The Big Disconnect

June 1, 2003By Chuck Sheketoff

The Oregon Legislature reflects Oregonians. Like their constituents, too many legislators fail to understand and acknowledge the important role government plays in Oregon's economy and in our daily economic and social life.

Take, for example, the eastern Oregon legislator who's been sporting a hat that says "beef" because he has a "beef" that proposed budgets would close a youth correctional facility in his district. He's rightly upset about possibly losing 60 or so jobs. These jobs offer benefits and good pay that don't fluctuate with the weather like so many of the jobs and industries in Oregon's high desert. The trouble is, this same legislator voted against the three major revenue measures in last year's special sessions. He suffers from "the big disconnect."

This "I've got a beef" legislator isn't able to recognize that government plays an important role in his district's life, but is readily able to complain when some of those good government jobs - and everything they mean for his district - hit the chopping block. He isn't making the connection between Oregon's fiscal situation and the good government jobs in his district.

Not only does he routinely vote against tax increases, this legislator is one of the leaders in an effort to provide speculative tax breaks for Oregon's wealthiest: cutting the income tax on capital gains, eliminating the estate tax, and eliminating income taxes for venture capitalists. Few in Eastern Oregon will benefit directly from these tax cuts. If they ever create jobs it is doubtful that any of the jobs will fill the needs of under- and unemployed eastern Oregonians. The lost tax revenue, however, will result in further cut backs of good, government jobs, such as those at the Oregon Youth Authority facility that his constituents rely upon economically.

But he isn't the only one. Plenty of legislators, Republican and Democrat, hope that speculative and expensive tax cuts for the wealthy will help them in their quest for the Holy Grail of "economic development." These legislators attack Oregon's income tax as too high, forgetting or ignoring the fact that the same income tax system was in effect during the six years that we had the fastest growing economy in the nation - before the recession.

With our three billion dollar shortfall and two-thirds of our corporations paying a $10 corporate minimum tax on profits, Oregon has become the poster child for an inadequate revenue system and misplaced priorities. Boosting the bottom lines of Oregon's wealthiest households will not magically unleash the demand that will put our idled high-tech capacity back to work. Reduced taxes won't fix Oregon's embarrassingly high hunger rate, get our state police force up to full strength, lengthen our school year, or reverse any of the other shortcomings for which we are gaining a national reputation.

Until a majority of Oregonians and our legislators acknowledge that government can and does play an important role in our economy, until our legislators see the connection between government services and the lives of people in their districts, until Oregonians and our legislators understand the need to pay for these services, and until Oregon stops squandering unanticipated revenues during good times with tax cuts primarily for the wealthy and begins to save for its rainy days, Oregon will continue to be the butt of jokes in Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury and elsewhere.

And those of us who care about the future of this great state will have more "beefs."

Charles Sheketoff is the executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy