SAN FRANCISCO — Voters in Oregon in November will consider a proposition that, if approved, would allow the state to issue more general obligation bonds in order to save on borrowing costs.
The current election season also offers up a tight race for governor, the possible loss of a supermajority by Democrats in the legislature, and a contest for treasurer.
Proposition 72 could set up Oregon for cheaper borrowing costs because it “authorizes lowest-cost borrowing” for state projects.
James Sinks, a spokesman for the treasurer’s office, said it would allow the state to use GOs to fund more projects that are now financed by certificates of participation.
As it stands, the state can only pay for things itemized in the constitution with GOs. This measure would negate that check.
“It basically would lower the cost of borrowing for things we are already paying for, such as prisons and school infrastructure,” Sinks said.
The state now funds many essential public improvements through COPs, which require higher interest because they are not backed by the full faith and credit of Oregon but are instead paid from appropriations approved by the legislature.
The principal and debt-service payments for Oregon’s COPs are not secured by a revenue source and the government lacks the authority to levy taxes beyond constitutional limits to pay interest, according to the treasurer’s office.
Moody’s Investors Service assigns the state’s GOs a Aa1, Standard & Poor’s gives them a AA, and Fitch Ratings gives them a AA-plus. Moody’s rates the state’s COPs Aa2, Standard & Poor’s rates them AA-minus, and Fitch rates them AA.
Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University in Oregon, said he expects the measure to pass “handily.”
The winner of the race for governor seems less predictable.
Because incumbent Gov. Ted Kulongoski is termed out, two new faces are vying to head state government, Democrat John Kitzhaber and Republican Chris Dudley.
In a recent poll by SurveyUSA, Dudley, a former professional basketball player and financial planner, polled six points ahead of Kitzhaber, a physician and former two-term governor of Oregon. But another recent poll had the two essentially tied.
Regardless of the outcome, Moore sees little change ahead from either of the candidates’ fiscal plans because of the state’s budget troubles.
Kitzhaber has discussed investing in weatherization of homes and Dudley has mentioned tinkering with the capital gains tax.
“The things they are talking about are not going to make a big enough of a difference to deal with the budget deficit. Basically, their first couple of years are going to be hacking programs no matter who comes in,” Moore said.
In August, the state economist forecast a revenue drop of more than 3% to $12.3 billion, due mainly to a dearth in tax collections.
Kulongoski has said he would start slashing spending to cope with the shortfalls.
While the state faces a deficit, its ability to close the hole may become harder if Democrats lose their supermajority. Two legislative districts are in close races that could remove the party’s tight hold.
State law requires a 60% majority, which the Democrats now have, to raise taxes. The majority holds 18 seats in the Senate and 36 in the House.
In its last session, the legislature passed three tax measures, two of which were challenged by referendum. And voters passed those two measures earlier this year.
“If they lose their 60% majority, I do not expect the Democratic leadership to be fundamentally different in their goals,” Moore said.
“Like the governor, they will be spending all their time deciding which programs to cut.”
The office of the treasurer is also up for grabs.
Ted Wheeler, who was appointed to that post by Kulongoski earlier this year after Treasurer Ben Westerlund died from cancer, faces off against Republican challenger Chris Telfer, a state senator.
Telfer, a certified public account, was elected to the senate in 2008 to replace Westerlund after his elevation to treasurer.
The two will battle to win a special election to finish out Westerlund’s term, which ends in 2013.