June 15, 2010 – Bend Bulletin – Get ready for parks vs schools

This article was published on: 08/30/10 12:00 AM

Get ready for parks vs. schools

Published: June 15. 2010 4:00AM PST

It’s no secret that tough budget decisions loom for Oregon’s elected lawmakers.

But they loom, too, for the state’s citizen lawmakers, who may be asked in November to choose between the environment and education. Talk about a statewide identity crisis.

Twelve years ago, an overwhelming majority of voters approved a constitutional amendment dedicating 15 percent of lottery revenue to state parks and watershed enhancement efforts. But the funding provision isn’t permanent. It will disappear in 2015 unless voters renew it. The Legislature is obligated to put the question on the ballot in November 2014.

One group doesn’t want to wait that long. Oregonians for Water, Parks and Wildlife is trying to collect enough valid signatures — about 110,000 — to place a constitutional amendment on November’s ballot that would, among other things, make that 15 percent lottery set-aside permanent. The Nature Conservancy has donated about $900,000 to the cause so far, according to Willamette Week.

Spending a chunk of the lottery pie on the state’s parks and watersheds has enormous appeal, which is why we endorsed Measure 66 back in 1998. But the outcome of an election this time won’t be a 2-to-1 blowout, as it was then. In fact, assuming it ends up on November’s ballot, the Son of Measure 66 could have a hard time winning a simple majority.

Every dollar that Measure 66 steers to parks and watersheds comes from somewhere else. Lottery money currently has three destinations.

The first — and the reason the lottery was established — is economic development and job creation, which gets roughly 17 percent of revenues every biennium, according Mary Loftin, a spokeswoman with the state lottery. This is the category that pays for lottery-backed bonds, which have been used to build rail and airport infrastructure through the Connect Oregon program. Another 1 percent of lottery revenue is used to treat problem gamblers, and at least 18 percent goes to public education.

Because much of the lottery fund isn’t locked up, lawmakers are able to steer money to lottery beneficiaries with the greatest need. That’s why public education, which has a firm claim on only 18 percent of lottery funds, received 64 percent of the pie last biennium, says Loftin. It doesn’t take an advanced math degree to figure out where most of the liberated lottery money will go if the parks and salmon set-aside expires in 2015.

The sums at stake are significant, by the way. During the 2007-2009 biennium, Measure 66 steered $197 million into parks and watershed restoration. Numbers for the current biennium are unavailable.

The current initiative’s backers couldn’t have picked a more difficult time to plead their case. The state doesn’t have enough money to pay for the services it provides. Lawmakers have exhausted the public’s tolerance for significant tax and fee hikes. And by asking voters to make the constitution’s parks and salmon provision permanent, Oregonians for Water Parks and Wildlife have unwittingly publicized a potential future source of education funding.

Will voters, given the chance, support schools of fish or schools of kids? Our money’s on the kids, and such an outcome wouldn’t be a bad thing. After all, voters are guaranteed another chance in November 2014, by which time the state’s economic outlook may have improved significantly. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your options open.

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010