Oregon voters have until Jan. 26 to decide the fate of $727 million slated for schools, public safety and other services.

State legislators made their pitch in support of measures 66 and 67, calling them "pivotal" to the state's economic future.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, spoke Saturday to a small crowd at a public forum on the Southern Oregon University campus and shared their reasoning behind the tax increases, as well as their fears about what might happen should the measures be voted down.

The Democratic-led state Legislature in 2009 enacted two bills — raising taxes on wealthy residents and corporations, respectively — as part its plan to reduce the state's budget gap for the 2009-11 biennium.

Oregon voters have until Jan. 26 to decide the fate of $727 million slated for schools, public safety and other services. About two million ballots for the measures have been mailed to voters and already have started to arrive.

"At a time of unprecedented demand for services, we had to cut $2 billion (from the state budget) to maintain our level of services," Buckley said. "We asked every agency of our state government to submit a list of cuts they could give up in their budget. That included K-12 services, higher education, human services and public safety."

Anti-tax groups, including the business coalition Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes, collected enough signatures to refer the bills to this month's special election, which will decide their fate.

Measure 66 would raise the income tax for individuals making more than $125,000 and on households making more than $250,000. It would also reduce taxes on unemployment benefits delivered in 2009. Measure 67 raises the state's minimum corporate tax from $10 to $150. That tax has not been changed since 1931.

Corporations and wealthy families needed to play a slightly larger role in funding state services, Bates told the group at SOU.

"We have a tax system that's blatantly unfair," Bates said. "We need these taxes to keep our schools going, maintain our police forces. I see this as a situation where we're putting a little bit of fairness back into the tax structure."

If the measures fail, Bates said, vital services would be left severely under-funded. Public schools could be forced to close in May and, as a result, lose their accreditation as a state-certified education institution.

Buckley said he did not believe the state could withstand any more cuts on top of those already made to fulfill the Legislature's obligation of balancing the budget at the end of each two-year fiscal term.

"We were faced with the largest budget gap in Oregon history," he said. "We had to cut everything we possibly could in terms of what was considered humane, important human services. We had to address that budget gap."

Addressing the gap while maintaining social services, Bates said, has meant taking every available route: cutting spending, raising taxes, dipping into state reserve funds and using federal stimulus money.

Bates pointed to recent reports that showed one out of every six Oregonians on food stamps as evidence that the state's vitality depends on effective government intervention.

"It's been proven," Bates said. "Stimulating the economy in this situation is the appropriate thing to do. Otherwise we'd be in worse shape than we are now."

If the measures were defeated, Bates said, it would be because special interests and corporations headquartered outside of the state misled Oregonians into voting against their own interests. He encouraged everyone to educate themselves on the issues before making such a critical decision.

"Some people in this state feel it's not the responsibility of the government to take part in economic matters and will not vote for something that does that," Bates said. "Other people feel the state has the opportunity and the responsibility to take moderate intervention to correct our economy. It's a question of how you want to run your government."

Saturday's event was coordinated by the League of Women Voters of Ashland, which is advocating for the passage of measures 66 and 67.

Voters should receive their ballots by Jan. 12. Ballots are due by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 26.

Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at eglucklich@gmail.com