September 03, 2002 11:00 pm

The Oregon Legislature this week continues to deal with the effects of a prolonged recession that has reduced state income tax collections. Meanwhile, public school officials are waiting to see just how many more millions of dollars will be cut from state school funding — resulting in reductions of staff and programs at the local level.

VOTERS IN THE Sept. 17 special election have a way to partly address the school funding crisis. They can see to it that $150 million is directed toward schools by approving Measure 19, which was placed on the ballot by the Oregon Legislature during its third special session earlier this year.

The measure converts the state's education endowment fund into an education stability fund, also known as a rainy day fund. The move would not only help schools in the current year but assist them in future times of economic downturn.

Voters will find that Measure 19 is similar to Ballot Measure 13, which was defeated in the May 21 election. The Observer was opposed to Measure 13 because it removed a large chunk — $220 million from the education endowment fund — and did not adequately address schools' future funding needs.

MEASURE 19 is much better crafted. It does not extensively reduce the resources available in the endowment fund, but leaves approximately $128 million as seed money for the new rainy day fund. Measure 19 also caps the school stability fund at an amount equal to 5 percent of the prior biennium's general fund revenues. Currently that cap would be $506 million. After the stability fund cap has been reached, lottery dollars would be shifted to a new fund to create a matching fund for school capital improvement costs.

Measure 19 has some protections built into it so the Oregon Legislature cannot easily tap into the stability fund unless "rainy day" conditions exist.

Legislators can draw from the fund if there is a recession or the governor declares an emergency. Any expenditures must be approved by 60 percent in both houses of the Legislature.

MAKE NO MISTAKE about it. The $150 million that would be taken from the endowment fund does not solve the current state budget dilemma or prevent school districts from having to make cuts. But the money will definitely help shore up district funding.

The rainy day fund is good fiscal policy, giving schools some help during the current funding crisis along with protection down the road when another economic downturn occurs.

Oregon voters should approve Measure 19 as a way to not only help address the current problems but to pave the way for more fiscal stability for schools in years to come.