May 19, 2003 11:00 pm

The statistics released last month are disturbing. The number of traffic fatalities doubled in April compared to April 2002. Another disturbing statistic is that 50 percent of all auto deaths are caused by drunken drivers. Contributing to this trend is the reduction of Oregon State Police troopers patrolling our highways. The reduced force means that fewer drunk drivers are being pulled over and arrested.

This past week, the Oregon Senate approved a ballot measure that would reverse a 1980 measure that cut off the state gas tax as a funding source for the state police.

Since that time, the OSP has lost almost half of its patrol officers. Much of that decline can be directly connected to the fact that the state's policing agency was then forced to compete for general fund dollars.

The competition for funding was tough enough prior to the passage of Ballot Measure 5, the 1990 property tax limitation measure. But after that, the state police could not compete with the education lobbies.

No governor or legislature has been willing or able to find another separate funding source for the state police until now. The pressure to do something has come because of the recent mass layoffs within the agency.

The Legislature should pass on to the voters the proposed ballot measure that Gov. Ted Kulongoski has agreed to support. Then it is hoped that Oregon voters will recognize the importance of creating stable funding for the state police.

Losing so many state troopers has put a stress on local law enforcement agencies. City police and county sheriff departments long have been dependent on the state police's expertise in helping solve crimes, providing support for coordinated efforts to shut down drug labs and providing forensic expertise through the state crime labs. Now much of that has gone away, leaving gaping holes in a system that was already weak because of poor funding.

We know that many voters out there don't like having limitations placed on the speed they can drive and may turn down the ballot measure because of that. It's important to remember that the rules were not created by the state police. The OSP only enforces the laws enacted by the Legislature. The state's top police agency also spends a lot of time assisting motorists who have problems on the highway.

Oregon needs to rebuild the state police. The proposed ballot measure is a good place to start.

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