Oregon Voters Say 'Yes' to Funding Public Services

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In a special election on Jan. 26, Oregon voters approved two tax measures that will raise $727 million for vital public services. The vote was a resounding affirmation for tax fairness in a state where progressive support is not a given.

The turnout was unusually high for a special election, says David Rives, AFT-Oregon president. It shows two things, says Merlene Martin, president of the Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA) and an AFT vice president: "The public supports critical funding for schools and higher education, healthcare, and public safety. Plus, we showed the effectiveness of a broad coalition that spoke with one voice."

Measures 66 and 67 raise the corporate minimum tax from $10 to $150 for the first time since 1931 and raise the tax rate on household income above $250,000. Before the passage of these measures, more than two-thirds of corporations doing business in Oregon paid just the $10-a-year corporate minimum income tax.

The measures came to referendum after Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, enacted tax increases passed by the Legislature to help close a $4 billion hole in the state budget. That happened in July 2009, and opponents collected signatures to place the issue on a ballot for a special election.

A group of more than 250 community organizations, including AFT-Oregon, OSEA and other unions, small business owners, advocates for children and seniors, churches, environmental organizations, and civil rights groups, came together to form the "Yes for Oregon" coalition to mobilize voters. With help from the national AFT Solidarity Fund, the two statewide AFT organizations were able to play a leading role.

"We were able to communicate really well that people are fed up with cuts to vital services," says Rives. "The key point we made is that in Oregon, 90 percent of the state budget goes to education, healthcare and public safety. We just want to maintain services and prevent future cuts."

Advocates also pointed out that the measures affected only those most able to pay their fair share. The income tax increase affects just 3 percent of all Oregonians, and the corporate tax increase affects just 7 percent of all businesses.

“The 21,000 members of OSEA combined with the 12,000 AFT-Oregon members represent AFT in Oregon and together we rolled up our sleeves and got out there to make a difference in this election,” says Martin. “Our members worked the phones, walked the neighborhoods and turned out to vote in numbers significantly above the state-wide average.”

Coalition members made hundreds of thousands of phone calls and personal visits to people's homes, the coalition estimates. Many AFT members knocked on those doors, says Rives, and "we spoke with one clear message, which was key." [Barbara McKenna, Ed Edwards]

January 28, 2010