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Kitzhaber: Tax plan ideas on the way

Outlines of a tax reform package supported by Gov. John Kitzhaber, organized labor and state business leaders could be released during the general election campaign.

That is what Kitzhaber told the Portland Tribune during an editorial board interview on Friday. Kitzhaber said a poll on tax reform options commissioned by the labor and business coalition is near completion. It is intended to provide guidance on what tax reform proposals Oregon voters are most likely to support.

"The poll is asking Oregon voters what they believe the problems are and what they would like to see," said Kitzhaber, who said results could be complied by next week.

According to Kitzhaber, the results may show that most Oregon voters are only willing to support incremental reforms. Although polls repeatedly show voters are unhappy with the current tax system, Kitzhaber said they are not necessarily willing to support sweeping reforms, such as the creation of a state sales tax, even if it offsets state income taxes.

Kitzhaber noted he has already been involved in three unsuccessfully sales tax ballot measure, including a 1985 effort where the sales tax rate was locked in the Oregon Constitution and all of the money it raised was dedicated to reducing state income taxes. It lost by a 4-to-1 margin.

"Afterwards, people told me they would have supported it if the rate was locked in the [state] constitution and all of the money went to reducing [state] income taxes," Kitzhaber said with a chuckle.

Whether tax reform becomes a major issue in the general election remains to be seen. Kitzhaber is unopposed in the Democratic primary election, guaranteeing that he will be his party's nominee and have a chance to win an unprecedented fourth term to lead the state. His opponent is most likely to be state Rep. Dennis Richardson, who lives in Central Point and represents House District 4 in Southern Oregon. Although four other Republican are running for governor, Richardson has run the most visible race and is considered the favorite to win the nomination at the May 20 election.

Kitzhaber has been favored to win re-election, in part because of his name familiarity and the Democratic voter registration in Oregon. But a recent poll conducted by DHM Research for Oregon Public Broadcasting shows he may be vulnerable. Although the poll shows Kitzhaber with a 12-point lead over Richardson on the question of whether Kitzhaber should be re-elected or replaced, only 35 percent said he should be re-elected compared to 49 percent who said he should be replaced.

Pollster John Horvick says that some of Kitzhaber's problems stem from Cover Oregon and its troubled website. Although the state spent over $300 million to build and promote the Cover Oregon website, it has never worked well enough for anyone to sign up for health care coverage on it. It is being dropped in favor of the formerly-troubled federal health exchange website.

“So if that issue becomes prominent, if Dennis Richardson is able to capitalize on that it certainly looks like, in our data, a potential weakness for the governor,” Horvick told OPB.

Kitzhaber told the Portland Tribune he does not put much stock in polls conducted so longer before elections. He also sad that in his travels around the state, more citizens talk to him about issues other than Cover Oregon.

"More people are concerned about the economy and jobs," Kitzhaber said.

But Kitzhaber also said he believes the Cover Oregon website has been more successful than much of the press coverage has indicated. According to Kitzhaber, around 380,000 have signed up for health coverage through the paper applications available not he website, far more than the 300,00 originally projected by the state. And most of them have enrolled in the state-run Medicaid program that provides a level of care intended to increase their overall health.

"The website was a means to an end. Oregon is among the top 10 states enrolling people in Medicare, and in the middle of the states for everything else," said Kitzhaber.

Kitzhaber also said that education reform remains one of his top priorities. Since being elected to his third term in 2010, Kitzhaber has overseen the reorganization of the state's education system, with a single board — the Oregon Education Investment Board — overseeing public educational opportunities from birth to college and careers. It has adopted the 40-40-20 goals of 40 percent of high school graduates receiving two-year degrees, 40 percent completing four-year degrees, and 20 percent being career ready by 2025.

"We have to shoot high and align our goals across all education levels," Kitzhaber said.

Despite the overhaul, Kitzhaber said there will never be enough state money to adequately fund the entire education system, meaning lawmakers, educators and the public need to decide what to prioritize in the future.

"Is the educational system developed in the 20th century the one we should continue into the 21st century, or should we look at doing something different? And if we want to do something different, what other segments of the community can we bring to the table? I think some of the answers lie outside the classroom," Kitzhaber said.