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Mark Shields: Oregon Raises Taxes, Makes Some History

The state's voters, generally adverse to taxes, say yes to making businesses and the rich pay more

In politics, the winners get to write the history. When Republican Scott Brown, in an authentic upset on Jan. 19, won the special election to fill the Senate seat held for 47 years by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., the victors told us that the Brown victory unmistakably proclaimed the electorate’s anger with one, or more, of the following: President Barack Obama, his health-care plan, the recession, Washington and its condescending indifference to ordinary citizens, Big Government, Big Deficits, Big Taxes, bailouts, Democrats and liberalism.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

Barely one week later — before the ink was even dry on the new, global meaning of Massachusetts — voters in Oregon did what they hadn’t done in 80 years: With their state suffering under an unemployment rate of 11 percent and facing an estimated budget gap of $727 million, Oregonians, with an impressive 60 percent of them turning out — by a thumping 54 percent majority — endorsed an increase in the statewide income tax and raised the Oregon corporate tax rate.

Oregon voters are seriously tax-adverse. In the first state to make political decisions through direct democracy by ballot questions, Oregon voters have on nine occasions voted against imposing any state sales tax. Oregon is one of only five states without a sales tax. The last tax increase to win support was in 2002, when, to help pay for the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s voters upped the tax on cigarettes. Since then, two statewide income tax hikes have been rejected at the polls.

So what does this entirely unorthodox “tax revolt” in Oregon mean? According to one of the winners, Steve Novick, 2008 Democratic Senate candidate and advocate-strategist for the winning “Vote Yes for Oregon” campaign, “Massachusetts was about (voters’) anger” over how “messed up things were.” Voters there demanded “to hold the people in charge responsible.”

In Oregon, he says, “voters agreed things are messed up and we are going to do something about it.” What they did was raise the state income tax rate on the fewer than 3 percent of Oregon households that earn more than $250,000 a year or individuals who earn more than $125,000 annually. The state’s corporate tax, where two-thirds of the state’s firms pay the minimum tax of $10 (yes, 10 dollars!), also was boosted.

Arguing that without the new taxes, the cuts to the 93 percent of the state budget devoted to public education, public safety and public safety net for children and seniors would be painful and unfair, the proponents — well-funded by teachers and public employee unions, and backed by a wide array of religious and civic groups — demanded that “big banks, credit-card companies and the rich pay their fair share.”

One TV spot consisted of separate indictments: Wall Street took billions of dollars in bonuses; bankers jacked up our credit card-rates; a lot of state corporations pay only the $10 corporate tax. Images of CEOs in private jets and luxury drove the message.

Veteran Oregon political strategist Pat McCormick, who opposed the tax hikes in the business-backed “Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes,” conceded the winners “effectively tapped into populist anger.”

Will success in Oregon — just for starters — embolden the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress to regulate, let alone tax, Wall Street and to make sure the Bush tax cuts for high-earners expire?

Kevin Looper, who managed the winning campaign, believes others will take courage from what Oregonians did.

“We registered 30,000 young voters, knocked on 300,000 doors, and we embraced people where they live,” he said. “To make ours a better place, we all need to be less selfish.”

Now that’s a really different idea!

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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