Monday, November 27, 2006

Timber Payment Cuts, Electoral Tightwadness Doom So. OR Libraries

A sad little game of hot potato in Southern Oregon's Jackson and Josephine Counties has left the generally accepted public service of libraries on the chopping block there, and pretty much everyone is to blame. From the feds to the state government and eventually the citizens of those counties and the natural progression and regression of the timber industry, the question of keeping local services going has been bedeviling the area for over 100 years.

One hundred years? Yes, you have to go back to 1866, when the US government appropriated and then gave away land in 18 Oregon counties in exchange for railroad service from California to Portland. When the railroads were unable to sell the land they'd gotten in the deal, the government bought it back and shared such a pittance with the counties that they made a big stink, until the feds offered half the cut from timber sales on the once Oregonian-then-federal-then-railroad-then-federal land.

All was well and good while the timber industry thrived and served a building nation, and the teat was lusty with the milk of growth. But when the bottom fell out, the only thing standing between solvency and total destruction for many counties was a federal stipend to ease the pain of the market's collapse. And now here those counties sit, dependent on the money for 50% to 70% of their discretionary budgets. So when the Bush administration suggested cutting those funds earlier this year, the counties howled.

Meanwhile, the libraries of Jackson and Josephine still needed funding, and as in several areas across the state the local ballots had proposed operating levies to pay the cost. Already having made good on a $39 billion construction bond in Jackson, voters there and in Josephine decided they didn't want to pay the freight to keep them running. (In all the other counties the levies passed).

What was the reason? Have voters there simply had enough of the constant taxes required to fund non-critical areas of local government? In Jackson, did they confuse the money needed to build new libraries with that needed to run them, and feel annoyed they were being asked for library money again so soon?

Those are all possibilities, but if there's another reason I think it's because the Democratic Wave did not make it to Jackson and Josephine this year. With both counties sporting strong Republican registration edges, it's no surprise that only one House Democrat--Peter Buckley, who ran unopposed in Ashland's 5th District---is represented in the area. Two seats are held by Republicans unopposed in 2006, and while Mike Moran gave Sal Esquivel a run for his money in the 6th, Howard Owens (3rd) and Richard Koopmans (4th) fared poorly in getting their message across.

But perhaps more relevant to the question at hand, let's not forget the gubernatorial vote--which favored Ron Saxton with 50% of the vote in Jackson County, and a whopping 56% in Josephine. That being the case, voters in those areas must have responded positively to Saxton's appeal, that the state was being fiscally mismanaged and waste abounded, and that the government should tax less and do less itself. If that's your perspective about how things in Oregon are going, no wonder you're not ready to kick in extra to run your libraries.

Or are libraries just not generally deemed as important in those counties? It's a legitimate question; as a spending item they should probably rank along with parks as 3rd-tier necessities below public safety (fire, police) and transportation (roads, public trans, bicycling, et al). It hurts to say it, but if you can't fund the first two tiers adequately, maybe free loaner books aren't the most important thing to pay for.

But at the ballot level, it's not a zero-sum game. In fact, it's quite the opposite: voters have the opportunity to "make the pie higher," as famously said, by creating a new and dedicated revenue stream. This a la carte method of funding services is a legacy of the conservative revolution of the 80s, where the level of standard items the government covered financially continued to shrink like so many vanishing airline perks (hot towels, magazines, wider seats, meals). Those who want to continue indulging their municipal wish-list are now forced to pay up front, and after a while the extras add up and people start to rebel.

Of course, the ironic thing is that if the charge for things like libraries were just mixed in with "taxes," people wouldn't directly complain about having to pay for them--they would simply complain about the cost of government in general. That's a healthy thing, and there's no reason to waste money in spending, but individual budgeting decisions are probably not best made by the electorate at large, choosing options from a cafeteria menu rather than recognizing the inherent worth of all of them and hammering out relative funding as part of a professional, deliberative process.

Ironically, I suppose the most philosophically pure response for conservatives in these counties is to hail the recent developments, for the federal government wishes to stop subsidizing rural counties against the vagaries of the free marketplace--and spending decisions are being left up to the people. So far I haven't heard anyone from rural Oregon say "to hell with the crutch money; we'll make do on our own." Some are making contingency plans for any real cut (Oregon's politicians are working overtime to preserve the payments in DC), but none are saying that the end of subsidies is good. Perhaps that's because they can see what the result of that turned-off spigot threatens to mean for their counties. In that view, however, the question posed by one library supporter is apt:
"The problem is the federal government will not bail us out, the state will not bail us out. We have to look to ourselves to see what kind of community we want, and make that happen," said Whitney Lard, chairwoman of the Josephine County Library Board