Public policy decisions often come down to a matter of priorities. Which spending proposals are more important to fund?
During the state budget process, legislators scour state agency budgets, demanding that various services and programs be reduced or eliminated. At the same time, Oregon spends millions of dollars through tax breaks with little oversight. These tax breaks are not accounted for in agency budgets, but they are government spending all the same.
Because tax breaks have received so little scrutiny while state agency budgets are being slashed, Oregon’s priorities are increasingly out of whack. For instance, over the next two years, Oregon will provide tax breaks worth about $36 million to well-off residents, those earning over $100,000, to help cover the costs of medical and dental care.
Meanwhile, legislators are eliminating the Medically Needy program which provides prescription drugs and other medical services for low-income seniors and disabled Oregonians. The cost of this program over the next two years will be $37 million, roughly the same as the cost of the medical care tax breaks.
Which of these two programs is more important? The Medically Needy program is a matter of life or death for some recipients. Douglas Schmidt of Portland fell into a coma after losing access to prescription drugs for epileptic seizures when the Medically Needy program was eliminated on February 1. The medical care tax breaks, on the other hand, are typically a luxury for high-income Oregonians.
While low-income seniors are losing access to prescription drugs through the Medically Needy program, tax breaks are helping high-income seniors purchase both prescription drugs and a wide variety of less vital products, including contact lenses. While low-income Oregonians of all ages are losing access to alcohol addiction treatment services, the tax breaks are subsidizing the same services for wealthy residents. While thousands of low-income Oregonians are losing all access to preventive and dental care, the tax breaks help wealthy Oregonians cover the costs of these same services, and help pay for other services such as acupuncture and chiropractic care.
If the medical care tax breaks were budget line items, would they have survived the last two years of budget cuts? Imagine your local legislator standing before her colleagues to defend the “Contact Lenses for Rich Ladies program,” while at the same time voting to eliminate anti-seizure medication for low-income Oregonians.
Other tax breaks would likely not have survived as direct spending programs. Would you support an affordable housing assistance program that helps millionaires buy mansions? In fact, you do. Under the guise of making housing more affordable, Oregon allows people buying million dollar houses to deduct all of the interest they pay on their mortgages. Meanwhile, one-fifth of Oregon’s renters are paying more than half their income in rent with no additional low-income rental assistance in sight.
By offering tax breaks that provide government assistance to the well-off, Oregon spends money that otherwise could be used to help pay for good schools and safe neighborhoods. At a time when vulnerable Oregonians – children, disabled people, low-income seniors and other poor families – are bearing the burden of extreme state budget cuts, tax breaks for the wealthy ought to be receiving more scrutiny. It’s time to put our priorities in the right order.