« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

It’s time for voters to look at the whole picture

  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.

One 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.

What’s 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.

In Oregon, 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.

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 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 said.

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

Jeff Golden is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). 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 timber wars, Forest Blood.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].