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Political subsidy vs. public schools

Gubernatorial candidate Bill Bradbury believes that lawmakers can raise plenty of money for schools and other services by zapping some of the tax breaks that will cost the state’s general fund nearly $31 billion during the 2009-11 biennium alone. There is some truth to what Bradbury says, though he’d be more convincing if he’d single out a few tax breaks for elimination. When we asked him to do that Tuesday, he refused.

We understand Bradbury’s reluctance to irritate any constituencies whose votes he’ll want in May. But we’re not running for anything, so we’ll offer up a softball. The state general fund, which pays for public schools among other things, will lose nearly $16 million this biennium thanks to a tax credit for political contributions. Single filers may claim a credit of up to $50 for donations to political parties, candidates and political action committees. Joint filers may claim a credit of up to $100.

The credit is designed to encourage people to fork over money to political candidates like, oh, Bill Bradbury. To the extent that it works, it’s undoubtedly appreciated. Political advertising ain’t free, you know.

Forget for a moment whether the state’s tax code, as a matter of principle, ought to subsidize anyone’s political speech this heavily. Is political advertising really a better use of nearly $8 million per year than public education, human services and law enforcement? Surely not.

And what about the people who claim the tax credit? Could they afford to slip a few bucks to their favorite candidates and parties without it? Consider some statistics from 2008. According to the Department of Revenue, about 124,000 full-year taxpayers claimed the credit. That number represents 7.8 percent of all full-year taxpayers. Meanwhile, most of the people who claimed the credit — almost 63,000 — reported income in excess of $70,000. More than 17 percent of taxpayers in that range claimed the credit, which means it’s used most heavily by people who need it the least. Not that we mean to suggest anybody really needs the thing at all.

Last year, the Legislature created sunset dates for dozens of tax credits. Lawmakers don’t necessarily intend to kill them, of course. The point, rather, is to force supporters to justify their renewal. The political-contribution credit sunsets in 2014, which means that lawmakers will be forced during the 2013 session to articulate a believable argument in support of an unjustifiable subsidy that benefits them. We can’t wait.

Of course, there’s no reason lawmakers can’t have that discussion during next year’s session. We have no doubt they’ll leap at the chance. After all, they couldn’t possibly believe that their campaigns deserve tax dollars more than public schools.

— Wescom Wire Service (Bend Bulletin/Curry Coastal Pilot

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