Public Is Ready to Raise Taxes on Corporations and the Rich, Oregon Vote Shows

Conservatives have been crowing loudly about their victory in last week’s special election in Massachusetts, but voters in Oregon also “sent a message,” when? approving two measures that imposed progressive taxes on earners making more than $250,000 per year and on large corporations. 

The measures are expected to raise the $733 million dollars needed to close the state’s budget gap. The measures -- 66 and 67 -- passed by a decisive 54-46 margin. According to The Oregonian, “the results triggered waves of relief from educators and legislative leaders, who were facing an estimated $727 million shortfall in the current two-year budget if the measures failed.” 

Until measure 67 raised the minimum corporate tax to $150 per year, most companies operating in Oregon paid only $10 per year into the state coffers. Under 67, only 10,000 of the state’s 34,000 corporations will pay more than the minimum. Measure 66 will increase taxes for 38,000 of Oregon’s wealthier households, while giving a tax break to 270,000 jobless Oregonians. 

The results are eye-opening, given that Oregon has long been a incubator for the corporate-backed anti-tax movement. Oregon voters hadn’t approved a tax increase since 1930. In the 1970s, voters in one Oregon municipality voted down an education tax four times, resulting in schools remaining closed at the end of the summer holiday. In the 1990s, Oregonians passed two measures that required an esoteric “double-majority” to pass many local tax measures. In 2007, a well-funded campaign run by Freedomworks, the Wall Street front group that helped launch the “Tea Party” movement, and heavily financed by Big Tobacco, successfully killed a cigarette tax hike that was slated to finance health insurance for Oregon’s poorest children. The “Healthy Kids Program” died an untimely death, and 100,000 of the state’s neediest children suffered the consequences. 

The same coalition worked overtime to kill props 66 and 67. When the measures were first proposed by Oregon Dems last year, an editorial in The Oregonian -- whose publisher played a key roll in the state’s anti-tax movement -- wrote that “Democrats have rolled the dice in a big way … gambling that Oregon has undergone a profound political change since the days of property tax limits and income tax rejections.” That gamble appears to have paid off. 

The campaign was unabashedly progressive, tapping into the same kind of passionate energy that has animated the right-populist Tea Partiers. But while much of the political establishment has viewed the Tea Parties as a heartfelt expression of the American people’s disposition, the Yes campaign’s brand of progressive populism is the kind that makes the editorial board of The Washington Post squirm. The central message of the campaign was one likely to resonate with many during these trying economic times: 

These reforms protect nearly $1 billion in vital services like education, health care and public safety. These funds preserve class sizes, save jobs for teachers, provide seniors with in-home care, and provide health care for thousands of Oregonians through the Oregon Health Plan. In this time of economic crisis, we must protect those who have been hit the hardest - seniors, children and the unemployed - without putting more of a burden on the middle class.  

That message, coupled with what the Calitics blog called, “smart progressive organizing led by folks such as former US Senate candidate Steve Novick and the Oregon Bus Project, which reached out to younger voters and had a strong ground game,” defeated Freedomworks and its allies handily. 

It’s noteworthy that the measure was passed just a day before Barack Obama is expected to announce a “freeze on discretionary spending.”  

It’s a grand gesture, but the reality is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 percent of the federal budget gets dished out for mandated spending and interest payments. Much of the remainder — the “discretionary spending” — is for military and the intelligence agencies, and federal law enforcement. None of that would count, as the freeze would reportedly exempt the budgets for the Pentagon, foreign aid, the Veterans Administration and homeland security. The resulting cuts is projected to reduce the 2011 budget by $15 billion dollars, a rounding error in a $3 trillion dollar federal budget. 

The move appears to be an attempt to win over “fiscal conservatives,” but is being almost universally panned from both the left and the right. Conservatives complain that it is too modest, while Obama’s progressive base perceives it as a betrayal of promises he’s made in the past.  

Ultimately, it’s a hollow gesture. And it appears that local organizers in Oregon understand something about the electorate that the supposedly whip-smart men and women of the administration don’t grasp: after 30 years of class warfare from above, a little progressive populism can go a long way.


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