As much as we all hate taxes, the basic intent is to spread the cost of public services in some fair manner. In Oregon, voters used to approve taxes for local government and schools, which were then spread among property owners based on the market value of their property.
That’s right: Voters approved every dime of property taxes, and neighbors with equal valued property paid equal tax bills.
Back in 1990, when voters were considering the property tax limitations in Measure 5, and again in 1997 when voters considered assessment limits in Measure 50, those who understood Oregon’s property tax system warned that these measures would take local control, voter approval and taxpayer equity out of Oregon’s system.
But the fires of the property tax revolt, fueled by anti-tax critics such as Howard Jarvis and Grover Norquist, could not be stopped from spreading out of California into Oregon. Led by huge margins in the Portland area, Oregon voters responded to the dream that their property taxes would be limited.
The impact, especially in rural Oregon, has been severe. The state legislature, not local voters, now control spending decisions for local schools, the largest chunk of property taxes. Voter approved taxes cannot be levied because of limits. Voters in one part of a county can, in effect, shift taxes for their services to other taxpayers. New property owners in a neighborhood now pay different levels of taxes for the same services.
And perhaps worst of all, the limits have created a culture of fear about property taxes. In the timber counties of southwestern Oregon, that fear is leading to a collapse of public services, including police protection.
So we are somewhat encouraged that the editorial board of The Oregonian newspaper, where the measures drew so much voter support, has taken up an “occasional” series that examines the inequities and impacts of these property tax limits. Perhaps understanding that fear of property taxes, The Oregonian is suggesting “small steps” so that taxpayers still feel protected, but some equity and voter control is returned.
The problems created by these limits on the Oregon system will not be easy to solve. But it is reassuring to know that a discussion of how to address them is gaining a wider audience.