Governor should step back

Oregon schoolkids already face bigger classes, fewer programs and a shorter school year come fall. An ugly legislative fight over exactly how much money will come their way would only hurt them further.

Who would pick one of those? That would be our Democratic, school-supporting governor.

Surprised early in the week by legislative leaders who wanted to move $200 million out of a reserve fund and into the general fund, where schools could get it, Gov. Ted Kulongoski threatened at week's end to veto the all-but-final legislative budget.

The governor doesn't disagree with legislators about how much money schools should get. His beef is with whether the money should come out of the reserve fund now. He's worried the economy will get worse or voters will reject new taxes on fall ballots, aides say. He's worried that giving the schools the money now will mean other services take an even bigger hit later.

He might just be right. And yet what would he hope to accomplish by holding onto the $200 million? Even if the economy did worsen, a good-sized chunk of the state's reserves would go to education, which makes up the largest expenditure in the state budget.

Giving districts the money now allows them to go into the new two-year budget that starts in July knowing exactly what their financial picture is. This is important as they consider programs and staff.

It also avoids what the Kulongoski solution looks likely to create: a reason for voters to say "no" to the tax increases because the state seems to have enough in reserve — this even though that money eventually is destined for schools. Voters should know when they cast ballots exactly what the situation is.

Giving the money to schools now very well could create trouble later, as Kulongoski has predicted. If the state's financial picture grows worse, if voters reject the new taxes, Oregon's ride will be all the rougher.

But it will at least be an honest ride that presents a clear picture of the situation. If the economy tanks and voters reject taxes, legislators will simply return to Salem in January and figure out what goes next. It won't be pretty, but we've been there before.

All of that, of course, points again to the ongoing issue in Oregon, which is that the state's income-tax-based system means revenue will plummet when times are bad. It causes crises like this year's and encourages us to get by on bandages like last-minute tax hikes rather than finding real solutions to our problems.

Kulongoski's worrying for the future is justified, because no one knows how shaky the economy will get and so no one knows how much money the state will have next time schools come to get some.

But in trying to deal with that now, he does more to subvert the process than to help it. Well-intentioned as he undoubtedly is, Kulongoski ought to step back and let the Legislature wrap up the job it's trying to get done.

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