Ochenski: Echo chambers 

In Oregon as in Montana, shifting the burden

Writing from Portland, Ore., the good news is that the mighty Columbia River is bank-full from raging mountain snowmelt for the first time in years. On the political and economic fronts how-ever, Oregon, like Montana, is struggling with the results of failed policies that place the interests of corporations over those of their citizens. We are not unique. The problems—and the root causes—are echoing in policy-making arenas across the nation.

Oregon’s Legislature, for instance, is now in its fifth month and struggling with a large budgetary shortfall as bitter partisan debate racks the process. The Oregonian reports that legislators are “in hallway shouting matches” and fractious floor debates, that lobbyists are “losing it,” and that “the next two weeks may determine whether leaders bring the session to a tim-ely close or it explodes into a calendar-scarfing free-for-all.” It’s so bad that leaders from both parties are considering sending all legislators except those in leadership or on budget committees home while the budget negotiations drag on. Does this sound familiar or what?

Meanwhile, a front-page article does some familiar shouting of its own, announcing: “State corporate tax collections drop.” While providing the grim details on why corporate tax collections have plummeted 46 percent from two years ago “to their lowest level in a decade,” the story goes on to point out that the tax burden being carried by those corporations has also been drastically reduced from 7 percent of the general fund revenue to a mere 4 percent in the last four years.

This, too, sounds all too familiar. In their desperate bid for economic development, state legislatures have fallen for the line that reducing corporate taxes will somehow lead to a better economic future. But Oregon now joins Montana and most other states across the nation in dealing with the very real consequences of the failure of that political and economic theory. The states have foolishly slashed corporate taxes, but the promised economic boom has failed to materialize. Oregon’s unemployment is now at 8 percent overall, but it soars to from 13 to 17 percent in the rural eastern part of the state.

Faced with the budgetary shortfalls, education funding comes up with the short end of the stick in Oregon, just as it has in Montana. As state funding dwindles, some schools are being closed while others are going to four-day weeks. As local education levies are jacked up to “backfill” the state funding, the equality of educational opportunity increasingly pivots on the average wealth of any given community. Those areas that can afford the levies pass them and maintain or improve the education of their children. Those areas where families feel they can’t afford to pay more reject new levies and their schools have to get by at the diminished state funding levels, often losing arts and music education as the first, but not the last, victims of the cutbacks.

But the fracture in the concept of “educational equality for all” is not the only negative effect. The tax burden, in each and every case, is thus shifted from businesses to residents, usually with complete disregard for ability to pay. These tax shifts hurt those on fixed and low incomes the most—the very people who are least able to meet the demands of increased taxation—but they affect virtually everyone. Sooner rather than later, policy-makers are going to need to re-examine the shifting tax structure as we all dig deeper into our pockets to subsidize corporations.

This shift in the tax burden is real, not hypothetical. The Oregon Department of Revenue’s latest figures show a stunning “65 percent of Oregon corporations paid no state income tax in 2000.” Even Oregon’s largest utility paid only the $10 minimum in 2002. While utilities are skating by on ten bucks a year in taxes, Oregonians, like Montanans, are watching costs skyrocket for the gas and electricity that flows through the meters on their end of the utility lines.

Nor do the echoes of corporate chicanery end there. Corporate lobbyists are trying to get the Oregon Legislature to repeal the state’s bottle bill unless, as one industry lobbyist says, they “can make money off it.” But consider this: Oregon now recycles more than 65 percent of all its glass, while attaining an astonishing 85 percent recycle rate on all beer and soft drink bottles. Compared to Montana and most other states which average a feeble 26 percent, Oregon is keeping the vast majority of its glass out of its landfills—and thereby holding down the cost to its citizens of building and paying for new landfills.

“So what?” say Oregon’s corporate lobbyists, who have no problem with shifting the costs to citizens if they can reduce their own costs and increase profits. This same industry successfully killed Montana’s attempts at a bottle bill years ago, so while our glass gets dumped in landfills, the long-term costs have been successfully shifted from corporate interests to residential taxpayers.

Oregonians, like Montanans, face continuing assaults on their environment as well—and the same themes from the same players echo on. For the umpteenth year running, state and federal policy-makers continue to dodge meaningful solutions to the plight of wild Columbia River salmon. The editorial pages are thick with pleas to save the salmon, which are called “big business” by the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. But while both business and recreationists say the federal government has “broken its promises” to restore the spawning runs, neither seems capable of busting the stranglehold dams have on the rivers.

What’s happening in Oregon, Montana and other states across the nation seems clear: Giving corporations everything they want in return for the promise of a booming economy has been a bad bet. As taxes go up and quality of life goes down, it’s obviously time for citizens to do some shouting of their own. A good place to start would be the echo chambers of our policy-makers’ empty heads.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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