Oregon halts corporate affluenza

  • Paul VanDevelder


Tea Party activists across the country probably shuddered with horror when they read what Oregonians did at the polls recently. But for a majority of us who live in this state of rain, big trees and mighty rivers, voting for new taxes during an economic downturn was common sense. For the first time since 1930, Oregon's tax-averse citizens overwhelmingly approved an increase in income tax for households making over $250,000 a year. To underscore that vote, they also approved a second measure -- by a similar 8 percent margin -- to increase taxes on the 90 largest corporations that do business in the state.

The message was unmistakable: The more you make, the more you should pay.

Both of these measures were referred to the electorate by a tax-and-pay progressive Legislature, just as both were fought by defy-and-deny conservatives. Phil Knight, the founder and chairman of Nike Corp., the largest private employer in the state, argued that measures 66 and 67 were "anti-business, anti-success, anti-inspirational and anti-humanitarian." After he made a veiled threat in the Oregonian newspaper to pull Nike out of the state if the measures passed, many letters to the editor told Knight, and I quote from one: "Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out."

In one bold stroke, the pro-tax folks had stood up to the Chicken Little warnings of hysterical conservatives by calling a halt to corporate affluenza. What is corporate affluenza? It is the crippling social infirmity that sets in when governments steal from the poor and give to the rich. Inevitably, it results in a river of red ink, and in our case, that red ink is flowing from Bush-era tax cuts for the rich (an estimated $1.7 trillion) and eight years of looting of the national treasury by K Street lobbyists, Wall Street banks, corporate bandits and all their political front men. When combined, these afflictions cause anxiety over the relentless erosion of basic government services such as law enforcement, fire protection, health care and education. It's at that point, in Oregon, when common sense kicks in.

So what did Oregon's granola mandate mean? That depends on which talking head you listen to on the nightly news. If you listen to the fear-mongering of those who put business interests above all else, it means that corporations and wealthy people will flee Oregon in droves. The logic goes that businesses won't be able to get out of the state fast enough. But where would they go, we ask? Idaho?

If you listen to the pro-tax crowd, what the voters meant was that education and state-run programs for children and the needy will live to see another year. Most Oregonians will gladly settle for that over a move to Idaho, a state that seems to have sold its soul to the nabobs of the Tea Party.

This isn't the first time Oregon voters have chosen to swim against the current. In 1994, by a margin of 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent, Oregonians approved an initiative known as the Death With Dignity Act, the law that legalized physician-assisted suicide. A couple of years later, the Roman Catholic Church and its supporters goaded a Republican-controlled state Legislature into referring the measure back to the voters in the hope that we'd come to our senses.

Republicans who joined the church in that fight showed how far out of touch they were with voters. Oregonians will proudly tell you that Oregon is the most "un-churched" state in the union. If the church takes a political position in Oregon, voters usually run in the opposite direction. Case in point: Oregonians passed the 1997 Death With Dignity referendum with 60 percent of the vote -- a 9 percent increase from the first go-round!

In 2001, George W. Bush was determined to overturn the will of Oregon's voters. He sent Attorney General John Ashcroft to federal court three times on legal technicalities to do just that. Three times, the court sent Ashcroft packing. Then it went to the U.S. Supreme Court, in Gonzales v. Oregon, and the will of Oregon voters was once again reaffirmed.

Just like the new tax measures that passed earlier this year, conservatives at the time attacked the Death with Dignity Act with outrageous predictions. Among other things, opponents said passage of the bill would initiate an epidemic of suicides. Of course, the counter-intuitive has happened instead: Oregon now leads the nation in end-of-life care and pain management for terminal illnesses. Moreover, not one case of abuse has been cited in the 13 years the law has been on the books. Similarly, the newest tax measures will prove once again that there's a home for common sense among the tall trees and mighty rivers.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Portland, Oregon.

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].

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