Oregon's winning tax startegy: Why can't we do that here?
The people aren't that weird in Oregon. They drink the same coffee we do, and the same beer, and they're just as surprised as we are that a team from the land of Beavers and Ducks will be playing in the Rose Bowl. It rains a lot, so they don't worry about water the way we do — in some places, you can actually take a shower with an old-fashioned spigot that pours an unconstrained and luxurious flow that would be illegal in most of California — but generally speaking, it's not like an alien territory.
But the Oregon government took a radically different approach to the state's budget problems over the summer. The governor and the Legislature passed measures to raise taxes on households with incomes of more than $260,000 a year and corporations with profits of more than $10 million. The bills also cut taxes on unemployment benefits. The deal would bring in $737 million and avoid deep cuts in essential public services.
Of course, some things don't stop at state lines: antitax activists have forced a referendum on the new taxes, and in January, in a vote-by-mail ballot, Oregonians will decide whether to reject the tax plan. The newspapers are full of discussions on the impact, and the message is clear: Scrap the taxes and teachers will face layoffs, schools will face serious problems, and other public services will suffer.
I was up visiting over Thanksgiving, and I asked a friend what he thought would happen. He was pretty confident that the taxes would be retained: "I don't know anyone who makes more than $260,000 a year."
Of course, they don't have a two-thirds majority requirement to raise taxes — and while Republicans all over have become little more than obstructionist troglodytes, Oregon Republicans haven't all signed the "no-new-taxes" pledge required of every GOP legislator in California.
Even so, you have to wonder: Why can't we do that here?
The answer, I think, is that we can — not necessarily on a statewide level (where anything progressive seems almost impossible today) but right here at home in San Francisco.
A poll commissioned by SEIU Local 1021, which came out while I was away, showed that a majority of San Francisco voters would support a broad range of new taxes, from a five-cent-a-drink tax on alcoholic beverages to a $10 a car tax on motor vehicles to an increase in the hotel tax. The poll didn't ask about a tax on incomes of more than $260,000, but I bet the results would be about the same.
So what's headed for the June ballot? Well, at this point all I hear is that the mayor wants to fund the expansion of Moscone Center with $140 million in revenue bonds — and might want to designate a hike in the hotel tax to pay for it. That's a great way to set priorities — the health care system is in total collapse, Muni lines are getting shut down ... and we're going to use new tax revenue for a convention center expansion.
This comes just after the mayor announced he wasn't going to spend the money to save critical public health services. Perhaps he'll find some spiritual guidance on his trip to India.