SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- Since Thanksgiving week, Oregon's airwaves have been flooded with TV ads from both sides in the battle over tax increases the Legislature imposed on corporations and higher-income earners. Now it's Oregon voters' turn to have their say, with local election offices beginning to ship 2 million mail ballots to households this weekend for a Jan. 26 referendum election on the $727 million tax package.
Both camps planned major get-out-the-vote efforts this weekend with hundreds of volunteers knocking on doors and staffing phone banks. The two campaigns also plan to use a final blitz of TV ads in the coming weeks to make their case to voters.
On the "yes" side is Leslie Harper. She's a middle school teacher's aide who planned to spend the weekend going door-to-door and telling voters the tax increases are needed to protect schools from cuts while keeping the burden off middle-class families.
"If that means the corporations need to pay a little bit more, then that's what they should do," Harper said.
Service station owner Mike Fitz is an equally adamant campaign volunteer for the "no" side. He said state government already spends too much money, and that the tax hikes would increase his corporate tax burden by thousands of dollars.
"No matter how much money you give them, they will spend it all. There is too much money being thrown around by state government," said Fitz, who has helped place hundreds of lawn signs urging voters to reject the taxes.
Oregon is the only state that conducts elections exclusively by mail ballots. The ballots started going into the mail Friday, and most voters should receive them by Monday or Tuesday. Voters have until 8 p.m. Jan. 26 to return them to local election offices.
Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown said she thinks voter participation in this election could exceed the average 63.4 percent turnout in the last three statewide special elections with tax measures.
"The stakes are very high. There's a high level of awareness out there," Brown said.
In approving the tax hikes in the 2009 session, the Democratic-led Legislature said the taxes were needed to balance the budget and to protect schools and safety net programs from budget cuts. They also said the higher taxes are aimed at those who can afford to pay them.
Measure 66 increases taxes for households with taxable incomes higher than $250,000, and singles with taxable incomes higher than $125,000. Measure 67 increases corporate taxes in a variety of ways.
Business groups who mounted the signature-gathering drive to force a referendum vote on the issue say the two taxes will prolong Oregon's economic slump and cost the state jobs at a time when Oregon is facing chronically high unemployment.
Pat McCormick, spokesman for the business-backed Oregonians to Stop Job-Killing Taxes, said the state has plenty of money and doesn't need to raise taxes to avoid cuts to school and other programs.
He said if voters reject the tax increase measures, the Legislature in February could use money that's in reserves and ending balances possibly coupled with some smaller temporary tax increases on individuals and businesses to balance the budget.
"They have all the tools in their hands to balance the budget without these kinds of cuts," McCormick said. "Voters don't believe the Legislature needed to raise taxes; they don't believe state government tightened its belt like the rest of us."
But Scott Moore, spokesman for the Vote Yes for Oregon campaign, said lawmakers in 2009 did tighten the state's belt to reflect a drop in state revenue brought on by the recession.
"It's a fantasy to believe that we could remove $727 million from the state budget and not face deep cuts in basic services," Moore said. "And if you drain all of the state's reserves down to zero, that leaves you completely unprepared for any emergencies or further downturns.
Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said while tax measures generally have been defeated by voters over the years, it's hard to predict the outcome of this election at this point.
"My sense is that it's still up for grabs, because both sides have compelling messages to take to the voters," he said.
On the one hand, voters might be swayed by the argument it's not unreasonable to ask higher income earners to pay more taxes to protect schools and safety net programs, Hibbitts said.
"If these measures are defeated, it will be because of the opponents' message that state government is drunk with money," Hibbitts said.