As John Kerry was firming up his frontrunner status in seven Democratic primaries Feb. 3, Oregon voters were defeating Measure 30, an $800 million package of income tax surcharges, cigarette tax renewals and minimum corporate-tax increases intended to restore dramatic cuts in education and basic services.
"Defeat" isn’t quite the word. We crushed
it 3-2, and that doesn’t tell the whole story. "That ballot
needed another box besides ‘YES’ and ‘NO’,"
said a caller to my radio talk show. "I was looking for
‘HELL, NO’." He had plenty of company.
letter from the many still-angry writers to the Oregonian
newspaper said in its entirety, "Oregon taxpayers to the
Oregon Legislature: ‘Can you hear me now?’"
True to my pathetic electoral batting average, I had voted yes. I
thought it was an affordable, decently progressive package. I
believe we’re shirking the public investment that made Oregon
a great state, and the tales of mountainous state government-fat
are thin on facts. I’ll spare you the details. They seem a
little late and stale just now. And futile.
coming clear is that we’re fighting this taxation-services
battle, here in Oregon and across the west, in a box that’s
too small. We snarl endlessly at each other about value-received
for our tax dollars with barely a glance at the government that
chews up most of those dollars. It’s like searching for the
best diet plan by analyzing mid-day snacks and pretending that
breakfast, lunch and dinner don’t exist.
it’s been all about snacks. Anti-taxers calling my show
hammered on the late-model SUVs with state plates. They told me
about next-door neighbors who came home for lunch each day in their
state car at 11 a.m. and left at 2 p.m. For weeks the leading
statewide story was a decision to pay the new head librarian in
Portland $25,000 more than her predecessor.
Oregon’s election, Congress passed an $820 billion budget
bill that covers 11 major departments of the federal government for
the budget year that was already 30 percent behind us. How much of
that $820 billion would be better spent on critical services in
states like Oregon? Beats me.
First, you’d have to
know what was in this mega-immense spending jumble. I don’t.
I doubt anyone in Congress does.
different where you live. But no one asked Oregonians to vote on
the near-$600 billion slated for "defense" and Homeland Security,
or the recent $400-billion-oops-make-that-$535-billion Medicare
"reform" package, or the nearly $200 billion that supports
corporate agribusiness instead of family farmers.
have, it seems, a different role in today’s process: whipping
ourselves and each other into a frenzy over a raise for the county
librarian. With no way to get at the heart of government waste,
voters take their imprecise aggravation out on any and every ballot
they’re handed. Oregon’s Measure 30 is the latest and
won’t be the last.
It’s time to unify
activism from all the states left twisting in the fiscal wind. We
need a basic policy position — say, a goal that by 2010 one
tax dollar will go to local government for every one that goes to
Washington — but we don’t need new organizations. Our
communities already brim with nationally associated groups that
care about our civic decay.
This could be a natural
centerpiece for the next national meetings of state legislators,
county commissioners and city councilors. Organized labor could
grab it and run, and so could 50 states’ worth of Chambers of
Commerce, tourism bureaus, Parent-Teacher organizations, Rotarians,
Kiwanis, Shriners, Elks and Lions and Tigers and Bears.
Within a year, well-prepared citizens could attend every public
appearance of every member of Congress in every district in America
with a single message: Every one of us has a limited capacity for
paying taxes. When you Washington folks drain that capacity down to
the dregs with indiscriminate spending that no one seriously
defends on the merits, you’re shutting the door on our
community’s chance for a quality future. We can’t let
you do that anymore.
I tried this notion out on a friend.
"Kind of biting off a lot to chew there, aren’t you?" she
Yes, I am. Is there a smaller bite that will work?