon Legislature — which toughens some sentences but also requires alcohol and drug treatment.

Measure 62: Constitutional amendment to allocate 15 percent of lottery proceeds to a public safety fund for crime prevention, investigation, prosecution. In accord with previous ballot measures approved by voters, lottery funds — currently about $700 million a year — go to economic development, education, and parks and natural resources. If this passes, about $100 million a year would be taken away from K-12 education and economic development and given to the state crime lab, early childhood programs, district attorneys, and county sheriffs, according to a formula written by Mannix. Education advocates oppose the shift, and so does AFSCME; Botkin notes that the money goes for investigation and prosecution, but not for incarceration, “the ultimate public safety program.”

Measure 63: Exempts residential and farm property owners from requirements to obtain building, plumbing, electrical or mechanical permits or inspections for improvements valued at under $35,000 in any calendar year. “This is a poorly-written initiative that undermines the whole reason we have building codes and permit processes,” says Chris West of Pac/West Communications. Pac/West, a lobby firm employed by some building trades unions, is forming a coalition to oppose the measure — Citizens Against Unsafe Housing. The group is backed by building trades unions, home builders and remodelers, realtors, insurance companies, public employees, and firefighters. Permits and inspections are about making sure homes are safe, West said, and making sure that they last. Eliminating permit and inspection requirements could undermine industry wages and standards, and open up a world of opportunity for shoddy, unlicensed and unscrupulous contractors. If a project overlapped a calendar year, West points out, projects could be valued at up to $70,000 without any permit. “This is an attack on those who have been trained and licensed to provide quality homes for Oregonians,” West said, “but it’s also an attack on the wellbeing of owners, who won’t know they’re at risk from unpermitted, uninspected work.” Home inspectors employed by home buyers won’t know if work done behind sheet rock was to code, for example. And uninspected work would increase risks for insurers. AFSCME’s Botkin says the local building inspectors her union represents are also opposed to the measure, out of concern for public safety. “Building permits are there for a reason,” Botkin said, “to make sure it’s built right so your family and friends and people you sell it to are not at risk.”

Measure 64: Penalizes person, entity for using funds collected with public resource for political purpose. This measure, sponsored by Bill Sizemore, is about making it harder for public employee unions to collect voluntary political contributions from members who have authorized them. This is now done via electronic payroll deductions, but the measure would ban that, so that union members would have to find a way to contribute on their own. “This measure targets Oregonians who are working in public sector — teachers, nurses, and fire- fighters — and takes way their rights,” said OEA spokesperson Uherbelau. Adds AFSCME’s Botkin: “This would really neuter the ability of our members to participate in the political process.”

The voter registration deadline for the November general election is Oct. 14. Ballots will be mailed out Oct. 17 and are due back Nov. 4.

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