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Environment | Election

Measure 76: Should We Continue To Use Lottery Funds To Support Parks And Wildlife Projects?

There’s a measure on Oregon’s ballot addressing parks and habitat spending, but the election won’t really change how those are funded — Measure 76 continues spending 15% of lottery money for parks and wildlife projects.

Without the extension, the dedicated funding would end in 2014. The initiative has no organized opposition.

But Rob Manning reports that this kind of spending commitment has raised eyebrows, at a time of financial upheaval.

Things changed a lot for Oregon parks in the late ‘90s. Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 66 and set aside 15 percent of lottery revenue for parks and habitat.

Rob Manning / OPB
Doug Menke, with the Tualatin Hills Parks & Recreation District

And Doug Menke, with the Tualatin Hills Parks & Recreation District, says that’s about the time conversations heated up between the owners of a scenic Beaverton hilltop and a local official.

Doug Menke: “He had the relationship of ‘When you’re ready to sell, we’d love to see this as a park.’ He kept in touch, and then probably it was eight years ago, things got more active.”

Mount Williams is a rare, forested site in an urban area, with panoramic views to the north and south. But this hill is also important strategically. It completes a five-mile trail through a dense set of Beaverton neighborhoods.

Doug Menke: “Ideally, what we want to do is achieve a spine, that runs north and south through the park district and has all kinds of connectors into it.”

Tualatin Hills Parks & Rec ultimately bought the Mount Williams’ site for more than $5 million.

One million of that came from lottery money under Measure 66.  That measure expires in 2014. Ballot Measure 76 would continue to commit 15 percent of lottery funds to parks and watersheds beyond 2014.

Extending the funding is widely supported among environmental groups, but other advocacy groups have had questions.

Becca Uherbelau is with the statewide teachers union, Oregon Education Association.

Becca Uherbelau: “We did, initially have some very serious concerns that there were unintended consequences of the measure on available funding for schools. That was our initial concern.”

Democratic legislators convinced OEA to take a “neutral” position on the measure. The lawmakers promised to refer another measure to voters soon, which would allow the environmental spending to be re-allocated, in emergenices.

Jessica Moskowitz with the “Yes on 76” campaign says her allies have agreed to that. But she says school advocates really shouldn’t worry.

Jessica Moskovitz: “This little bit extra is in fact, an incredibly small amount. The amount in question, while it’s 15 percent of lottery proceeds, is less than one percent of the overall state budget. So, what we’re talking about is in fact less money than it would take to fund a medium-sized school district.” 

The teachers’ union argues that in the current budget environment, 80 million dollars in annual spending is significant.

It’s also lot of money for groups dedicated to restoring Oregon streams. The original 1998 measure split the lottery funds, with half going to parks, and half to stream projects through the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

That has resulted in $400 million over the years going to stream projects. Much of it to local organizations like the Tualatin River Watershed Council.

April Olbrich of the Tualatin River Watershed Council.

Rob Manning / OPB

April Olbrich is the council’s one paid employee.

April Olbrich: “Probably 60 percent of our council support – which is operating for the office, coordinator salary – comes from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.”

The council’s bread and butter is small projects. For example, the council leveraged 10,000 lottery dollars to replace a problematic culvert with a more fish-friendly bridge.

April Olbrich: “Migrating fish – in this case, coho – were able to leave the mainstem of Gales Creek, come under the bridge, the Wilson River Highway Bridge, and come under this bridge, and then proceed upward to … spawn.”

Olbrich says the plan is to take out three more culverts on this same creek. And even though her group is working with the same property owner, in the same private forest, Olbrich says the planning, design, and construction will take years.

April Olbrich: “It could be three to five, to eight to ten years.”

Of course, four years from now, lottery funding for watersheds could disappear if voters turn down Measure 76.

Back down the Tualatin River in Beaverton, parks’ leaders are hoping to solidify future funding as well.

Tualatin Hills’ director, Doug Menke, says Mount Williams could be ten years from having all the trails and other improvements done.

At the same time, Menke says parts of Washington County are urbanizing quickly, like the Bethany neighborhood, on the edge of Beaverton.

Doug Menke: “Even though it’s a future planned community, we see it down the road, and we’re going to need to start purchasing property – the sooner the better.”

Measure 76 is a constitutional amendment, just like Measure 66 was, which established the lottery funding stream for parks and watersheds.

Lawmakers say that if they do decide to change it to address the concerns of educators, they’ll ask voters to weigh in, yet again.

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