In some ways, recent discussions about sales taxes in Oregon resemble talk about Public Employees Retirement System reforms. We can’t go there because the people (or the courts) have said “no,” and done so more than once. Yet in both cases, that’s a darned poor reason not to try.
State Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, for one, is willing to buck that notion and bring up the idea of a statewide sales tax once again. Thus he has submitted Senate Joint Resolution 36, which would, if passed by the Legislature, ask Oregonians to approve a constitutionally limited sales tax. A companion bill, Senate Bill 824, would provide the structure for that tax, reduce income taxes and create an income tax credit for business investment. Hearings on the proposals are scheduled for Monday.
Hass is not the only one talking sales tax at the moment. Gov. John Kitzhaber has a task force looking at a broader tax overhaul, though his staff has said no firm proposals are likely during this legislative session. The governor will be the first person to testify at the Senate’s Finance and Revenue Committee hearings.
While we can understand the governor’s desire to put a complete package in front of lawmakers and voters, there’s value to beginning a public discussion now on the whole issue of taxes. It’s been more than 20 years since Oregonians even seriously considered a sales tax measure — which they defeated in 1986 by a ratio of greater than 3-1.
Since then, Oregon has added roughly 1 million souls to its population, largely through in-migration.
The state has taken over the bulk of secondary education financing, a trio of property tax- limiting measures have been adopted, and mandatory minimum prison sentences have fueled a prison-building spree that has only recently slowed.
Money is extremely tight, and the recent recession serves as a stark reminder of just how dangerous it can be to balance budgets on only two legs of a three-legged tax stool.
Hass is realistic about the chances — slim at best — of his proposals even making it through the Legislature this year.
Still, the discussion is a valuable one and all Oregonians should listen to it with open minds. Even if they’re unlikely to be asked to make changes this year, they almost certainly will be in the near future. The Hass measures give them the opportunity to start gathering information so that when a vote comes, they can make their decisions based on information, not emotion.