Failed February tax hike returns as election issue

SALEM — To many, the proposed tax increase that failed in February is but a memory. But it’s going to be used in the GOP’s campaign to keep Democrats from winning a majority in the state Senate in November.

Republicans and Democrats have a 15-15 tie in the Senate. The GOP has to defend 11 Senate seats in November to six for the Democrats — and five of the incumbent GOP senators aren’t running again.

That seems to give Democrats the best odds — but they’ll face the state’s leading anti-tax group in some campaigns.

Russ Walker, of Citizens for a Sound Economy, said he expects to help the Republican candidates in three races: those in which Democratic House members are seeking Senate seats vacated by Republicans.

“It’s very important we have a Senate we can work with that opposes new taxes,” Walker said.

The organization has already shown its ability to turn the failed tax hike into an effective campaign issue.

In the GOP primary the group heavily backed political newcomer Kim Thatcher, who toppled three-term Republican Rep. Vic Backlund of Keizer. Backlund was among the moderate House Republicans who supported the proposed $800 million tax increase, which was trounced by voters in February.

Supporters of the tax boost said it was needed to prevent further cuts in education and social services after rounds of budget-slashing following two years of economic recession.

Thatcher’s strategy hit at Backlund for his votes for that and other tax and fee boosts. Citizens for a Sound Economy made him its key primary target and injected $30,000 into Thatcher’s campaign — almost half of her total donations.

Expect more of the same in the November election, said Walker, Oregon director of the Washington, D.C,-based organization that campaigns for smaller government and lower taxes.

All 60 House seats and 17 Senate seats are up for election in November. Republicans run the House with a 35-25 advantage, so Democrats need a net gain of six seats for a change of hands there.

All the House Democrats voted for the doomed tax measure, and GOP strategists say taxes will be a major issue in House races as well.

Republicans also are ready to jab Democratic lawmakers for refusing to convene a special session this month to send a state spending limit measure to voters.

“We will couple the Democrats’ support for the tax increase with their rejection of a reasonable rainy day fund and spending limit,” said Troy Nichols, executive director of Majority 2004, the Republicans’ House campaign organization.

Democrats said there was no point in holding a session because there wasn’t enough support to pass anything.

Senate Democratic Leader Kate Brown of Portland said she expects tough fights but argues that voters care as much or more about other issues.

“They’re going to come at us hard with a lot of money, and we’re expecting these campaigns to be nasty,” Brown said. “But we think our candidates match our districts very well.”

She said Democratic Rep. Joanne Verger of Coos Bay, for example, has a fiscally conservative record despite her support of the doomed tax measure.

Verger is running for a seat vacated by GOP Sen. Ken Messerle.

“Voters in her district are more concerned about whether they have a job or whether their schools are well funded or whether they have access to health care,” Brown said.

Democratic contenders are trying to put the tax issue behind them.

“The voters have spoken, and there’s no question they don’t want taxes,” said Rep. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham. She’s running for a Senate seat vacated by Republican John Minnis.

“That’s a message sent to all of us, that we have to move on and look at government efficiencies,” Monnes Anderson said.

She’s opposed by former conservative Republican Rep. Ron Sunseri, whom Walker said he supports because of his opposition to tax increases and backing of a spending lid.

Monnes Anderson, who’s a nurse, said that by canvassing voters door-to-door she has learned that voters are worried about affordable health care and topics other than taxes.

“The things people wanted to talk about were jobs and health care, prescription drugs. And they know I’m a moderate. I didn’t vote for every budget.”