Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Thursday, May 22, 2003  

The View from Oregon
All politics are local, right? Well, locally (Oregon) we just had a number of county elections to try to restore some of the lost funding for schools. Multnomah County (Portland) led the charge, placing an initiative on the ballot to enact a 1.25% income tax for three years. A Portland suburb, Beaverton, did a similar thing, as did nine other municipalities across the state. The Beaverton and Portland versions passed, but outside the more liberal metro area, local taxes faired worse (three for nine). What can we draw from this?

Well, Oregon's an interesting case. As is usual on the West Coast, the cities are very liberal and the rural districts are more conservative (Southern Oregon, settled mainly by Southern Civil War vets looking for gold, is isolationist, libertarian, and very conservative; Eastern Oregon, settled by Midwestern farmers, is moderate). Also consistent with West Coast politics, there's an initiative system, and citizens are more politically active and aware than in other states. Oregon's always had quirky politics, being the first to enact the bottle bill (in the early 70s), instituting urban planning, adopting a statewide health care system, and being the only place on earth to legalize physician-assisted suicide. But the state was also the leader on citizen-led anti-tax measures (quite successful early on) and anti-gay measures (all of which failed).

Beginning in the early 90s, Oregon went on a fanatical anti-tax crusade.* Portland's once famous school system is now a national laughing stock. And, although it wasn't nearly as well-publicized, Oregon literally had to throw the poor, elderly, and developmentally delayed out onto the streets when last year's budget ran short (never mind grandma--gotta have a balanced budget!).

In the last election cycle, Oregon elected a new, fairly conservative Democratic governor who immediately declared that he would never raise taxes. Oregon continued to hemorrhage funds, compelling locals to try to raise their own taxes. (Legislators have become so timid that the only bills they were considering this year were please-the-base bills like bicycle helmet laws and anti-abortion laws. Meanwhile, citizens fumed.) The interesting upshot is that, against conventional wisdom, citizens didn't behave in the most self-interested way they might have. And now taxes are once more being considered by the very fearful legislators (including the governor, though he has yet to muster the courage to announce it himself, publicly.)

Also of note were simultaneous elections for four seats on the school board, which, given the state of schools, were hotly contested. A group backed by conservative business people (including Nike's Phil Knight), had a gang of four they tried to push through. They dumped tens of thousands into the election, and their candidates got quite a bit of press. The result? None of them won.

Portland is definitely not reflective of politics nationally; nevertheless, in one small town, the electorate is awakening...

*Arcane funding footnote. Oregon doesn't have a sales tax; all its funding comes from income and property taxes. Two years ago, the economy here tanked, sending the unemployment rate skyrocketing (it's been between 7 - 8% since). Because so much of the funding depends on income taxes, Oregon's revenues bottomed out; in the last biennium (the legislature meets every other year), adjusted revenues were $2.5 billion less than the predicted $11 billion. Rather than raise revenue, the state cut programs to the bone.

posted by Jeff | 2:52 PM |
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