Gov. John Kitzhaber clearly is a man who loves a challenge. He pulled off what looked like an impossible feat.
Kitzhaber persuaded lawmakers to raise some taxes, cut others and make changes to the Public Employees Retirement System.
He’s now prepared to go back to work on a project that could make the recent special legislative session look like a cakewalk. He wants to reform Oregon’s tax system.
It needs it.
Oregon currently relies largely on only two taxes, one on income, the other on real property. In a recession, revenue from income taxes almost always falls. In a recession like the one just ended, revenue from both has fallen.
What the state needs is a third tax leg to what’s been a decidedly wobbly two-legged tax stool. The most likely third leg is a sales tax. Yet if history is an indicator, getting there won’t be easy.
There are some things that might improve the odds, however. The 2014 ballot, as things now stand, is not going to help. It is loaded with a variety of measures aimed at both business and labor, the kinds of bills that raise tempers and serve to divide Oregonians rather than unite them.
Thus the anti-public union folks must be persuaded that now is not the time to take another stab at public employee unions, this time through right-to-work legislation. At the same time, the largely union-backed group Our Oregon will have to agree to withdraw initiative petitions that would further increase taxes on businesses around the state.
Accomplishing that would give the governor a boost to his reputation. Yet it is only part of the battle.
Any reform proposal from Kitzhaber’s office must do more than add a sales tax to the existing system. Oregonians will not agree simply to boost their current bills with a new tax; there must be reforms that save them money in property or income taxes, as well. And, he must do one hell of a sales job to persuade Oregonians that a third general tax actually would make this state a better place to live.