Editorial: Avoid the empty gesture

Published Jan 19, 2014 at 12:01AM

The greater sage grouse, a bird found throughout the desert of the West, is in trouble. Loss of habitat threatens the bird, and the federal government expects to decide by 2015 whether to list it as a threatened species.

Listing would create problems across much of southeast Oregon, where it could result in loss of grazing land. To avoid that, state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, hopes to persuade the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that Oregon is doing enough for the bird to escape severe restrictions.

He would do so by imposing a sales tax on bird seed and on salt that ranchers buy for cattle. The money raised would be dedicated to sage grouse habitat restoration. In all, it would amount to about $2.4 million a year, with bird seed generating about $2 million of the total.

In a state that decries sales taxes, the seed and salt tax would be just that. Like taxes on overnight lodging, cigarettes and gasoline, those who buy bird seed and salt would be asked to pay for the privilege at the time of purchase. All are, in truth, sales taxes, though Oregonians continue to persuade themselves otherwise.

We have no problem with that.

We do object, however, to the notion that because one feeds birds one should somehow be responsible for putting up funds to save a bird that, in most cases, is far, far from home. Sage grouse aren’t in trouble because robins are taking over their territory, and robin lovers shouldn’t be on the financial hook for them.

We also object to what even Bentz says is little more than a gesture, a move that would accomplish precious little but would, he hopes, persuade wildlife officials that the state is on the right track.

Worse, though, is the piecemeal way in which this adds to the number of sales-taxes-by-another-name collected in Oregon, each of which may be spent only in specific ways.

If Oregon cannot fund the programs its citizens need and want with income and property taxes alone, it should adopt a general sales tax, the proceeds of which lawmakers should spend after judging the state’s needs as a whole.

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