Interpreting a Vote for Higher Taxes in Oregon

Oregon voters yesterday approved two ballot measures to affirm tax increases. One raised taxes on the rich. The other raised taxes on corporations. This morning ...
by | January 27, 2010
 

Oregon voters yesterday approved two ballot measures to affirm tax increases. One raised taxes on the rich. The other raised taxes on corporations. This morning everyone is wondering what it means. Is everything we think we know about the political mood wrong?

One point that the Oregon press has made clear is that, despite their state's relatively liberal reputation, Oregon has historically been an anti-tax state. From the Oregonian:

Oregon voters bucked decades of anti-tax and anti-Salem sentiment Tuesday, raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy to prevent further erosion of public schools and other state services.

...

The double-barreled victory is the first voter-approved statewide income tax increase since the 1930s. Other states, facing similar budget woes, are watching the outcome closely because Oregon, after all, is a state that capped property taxes and locked a surplus tax rebate program into the constitution.

Perhaps more to the point, just six years ago, Oregon voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax increase at the polls -- one that doesn't sound all that different from what the state's voters supported yesterday. Is there something about the nation's present mood that makes voters more inclined to support higher taxes (at least on businesses and the rich) than they were in the past?

I don't claim to know the answer to that question. Perhaps this vote reflects a populist uprising, but perhaps it merely reflects a well-funded, effective campaign in support of the measures.

What does seem clear to me, however, is the political peril of service cuts. The public clamors so much for reductions in wasteful government spending that it's easy to forget that there is a lot of danger in cutting spending. The services on which state governments (and the federal government too) spend most of their money -- schools, health care, transportation, public safety -- are actually quite popular.

That lesson is especially important right now because of the magnitude of the spending cuts that governments are being forced to contemplate. Voters don't like tax increases, but they may like tax increases (especially targeted tax increases) more than dramatic service reductions.

So, the key to selling tax increases is to link them explicitly to popular services. That's where, so far as I can tell, the Oregon supporters of the tax increases succeeded. Their message tying the tax measures to K-12 spending won the day.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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