Oregon Legislature eyes help for timber counties

Lawmakers consider such measures as temporary income tax

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SALEM, Ore. -- The Oregon Legislature is taking a hard look at intervening in the state's timber counties that are running out of money.

Lawmakers are considering a variety of measures that would allow the state to take over critical government functions and impose a temporary income tax on county residents. The issue became especially acute this week when voters in Curry and Josephine counties rejected property tax levies that the local sheriffs said were needed to pay for basic public safety.

Legislators who back intervention say the state has a strong interest in ensuring at least a basic level of government is in place.

"We've got to protect people's constitutional rights," said Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat and chief budget writer in the House.

Buckley said the state doesn't have money to bail out the counties. But a bipartisan panel of lawmakers representing some of the most drastically affected areas has been working on a handful of bills to help the counties avoid -- or at least delay -- becoming insolvent.

Some would loosen restrictions on how counties can spend money earmarked for certain purposes. Others would go further.

One would allow the governor to declare, with the agreement of legislative leaders from both parties, a public safety emergency, potentially triggering the merger of local governments. With the consent of a majority of county commissioners, the governor would also be able to levy a temporary income tax increase to pay for public safety. The money would be matched by state money.

Another bill would allow the state to take over county government functions, including tax collection, elections administration and building inspection, and charge a fee to cover the costs.

Josephine County has the state's lowest tax rate, followed by Curry. Curry County is widely considered the closest to going broke and becoming subject to a state takeover. Josephine County is not far behind.

Some lawmakers from urban areas have been reluctant to use state dollars to help counties where voters have repeatedly refused to raise the state's lowest tax rates. But lawmakers from timber country say their counties face unique challenges. Since most of the land is owned by the federal government, it isn't taxable, they say, and the residents who do own taxable property are maxed out.

"People are desperate. And I don't think, when you live in another part of the state, you can possibly understand how difficult that is," said Rep. Val Hoyle, a Eugene Democrat and co-chair of the House committee studying the troubles in timber country.