Oregon Goes to the People and Asks for Ideas

NEAL R. PEIRCE

February 25, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

With public suspicion of government at an all-time high, how does a state government regain the confidence of its people and prepare for the challenges of the '90s?

Oregon, the birthplace 90 years ago of the initiative and referendum and America's fullest array of Progressive era reforms to assure popular democracy, offers two clues.

One is called ''Conversation with Oregon'' and has involved Gov. Barbara Roberts in an unprecedented set of unrigged, interactive, televised meetings with thousands of Oregon citizens.

The second, ''Oregon Benchmarks,'' is a new-style gauge to set measurable goals for the state's progress and then to track them -- in an open way politicians can't obfuscate -- well into the 21st century.

''Benchmarks'' grew out of a statewide strategic planning effort launched in 1989 by then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt. With the help of broad-based citizen committees, tangible state performance measures were set, complete with goals for 1995, 2000 and 2010. Among the goals are higher percentages of drug-free babies, more acres of preserved open space, switching exports from raw timber to finished products.

The legislature debated, slightly amended, and then officially adopted the ''benchmarks.'' A permanent board, chaired by the governor, is to oversee how well they're implemented and report to Oregon's people every two years.

''Conversations'' sprang into being almost as a desperation move on Governor Roberts' part. A liberal Democrat, she'd been elected in November 1990 on the same day voters approved ''Measure 5,'' which phased in dramatic local property-tax cuts but provided no substitute tax for the prospective loss of billions of dollars in school support.

To make things worse, the governor in her inaugural address predicted 1991 would be a year of dire budget shortfalls and human suffering. By autumn, it was clear she'd erred: The budget deficit was closer to 3 percent than the 12 percent she'd foreseen.

Governor Roberts' credibility plummeted. But she could see massive Measure 5 deficits bearing down on Oregon -- $500 million the first year, $2.5 billion by the third. She was under pressure from nervous state workers and their social-service allies to press immediately for a sales tax (Oregon has never had one).

But would Oregonians already up in arms about government spending allow officials to ram through a new tax? Ms. Roberts figured the prospects were nil. So she made an unusual decision: She'd ask the voters what to do. She began her ''Conversation with Oregon.'' Some 80,000 letters went out to a random cross-section of Oregonians, asking them to come on an appointed evening to one of 30 local sites.

''We didn't pick the normal suspects, the 'professional testifiers' from chambers of commerce, county commissioners, the League Women Voters,'' Ms. Roberts says. ''We aimed for the normal voter. Too often we politicians don't trust ordinary citizens and they don't trust us. But I figure if you give people good, accurate information, they'll make good decisions for the future of the state.''

Governor Roberts was ''live'' on cable television to each of the sites (with 15 to 25 people at each). And rather than try to ''sell'' the citizens a program, she first asked them how they felt state and local government was spending their tax dollars. Only later in each program did she come back on with fiscal pie charts, to outline options.

What the governor first heard back was a lot of ''venting,'' crankiness, anger, frustration about government, including complaints about state employees and their salaries. ''But we learned a lot more,'' she explains. ''We learned that when voters demand efficiency, they don't mean just cut programs -- they mean spend my tax dollars better. We learned people do care about the future, the kind of a state their children and grandchildren will live in. And we learned how thirsty they are for information and participation.''

''People are honored when government comes to them,'' notes Patricia McCaig, the governor's administrative assistant and a chief designer of ''Conversations.''

And, adds Ms. Roberts, ''People are willing to hear bad news -- they hear enough of it at home. When we politicians try to protect them from bad news, and feed them lots of pap and worry more about our re-election than anything else, the result is mistrust. A lot of today's cynicism and mistrust will go away if you're straightforward with people.''

Governor Roberts has become an evangelist of a new ''religion'' of participatory politics. She talks with some scorn of other Democratic governors ''who threaten all sorts of lost services and try to threaten people into tax reform. That's a fundamentally flawed relationship with your citizens.''

Ms. Roberts believes her test is to improve Oregon government efficiency enough to gain consensus for the sales tax -- and a total reform of the state's tax system -- to go on next fall's ballot. She's cutting 4,000 state jobs; she's shrinking corrections, human resources and public safety; she's demanding departments be more prevention-oriented.

''I'm moving contrary to some of the people who supported me,'' says Governor Roberts. ''Government will be smaller. I can't worry about my political turf now. Some people said only a liberal Democratic governor could get away with this. I said only a one-term liberal Democratic governor could get away with it.''

Neal R. Peirce writes on state and urban affairs.

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