The Oregon Tale

Lost amid Tuesday’s Presidential primary results was the encouraging news that Oregon voters had once again defeated a tax increase. Maybe the Democratic candidates should pay attention. Facing a hole in its oversized budget, the Oregon Legislature in August passed an $800 million tax hike, including an income tax surcharge of up to 9% as well as increases in property, business and cigarette levies. Yet despite screams of ominous cuts to health and education, voters in this state that voted for Al Gore in 2002 overruled the legislature by a resounding 60%.

Voters apparently noticed that from 1989 to 2003 Oregon’s general fund grew by an astonishing 151%, at times faster than any state in the country. Oregon state and local governments already spend more per capita than 44 other states. Yet even though Oregon has struggled in recent years with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, state lawmakers keep spending and trying to raise taxes.

Thanks to the referendum power, voters have the ability to keep saying no. More than a year ago, Oregon’s legislators went to voters with a proposal to raise $725 million, and were shot down at the ballot box. Miffed politicians then cut spending in the most politically painful ways they could, including letting prisoners out of jail. And the Legislature plunged ahead with its tax increase. But voters, led by Citizens for a Sound Economy, quickly collected enough signatures for this week’s resounding repudiation.

How long will it be before politicians figure out that voters don’t want their taxes raised? Back in September, they rolled over Alabama Governor Bob Riley’s proposed $1.2 billion tax hike. In Ohio, groups are trying to overturn a despised sales tax hike, and Nevada voters are threatening to do the same with Governor Kenny Guinn’s $833 million tax increase. Californians expressed their views on tax-and-spenders when they recalled Gray Davis, and even Seattle voters repealed a coffee tax.

There would seem to be a lesson here for Democrats making tax increases part of their Presidential campaigns, not that they’re listening. John Kerry and the rest are betting that voters will buy their line that they only intend to raise taxes on “the rich.” That’s what the politicians also figured would happen in Oregon, where tax-increase backers argued for months that their “progressive” levies wouldn’t hurt moderate and low-income families. The voters didn’t believe them.

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