Oregon Votes Yes! For Oregon

The following blog post originally appeared on the Oregon Ideas Action Blog on January 29, 2010.  Readers will note that this document refers to Public Works as Public Works: the Demos Center for the Public Sector.  Public Works began as a program at Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action in 2002 and operated as part of this organization until it became an independent nonprofit in 2012.

Ideas Action Blog
Friday Feature: Oregon Votes Yes! for Oregon
by Patrick Bresette
January 29, 2010

On Tuesday the people of Oregon voted Yes! They voted yes not just for the specific tax measures on the ballot but yes for their state and its future. There are lessons in this vote; just not the ones you are hearing most about.

Voters on Tuesday supported two tax increases that had been passed by the legislature as part of a balanced approach of cuts and new revenues to address a deep budget shortfall. These two tax increases were immediately challenged by business and antitax groups and placed on the January 26th ballot.

A superficial reading of the outcome might suggest that this vote in favor of taxes on high incomes and corporations is merely an example of populist anger at the wealthy and big business. But the story of success on Tuesday is richer than this analysis. The energy that fueled months of hard work by a broad and deep coalition of concerned organizations and individuals, with thousands of volunteers, endless door knocking, phone calls and
conversations with neighbors was not merely a “soak the rich” anger, it was a deep concern for the future of the state. In the months leading up to the vote on Tuesday these individuals, advocates and organizations made a compelling and affirmative case for the role of government in Oregon. This is the lesson that other states should learn.

The two proposals on the ballot–known as Measures 66 and 67–increased marginal taxes on high income households and raised the corporate income tax. Measure 66 raises income taxes on individuals who earn more than $125,000 a year and households that earn more than $250,000 a year, generating $472 million. Measure 67 raises $255 million by increasing from $10 to $150 the minimum corporate income tax that has not changed since 1931 and creating a graduated system based on sales and taxable income.

The vote to support these two tax measures was a stunning reversal of decades of anti-tax votes in Oregon. As the Los Angeles Times noted:

Over the years, voters here have capped property taxes (saddling the state with two-thirds the cost of running the schools) and passed a constitutional amendment requiring rebates whenever tax receipts come in 2% over budget. Nine times they have been asked to OK a sales tax–and said no. Proposals to increase the state income tax? Down in flames twice.

In the wake of the vote, observers and pundits–both in support of and against the measures–have focused their attention on the fact that these tax increases fall on the wealthy and corporations. They assert that the vote is additional evidence of an emerging populism that is ready to “soak the rich and greedy businesses.”

Huffington Post:

Oregon’s Sherwood Forest, take-from-the-rich strategy might appeal to legislators in other states struggling to bandage their budgets…

The Wall Street Journal:

One national consequence of the Oregon vote is that we are likely to see unions finance more of these tax-the rich campaigns in other states with big deficits.

Similar themes were echoed by the Oregonian, the Atlantic, Daily Kos, and many others.

Unfortunately, the deeper story behind this historic vote is not getting the attention it deserves. It is true that polling by the Vote Yes! campaign showed deep public support for increasing the ridiculously low minimum tax on corporations and a willingness to raise taxes on those most able to afford them. But Americans do not vote for taxes on wealth just because. In fact, important research by Larry Bartels of Princeton shows that more often than not average Americans side with businesses and the wealthy in tax debates–voting for tax cuts they will never receive and against tax increases they will not pay. In his groundbreaking paper  “Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind,” Bartells dissects the deep anti-tax sentiments that undermine even the most logical revenue proposals.

Getting the public to support tax increases requires more than pointing a finger at someone else who should pay. It requires reconnecting taxes to their purposes. The Public Works team at Demos spent a good deal of time in Oregon in the fall and winter working with a number of key campaign supporters. We helped them think about ways to engage the public in the larger public purposes that were at stake, not just the particulars of the tax package. And this is the part of the successful effort in Oregon that deserves more attention. In a subtle but important and consistent manner the campaign and its many advocates worked hard to reconnect Oregonians to what was at risk–the fundamental public systems and structures that the state depends on and that are essential to their shared quality of life.

This was different than merely offering a laundry list of the dire cuts that would ensue without new revenue. It was a coherent narrative about Oregon and its future. This excerpt from a letter to the editor by State Representative Chris Harker is emblematic:

As a small-business owner, I’m convinced that in order for Oregon to prosper we need to have the courage and the will to create an environment that’s profitable both for businesses and for the communities on which our businesses rely. Unless we properly fund our education system and protect working families and the services they need, we’re going to struggle to compete in the growing global economy. The days in which low skills could generate high pay are disappearing. These tax measures are the next necessary steps to promoting the health and well-being of our state as a whole.

Other supporters and observers have recognized that this aspect of the campaign was part of its success. Dick Hughes in his Statesman Journal column remarked: On the one hand, it could be dangerous to read too much into the measures’ passage.

By accepting higher taxes, Oregonians maintained their national reputation as mavericks. But these were taxes on “the other guy” — well-to-do Oregonians and businesses — so most voters wouldn’t directly pay them. But it also would be a mistake to disregard what the measures indicated about the voters’ perceptions. Oregonians showed their faith in Oregon government, believing the tax money was necessary to support state services and schools (emphasis added).

In an Oregonian article, Steve Novick, a key spokesman for the Vote Yes! campaign noted:

We ran a campaign that reminded people of the value of those government services

On the eve of the victory a spokesman for the Oregon PTA talked about the meaning of the win this way:

Tonight’s victory is one for all Oregonians–especially students and middle class families,” said Otto Schell, of the Oregon PTA. “Strong schools and preserving public services are critical to our children’s future and key to our economic recovery. Today, Oregon voters have laid the foundation for a strong future.

In a post campaign thank you to supporters, Senator Peter Courtney (President of
the Oregon Senate) stated that:

Pundits will argue that the lesson from Tuesday’s vote was either (1) that progressives rebounded quickly from the shocking loss of a once “safe” Democratic U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts or (2) that Oregon voters are on the leading edge of a populist revolt against big corporations and their wealthy CEOs.

If those who have watched us so closely only consider those things, however, they will miss the most important point. Oregon voted to keep funding our schools, health care for our children and to keep criminals locked inside prison walls because of a super-human effort by everyday people…

The lesson Oregonians should remember and other states should learn from Tuesday’s vote is that we did not succeed because of the structure of the revenue measures alone. It was also an incredible collaborative spirit and tireless work ethic that saved Oregon, my Oregon.

As we all digest the results of this historic vote in Oregon, let’s make sure we give attention to all of its lessons. States across the country are facing budget challenges of a scale and scope they have never seen before. What is at risk are the public systems, services and structures that are essential to our very quality of life and our economic future. Any responsible approach to this challenge should include an examination of new revenue options, not just budget cuts. This means we need to create a more productive conversation about taxes and their purposes. The good news coming out of Oregon is that this is a conversation we can have and can win.

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