Opposition grows against budget-balancing tax hike

The Associated Press

September 28, 2003

OREGON CITY — Standing next to a card table in front of the local Kmart store, Gizzelle Williams cheerfully greets shoppers with the question, “Excuse me, are you interested in signing the tax referendum?”

Williams is a volunteer foot soldier in the battle to repeal the Legislature’s $800 million tax increase package.

On a recent weekday morning, the 20-year-old college student had no difficulty persuading shoppers to put their signatures on petitions to force a Feb. 3 statewide vote on the tax increase.

“If it’s a tax increase on me, you bet I’ll sign it,” said Eleanor Ford, a 65-year-old retiree who was one of about two dozen shoppers who signed Williams’ petitions in a 30-minute period.

Those who signed weren’t shy about offering their opinion of the Legislature’s tax measure, which is aimed at averting budget cuts that would include a $400 million reduction in state aid to public schools.

“Taxes are wiping me out as it is,” said Bill Shonkwiler, a 46-year-old roofer. “The Legislature needs to sit down and figure out the whole budget again without raising taxes.”

Alan Harrington, 40, owner of a home-inspection business, not only signed but also volunteered to take several petition sheets home with him so he and his wife could collect signatures for the referendum.

“Everybody I talk to is pretty upset about the tax increase,” Harrington said. “The Legislature isn’t listening to citizens.”

Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said he is not surprised by the negative reaction, given the fact that Oregonians have shown little inclination to raise any taxes over the years, with the exception of cigarette taxes.

Under the Legislature’s tax plan, for example, the net increase for 2003 would be $36 for a household with a median income of $40,916. In the 2000 census, half of Oregon’s households earned more than that figure, and half earned less.

Hibbitts noted that a local measure to raise income taxes for schools was soundly defeated this month in Benton County, considered one of the state’s most liberal places.

“The Benton County vote tells you that supporters of the Legislature’s tax increase are facing a very tough situation,” he said.

Public sentiment isn’t the only thing working against the tax increase. The campaign to repeal the tax is being led by Citizens for a Sound Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based group that gets substantial funding from corporations such as Phillip Morris, General Electric and Johnson & Johnson.

The group, which advocates lower taxes and less government, is using both volunteer and paid signature gatherers. The deadline for turning in 50,000 signatures is Nov. 25.

The Oregon director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which claims 12,000 members statewide, expressed confidence that the tax opponents still will be able to gather enough signatures to force an election.

The group also worked to defeat a $1.2 billion tax increase package proposed by Alabama Gov. Bob Riley to erase that state’s $675 million budget shortfall and fund new education programs.

The measure was overwhelmingly rejected by Alabama voters in a Sept. 9 election.