May 31, 2002 11:00 pm

Gov. John Kitzhaber wants Oregon voters to raise their income taxes for the next three years in order to bail out the state's current budget and the 2003-05 budget that legislators will start discussing next year. How much hasn't been determined yet, but a 1 percent increase across the various brackets should generate more than $500 million.

Kitzhaber says that we need the money to shore up education and the rest of the budget. It's time to ask, we have to ask: how much money will ever be enough for education? Will another $1 billion or $10 billion be enough to make schools happy?

Oregonians are getting mixed signals from the education community and their supporters. In Portland, teachers are already wanting increases in pay and absolutely no cuts in benefits, even though that district may have to cut between $30 million and $50 million from its 2002-03 budget.

Voters recently turned down a statewide measure that would have used $220 million in a fund to shore up kindergarten-through-12th grade this coming year. It was defeated after teachers campaigned against it.

Kitzhaber, like too many other political leaders across Oregon, is always looking for quick economic fixes to an age-old dilemma: how to fund a money-hungry education system. What we currently have is a state that is growing at such a fast rate that the desires for services are outstripping the finances. Without stepping back and looking at the long-term needs and how to finance them, the voters will continue to have stopgap actions thrown at them again and again. And emotional issues such as education will continue to be at the center of the fight.

We need leadership that will look at the dwindling number of students through much of Oregon and see the truth. We can't fully fund every little school district across the state. Our best leaders will say it's time to consolidate education from the top to the bottom. That means kindergarten through higher ed. We need a single organization that meshes four-year universities with community colleges with K-12. We must look at the total educational package and how it all works together in every part of our state. We must reduce the price of education while improving the quality. It can be done, if our leaders agree to do so.

Instead of raising income taxes one dime, the governor and Legislature should be referring a measure that would rescind Measures 5 and 50 and reinstitute a fair property tax program that would protect homeowners but provide the dollars necessary to help fund a revamped educational system and bring a balance between the state and local government.

The governor is wrong in trying to raise our income tax, even temporarily. But the legislative leadership has been just as wrong letting things get this far out of hand. They have failed to provide the direction and make the tough decisions that could lead us out of the mess we are in today.