The “T” Word

tax conversationsThis blog post by Patrick Bresette was originally posted on the Blue Mass Group’s website.

It’s a tough time to talk taxes in Massachusetts. The House Speaker has asserted his opposition to any tax increases to deal with the state budget shortfall and echoes of anti-tax rhetoric of the recent Senate campaign still ring in the public mind,

And tax conversations are never easy. As Charlie Pierce lays out in his excellent piece in the Globe Magazine this weekend, Americans have a love-hate relationship with taxes.

“Quite simply, if you love a particular government service –that your bridges are repaired, for example, or your emergency calls answered– you ought to love the taxes that pay for it. That, however is rarely the case”

And our conflicted relationship with taxes is about more than money.

“Taxes have become a way we define ourselves as a political Commonwealth, or a way of determining whether see ourselves as such at all”

But a recent vote in Oregon shows that talking about taxes in a productive way is still possible. On January 26th Oregon voters approved two tax increases that had been passed by the legislature and were challenged at the ballot. Along with painful budget cuts these two measures helped to address a severe budget shortfall.

An overlooked aspect of this successful campaign to support new revenues and protect public services was the hard work by advocates and average citizens to tell a story about the fundamental role that government plays in Oregon.

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.”

Getting back to Government as “us”– as a tool for getting things done– is an essential ingredient for winning tax and revenue debates. As Massachusetts citizens and advocates work to protect public services and programs in this difficult budget season they can learn from the Oregon experience and take heart in its success.

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