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Know the West

We're bickering with our neighbors while the feds spend our money


As John Kerry was firming up his front-runner status in seven Democratic primaries on Feb. 3, Oregon voters were defeating Measure 30, an $800 million package of income tax surcharges, cigarette tax renewals and minimum corporate-tax increases, which was intended to restore funding that has been cut from education and basic services.

"Defeat" isn’t quite the word. We crushed it 3 to 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.

A letter from one of the many still-angry writers to the Oregonian 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 Measure 30 was an affordable, decently progressive package. I believe we’re shirking the public investment that made Oregon a great state, and that the tales of mountainous state-government fat are thin on the facts. I’ll spare you the details of my views. They seem a little late and stale just now. And futile.

What’s becoming clear is that we’re fighting this taxation-services battle, here in Oregon and across the West, in a box that’s much too small. We snarl endlessly at each other about value received for our tax dollars, with barely a glance at the federal government that chews up most of those dollars. It’s like searching for the best diet plan by analyzing midday snacks while pretending that breakfast, lunch and dinner don’t exist. In Oregon, it’s been all about snacks. Anti-taxers calling my show hammered on the late-model SUVs that state employees are driving. They told me about next-door neighbors who drive state cars home each day for three-hour lunch breaks. For weeks, the leading statewide story was a decision to pay the new head librarian in Portland $25,000 more than her predecessor.

Days before 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.

Maybe it’s 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.

We 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, but it won’t be the last.

It’s time to unify activists 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.

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 its 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 said.

Yes, I am. Is there a smaller bite that will work?

Jeff Golden is a former Jackson County commissioner in Ashland, Oregon. He hosts a daily public radio talk show and is the author of a novel about the Northwest’s timber wars, Forest Blood.