A "to do" list for government
Oregon State Rep. Max Williams, R-Tigard, has been pushing hard for a wide-ranging discussion of the fundamentals of the state's tax system. Williams is a former student of mine, for whom I have great respect, even though his politics and mine are incompatible on many issues. (And even though in the suits he looks a little like Rush Limbaugh.)
Williams, slightly to the left of Limbaugh, right.
I'm all for a free and open discussion of the kind Williams is advocating, and I look forward to 2004, when in one special session or another the Legislature is scheduled to have the dialogue that he wants. Williams is pushing for a retail sales tax, which Oregon has never had and which I oppose. But so long as everybody gets their say and then a fair vote is taken, I have no problem with that.
The problem I do have is that all the tax reform talk is going nowhere with the public unless there's also a frank discussion of spending priorities. One of the big reasons voters hate taxes is that they're constantly seeing the government spending their money on frills and frivolities, while letting basic needs go unattended.
There's an old spoof magazine cover that showed a cute dog with a pistol pointed at its head. "If you don't buy this magazine, we'll shoot this dog!" screamed the headline. Which wasn't funny, but it made a point that's apposite here. Whenever government wants to raise taxes, it threatens to (and often does) shut down crucial social services. In Oregon, the population is told "Vote for new taxes, or else the public schools will become the laughingstock of the nation." "Vote for new taxes or we'll close the libraries and open the jails." "Vote for new taxes or we'll unplug sick people's life support."
Not "Vote for new taxes or we'll have to leave the Convention Center as is." Not "Vote for new taxes or we'll have to do without a streetcar to the Pearl District." Not "Vote for new taxes or we'll have to get rid of the OLCC." Not "Vote for new taxes or we'll have to cut the Economic Development Department budget to only $100 million a year."
What's really needed most is a detailed discussion at all levels of government about spending priorities. There needs to be a fairly agreed-upon list of everything government spends money on, with the most important items at the top and the least important at the bottom. The public needs to show the politicians where everything goes on the list. And then when times get tough financially, government has to cut from the bottom of the list. Did you hear that, politicians? Not from the top or from the middle, but from the bottom.
What I'm proposing is sort of like what the state did with the Oregon Health Plan, back before it was bankrupt. A special commission was called upon to draw up a priority list of which items were important enough and effective enough for universal health coverage, and which items provided so little benefit that they weren't worth it. The dialogue was painful, and it took the commission a few tries to get a decent list that people didn't laugh or get angry at. But eventually the list gained acceptance, and it worked.
That's what all of government needs now. The public needs its chance to say where the money will be spent. Then and only then will they vote to pay more or different types of taxes.
The procedures and methodology for such a project could be either simple or sophisticated. But implementation of the concept is long overdue.
Max, good luck with the dialogue, but think bigger.