Chapter 5.4

Planning Revolt Hits Developers: Anti-government surge comes around against its original supporters.
(The Oregonian, March 20, 1998)

By Richard H. Carson

There is an instructive irony being played out through Oregon's unique initiative, referendum and recall process. The conservative landlords and developers who bankrolled and profited from ballot measures 5 and 47 are seeing their financial windfalls eroded through the "liberalization" of Bill Sizemore and because the anti-government pit bulls they helped set loose in Oregon have turned on their masters.

In the end, the property taxes they saved are being offset by the property cost increases forced on them by an artificially constrained land supply, increased user fees and the new tax math of Ballot Measure 50. Unfortunately, a lot of civic degradation comes with this new political environment.

The Pit Bulls Turn

In the haste to reduce property tax bills and increase profit margins, the property development interest lost control of the conservative citizen-activists and elected officials they supported. The citizen-activists discovered they were more than just "anti-government" -- they were also "anti-development." For this reason, a land supply shortage is now being felt by developers -- at the hands of the people they once cheered on -- because of voter-annexation initiatives passed in cities like Corvallis and Canby.

Indeed, the fight for term-limits also backfired and loosened the development industry's grip on state public policy. No longer can they lobby just the state legislature to have their way locally. The development industry's recent failure to get legislation to prohibit voter annexation requirements demonstrates just how much power they have unwittingly brokered away.

Sizemore's Liberalization

The landlords and developers are also incurring financial losses through the passage of Ballot Measure 50 thanks to a "liberalized" Bill Sizemore. In Oregon, a Republican cannot get elected without some liberal votes. Republican Govs. Tom McCall, Mark Hatfield and Victor Atiyeh understood that political reality. Gubernatorial candidate Sizemore also understands it. Ballot Measure 50 restores some of the government services cut by Measure 47 and local governments have Sizemore to thank for it.

It is important to understand that Ballot Measure 50 completely voided and replaced Measure 47. For example, 47 did not allow local governments to increase user fees to compensate for lost property tax revenue, but Measure 50 does. Measure 47 allowed taxpayers new legal challenges to assessments, but 50 takes them away.

Under Measure 47, the old constitutional "tax base system" -- which was misunderstood by most of the state's residents -- was left in place. Each local government had a fixed tax base and any increase in assessment values from new development actually lowered the individual taxpayer's tax rate.

Measure 50 puts in place a new constitutional "rate base system" that eliminates the tax base and subsequently the ability to vote on it. Instead it allows an automatic increase in tax revenues with any increase in property value assessments. Such increases can occur outside the stated 3 percent annual limitation. Measure 50 rewards developing cities that are experiencing growth and punishes cities that are not growing.

Bitter harvest

The state of Oregon has benefited from a progressive national image. We have been called a "planning Mecca" because of the work done in promoting land use, environmental and transportation solutions.

However, this image is quickly fading and we are beginning to reap a grim harvest. The political, economic and social carnage of voter anger and backlash now litters the state's political landscape.

The passage of ballot measures 5 and 47 have decimated Oregon's public schools to the point where many families are either enrolling their children in private schools or just moving out of the state. Oregon cities have made similar sacrifices by reducing the level of service at libraries and swimming pools, and the level of maintenance on streets and in parks.

- The recent recall of the city of Milwaukie's mayor and two councilors insures that other locally elected officials will become more cautious and less visionary about the future of their communities.

- The series of political setbacks to building the Portland metropolitan area's south-north light rail transit line are unraveling the grand vision that Portland-area residents once had for themselves.

- In Southwest Portland, the Portland Planning Bureau was verbally attacked for promoting a planning agenda that the citizens didn't want -- namely increased density -- and for talking in the new urbanist lexicon of "Metro-speak."

- Ten Oregon cities have approved voter-annexation. Eight cities were forced to take on the issue by voter initiative, but two city councils simply capitulated and put it on the ballot by referendum.

Hard civics lesson

In the end, these are local government stories. The battle for progressive governance and community vision has shifted to the lowest common denominator for all voters -- City Hall and the school district. And perhaps it is in City Hall and in your child's school where we will all find redemption. It is time to rebuild our democratic institutions and our communities -- not from the top down -- but from the ground up.

Richard H. Carson is the managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal.

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Common Sense
by Richard H. Carson