FORMER US senatorial candidate Steve Novick had one of the best campaign days of his life on Saturday, October 3. Going door to door in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood south of Powell, Novick encouraged voters to support new taxes that will be up for a statewide vote in January. A man with several missing teeth living in a shabby apartment complex enthusiastically signed a pledge to vote yes. "If you have half a brain, you'd have to vote yes," said the man.
"I swear I didn't pay him to say that," said Novick, checking the name off his list as he headed down the street. At the next door, a lawyer in a Patagonia fleece also immediately agreed to vote yes on the tax measures, which will modestly raise taxes on corporations and the 1.7 wealthiest percent of Oregonians. "I'm a corporation and I would love to pay more taxes," she said.
While Oregon has an anti-tax reputation, apparently some residents are coming around to the idea. Two-thirds of corporations in Oregon pay only $10 in state taxes, an amount set in 1931, according to Novick's campaign group, Defend Oregon. Faced with a $4 billion budget hole last spring, the legislature barely passed two tax hikes on corporations and wealthy individuals after heated debate. Altogether, the new taxes will bring in $733 million for the state.
But a subtly named group called "Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes" shelled out $550,000 to paid signature gatherers over the summer, collecting enough names to put the new taxes up for a statewide referendum in a special January election.
Though a poll in August revealed that Oregonians support higher taxes on corporations and the rich by a two-to-one margin, the anti-tax campaign has deep pockets. Their war chest holds over $1.2 million, which the group is spending on high-powered lobbyists and TV advertisements.
Under the gray Saturday morning sky, campaign coordinator Liz McCann gave a pro-tax pep talk to the 30 volunteers eating bagels and preparing to canvass the Southeast Portland neighborhood. "The average family in Oregon pays $3,100 in income tax. That's 300 times higher than the corporate tax," said McCann, to a chorus of hisses.
The first bill that's up for referendum in January will raise income taxes on couples that make over $250,000; the second raises the corporate minimum tax from the rate set in 1931. Eighty-eight percent of Oregon businesses will pay a $150 annual fee, while the rest will pay up to $100,0000 depending on their income, plus a higher income tax.
Without the tax increases, Oregonians are in trouble, says Novick. "If everything gets hit proportionally, it would be the equivalent of 2,000 old people losing care and 20,000 children losing health-care coverage," he predicts.
The Oregon Legislative Revenue Office agrees, issuing a report last week that says the new taxes will lead to a rise in income for most households in Oregon. If Oregonians repeal the measure, the state will have to slash education, human services, and public safety budgets, says the report.
Tax foes, of course, disagree.
"This hurts the kinds of businesses that Oregon should be trying to support," says Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes spokesman Pat McCormick, pointing out that gas stations, timber companies, and other high-volume companies will be hit hardest by the new corporate income taxes. He thinks the legislature should tap existing reserves before placing higher taxes on businesses. "They have lots of options in front of them. At a time when Oregon is in the middle of a recession, it does not make any sense to be raising taxes," says McCormick.
Timber, paper, and oil companies have donated over $400,000 to the anti-tax campaign. The biggest single donor is Columbia Sportswear President and Reed College trustee Timothy Boyle, who gave $10,000 (and who falls into the "weathiest 1.7 percent of Oregonians" catagory). The campaign altogether has spent more than twice as much as Defend Oregon, which is hoping to win at the ballot box in January with the help of mostly volunteer canvassers.
McCann reminded the crowd of 30 coffee-sipping doorknockers on Saturday morning to introduce themselves as volunteers. "Face-to-face, door-to-door contact—you can't pay for the impact of that kind of communication," she said.
Novick, at least, easily struck gold.