Are we prepared to solve these challenges together?
1. Quality Information.
Do local budget administrators have financial or analytical tools or protocol needed to fully understand how their specific jurisdiction may be affected?
This isn't a rhetorical question, but it is difficult to answer.
One of the most significant barriers to adopting a long-term budgeting view is that it essentially pits the needs of a current generation against the long-term needs of the community.
Long-term decision-making tradeoffs are also not visible to most budget managers and government leaders. This means that they may miss critical windows of opportunity to fix problems before they become unmanageable.
Road repairs offer an example of local government expenses that are more efficiently addressed now than in the future. When less expensive routine maintenance is ignored, exponentially more expensive replacement efforts must be adopted.
The inability to transparently develop longitudinal budgets is more likely to deliver negative outcomes for generational and racial equity. But few governments (none we talked to) have adopted assessments or protocol to address this.
Because they were not addressed earlier, some of these challenges will require new approaches to solve them in their current form. The policy changes that might have mitigated future harm a decade ago may no longer be relevant.
Many local government leaders and community advocates do not feel that their interests are represented in state-level debate about fiscal challenges that are ultimately intertwined with local financial resiliency.
When talking about PERS and revenue reform specifically, conventional wisdom in Oregon politics proposes “that these tough issues will require compromise between business and labor.” However, this assumption illuminates critical problems with how decision-making, the agenda setting table, and systems of power play out in Oregon politics today.
Local government leaders we spoke with, particularly those outside of the metro area, express frustration and hopelessness about the financial challenges Oregon faces, but do not see themselves at the agenda-setting table.
Many culturally specific community leaders, particularly in indigenous, Latino, African American, and API communities, see current and future local government stresses as a clear threat to community opportunity and prosperity. They, too, do not see a path to join an agenda setting process or to weigh in on proposed solutions.
This mismatch between the communities that will be impacted and the locus of decision-making has been a primary barrier to developing the public will to advance solutions at the scale of the problem.
Many communities will be impacted by these challenges. How do advocacy groups and community leaders assess these challenges, advocate for solutions, or participate in agenda setting processes for the state? And what capacity do different groups have to do this work?
3. Informed Electorate.
Significant reforms at the scale of the challenge will almost certainly be decided by voters — even if initial policies are passed in the legislature.
Over the years Oregonians have voted on hundreds of local, regional, and statewide ballot measures. Since 1902 Oregon voters have considered many measures that have mandated new programs or expenditures without new revenue or reduced revenue without specifying program reductions or new offsetting revenue sources.
More recently, Oregonians have voted to limit property taxes, oppose a sales tax, and increase businesses taxes, all which have impacted government programs and services in Oregon. Are there lessons to be drawn from this history? While it is true that if you don’t know history you may repeat it, it is also true that things change.
What history tells us is that many variables determine a ballot measure’s success or failure, ranging from the financial impact the measure would have on people to more general trends like the health of the economy and voter attitudes, to the level of stakeholder engagement on both sides of the topic, campaign funding, and communications. And of course, there is voter turnout and demographics.
History also tells us that voter perception of a crisis is an important variable. This is where Oregon’s coming budget shortfall has the potential to distinguish itself as an issue.
A ballot measure that would in a fair and equitable way minimize the negative impacts described in this report would start in a unique place in Oregon’s ballot measure history.
However, Oregon leaders will need to overcome multiple challenges in framing the current situation for voters, and leading the “change management” of voter attitudes and beliefs about the value of government services and the trustworthiness of governments as a steward of Oregon’s resources and values.