Editorial: Limits on approved tax levies need to change

Oregonians are getting what they voted for in tax measures years ago. But, because of those measures, they aren’t getting what they voted for in more recent tax levies.

For example, Deschutes County voters last year said yes to a $3.5 million levy for 911 services, but revenue was cut by $262,000 last year and $153,000 this year, as reporter Elon Glucklich wrote in Sunday’s Bulletin. Bend-La Pine, Redmond and Sisters school districts have lost nearly $14 million since 2007 from voter-approved levies. Statewide, similar levy reductions for local governments total more than $210 million since July.

It’s time to fix that conflict.

The cuts in local levies are caused by statewide, voter-approved measures in 1990 and 1997 that set caps on the amount of taxes collected, no matter what voters approve in local votes. In effect, those older measures prevent voters from deciding to pay more to their local governments, even if they vote to do so.

Supporters of the 1990 and 1997 measures say that’s good, because taxpayers get to keep the money for themselves. The League of Oregon Cities wants the law changed. They argue voters should be able to decide to pay more for individual projects when they vote in favor of tax levies.

The earlier tax measures cap taxes by governments at $10 per $1,000 of a property’s real market value. For school districts, the limit is $5 per $1,000 of a property’s real market value. When voters approve local levies that would push a taxpayer’s bill above that amount, the bill is reduced by a complicated formula that violates the voters’ will in supporting the local levy.

The League wants the Legislature to ask voters to change the procedure, not eliminating the caps altogether, but allowing voters to approve individual levies outside the caps. The effort failed in the last legislative session, but the League is planning to bring it back in the next session.

We applaud the effort and hope the Legislature and voters will agree. Voters need to be able to decide to go outside the caps if they choose, and this change is overdue.