An Income Tax for Schools
With their public school system a national laughingstock thanks to the comic strip “Doonesbury,” voters in Portland, Ore., decisively approved the state’s first-ever county income tax to prop up the city’s ailing schools.
The new tax, characterized by one of its organizers as “an act of desperation,” will keep Multnomah County school districts from falling into a budgetary abyss, losing hundreds of teachers and dozens of school programs.
More significantly, passage of the tax measure could lead other cities and counties in Oregon to copy the novel approach -- nationally, county income taxes have rarely been adopted -- to fill budgetary gaps, which have become epidemic throughout Oregon’s school districts.
Oregon’s schools already have one of the shortest academic years in the country, and Portland-area schools faced cuts of up to 17 more days. To minimize the loss of teaching time, Portland teachers this year volunteered to work two weeks for free.
Cartoonist Garry Trudeau, in one of his most biting “Doonesbury” strips, depicts a cowboy President Bush dismissing Oregon as “a loser state.” The cuts in the length of the school year in Portland -- and the Bush administration’s education policies -- were the subject of Trudeau’s strips for a week in February and again last week.
On Tuesday, Oregonians had the opportunity to send a collective message to the rest of the country, with 10 Oregon cities and counties voting on school levies.
The results, however, were decidedly mixed. Voters in six areas, including Albany and Gervais, voted against new taxes, while those in four districts, including Beaverton and Joseph, passed their levies.
The most watched measure was in Multnomah County, which covers much of Greater Portland and is responsible for 40,000 students -- the largest district in the state. If the measure failed, the county would have lost 650 teachers, raised class sizes by 25% (to as many as 40 students per class) and cut special programs.
Like the majority of Portland voters, Michelle Winningham voted “yes” on the measure, and like other voters, Winningham, a working mother, was not entirely happy about it.
Passage of the Multnomah County levy means that her son Calvin, a fifth-grader, will have a band teacher next year, will get to attend a weeklong Outdoor School program and will get back five school days lost this year to budget cuts. But it also means that Winningham and her husband, Terence, will pay an extra $800 a year in taxes.
Winningham calls it “the harsh reality” of living in the midst of a school-budget crisis.
“This was not the preferred solution. This was an act of desperation,” said Mark Wiener, a consultant for the ballot campaign.
The Multnomah tax was widely seen as a test case. Tax experts say passage of the measure could be a bellwether for other counties to raise their own taxes to fund schools. Wiener said there’s some discussion in this vein already in Eugene and Corvallis, two of the state’s largest university towns.
The passage could also signal a change in the attitude of the electorate, Wiener said. Polls indicate a 55% voter participation rate in the Portland area, with 57% voting in favor of the county tax. As tax measures go, the vote could be categorized as decisive.
The state’s deep anti-tax sentiment might be giving way to the realization that “there is no free lunch,” Wiener said. This might embolden legislators to introduce a more stable, and aggressive, tax structure that would provide a steadier source of revenue for schools.
Oregon’s schools used to be funded primarily by local property taxes, but citizen initiatives in the 1990s limited the use of such taxes for schools. It became the responsibility of the Legislature to fund schools, a process shown to be vulnerable to economic recessions such as the one Oregon is in now.
The new Multnomah County tax is supposed to be a temporary fix, lasting only three years, as the Legislature presumably works on a permanent fix. It will deliver about $130 million to schools, although some money will go to police and social services.
Multnomah County residents will pay a 1.25% county income tax on top of a 9% state income tax, one of the highest in the nation. Oregon is one of only five states with no sales tax, relying heavily on income taxes.
Craig Flynn, an organizer for the Oregon Taxpayers Assn., which opposed the tax, said it’s too early to tell whether other counties will follow Multnomah’s lead. He said a lot will depend on how the tax is carried out, and whether supporters will stay true to their word that it will be temporary. He doubts it.
“By them passing the measure, it only postpones solving the problem,” Flynn said.
The problem, he says, lies with legislators who don’t know how to spend tax money responsibly.