Barbara Roberts should have been celebrating.

She had scraped by as a single mother and raised an autistic son. She also won election to school boards, the Oregon House and eventually secretary of state. On Nov. 6, 1990, voters elected her the first female governor of Oregon. Her supporters at the victory party at Montgomery Park hugged, laughed and partied.

But when the governor-elect came to greet the media, Roberts looked as if she were sticking her head out the window of a car speeding over a cliff.

Voters had chosen her, yes, but this night they had also approved a property tax limit known as Measure 5.

Few major political shifts in the state's history have had such lasting consequences as the one voters triggered that night. Roberts lasted one term, but Measure 5's legacy continues.

For more than a decade, Oregonians had complained their property taxes were too high and growing too fast. In 1978, California had set off a property tax limitation movement by passing Proposition 13. Oregonians had rejected five property tax measures since then, often because the cuts they would cause seemed too drastic.

In 1990, the backers of Measure 5 had returned with a measure that didn't appear so extreme. The limit would steadily drop over 5 years until it capped property taxes at $15 per $1,000 of assessed value.

A quarter-century later, the impact is clear in three ways. 

First, Measure 5 did reduce taxes. Oregonians' property taxes today would be 40 percent higher without the limit, according to an analysis the Legislative Revenue Office conducted at WW's request.

Second, Measure 5 forced the state to make schools more equitable. Because schools relied so heavily on property taxes, where you lived often dictated how good an education you received. Wealthier districts, such as Portland, were comfortable while some rural districts scraped by. After Measure 5, the state made sure districts got essentially the same amount of money per student. Estacada benefited. Portland suffered.

Third, Measure 5 effectively ended local control of school finance. While school funding was more equitable, there was a lot less money to go around. Some schools cut programs and laid off teachers, and there was little parents could do about it. 

The state's budget, fueled by income taxes, long ago absorbed the costs of Measure 5. But those costs still squeeze everything else in the state's general fund budget, such as social services, colleges and public safety. Today, Oregon's budget shifts about $1.9 billion a year to schools beyond what it would have pre-Measure 5, WW's analysis of legislative revenue figures shows. That's enough money to cover tuition for every student at Portland State University and the University of Oregon.

What Measure 5 did not do was usher in the immediate calamity its critics predicted. "If this measure passes, I must send out pink slips to everybody in the school district," then-Portland Public Schools Superintendent Matthew Prophet said in a televised debate three days before the 1990 election. Portland Mayor Bud Clark said voting for Measure 5 was like supporting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Roberts, only a few weeks before she took office, added to the rhetoric of anxiety when talking about the state's first post-Measure 5 budget. "More people will die because of what we have done here,'' she said.

Roberts got beat up by critics for sounding the alarm, but Measure 5 did have real costs. She hoped at the time to put some wind in the sails of an effort that many governors had already tried and failed: to pass a sales tax and stabilize Oregon's method of financing schools. If the state were going to be more responsible for school funding, it either had to raise more funds or reduce other services. Roberts' sales tax plan failed, and she carried out the necessary cuts.

Many people had hoped Measure 5 would shock Oregon into pursuing real tax reform. Even Measure 5's authors saw the tax limit as a half measure. "Even if the measure does create chaos," wrote WW in endorsing Measure 5, "it's a necessary sort of chaos that will eventually lead to support for an alternative source of revenue."


From the Archives:

WW's endorsement of Measure 5—and strong dissent from some staffers.