Portland rallies for taxing the rich

January 25, 2010

PORTLAND, Ore.--With just five days left until the deadline for mail-in ballots, supporters of Measures 66 and 67 gathered at Portland State University on January 22 for an emergency rally.

These two measures, the only items on the ballot for this special election, would very modestly raise taxes on the richest 2 percent of Oregonians and on corporations doing business in Oregon. Modest though the proposed increases are, they have unleashed a furious campaign organized by Oregon's corporate elite. "Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes," the organizational center of the no campaign, launched a wave of media ads playing to people's anxieties amid the economic crisis.

Using "trickle-down" logic, the "no" campaign claims that any tax increase would scare business out of the state. They're even using a remark by Obama about not raising taxes during a recession as a centerpiece of their campaign literature.

But the "yes" campaign has organized thousands of volunteers to staff round-the-clock phone banks and door-to-door canvassing, explaining that these measures would help to maintain our schools and other critical services, especially in a downturn. The phone and canvassing campaign has brought thousands of volunteers together.

As inspiring as this is, the top-down "yes" campaign has also hampered itself by toning down its message and downplaying the obvious class questions that the measures naturally call to mind. Instead of "Tax the rich," the central message of the campaign has been the safer but muddled "Protect the middle class."

This doesn't address the rising anger against bankers, bailouts and bonuses that people are feeling, and it doesn't confront the growing disillusionment with an Obama administration that pledged change but instead is starting to look like a "cool" version of the Bush team.

It's these unaddressed questions that led the left wing of the "yes" campaign to call for the rally and march on January 22. Portland State University economics professor Mary King spoke at the rally and pointed to the fact that over $3 billion was already slashed from the state budget before the tax measures were proposed. The $727 million that Measures 66 and 67 are projected to raise merely holds the line on school funding, health care, food assistance and other basic services.

Student activist Wael Ellasady called on fellow students to back Measures 66 and 67 to protect secondary education, and to organize resistance to a scheme to privatize and "corporatize" Portland State University. The plan, embodied in a white paper called the Frohnmeyer report, seems better suited to save administrators' salaries than to improve students' education in the face of dramatic budget cuts. A student protest against privatization was called for the following Friday.

The Tax the Rich rally then kicked off a march through the Student Union building, chanting "Tax the rich, defend education" and "Join us" to astonished students and administrators. The march wound through the university district of downtown Portland, eliciting honks and shouts of support from passerby.

At a time when state budgets across the country face similar shortfalls, national attention is turning toward Oregon and the tax measures. Voters and politicians will be forced to confront a simple fact about public policy during a recession: Either you cut budgets and therefore services when people need them the most, or you tax the rich. We need a movement that defiantly says, "Tax the rich--and then tax them some more."

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