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PERS ruling doesn't change state's tax calculus

Banner headlines, above the fold: “Supreme Court Overturns PERS Changes.”

Since this recent announcement, the chattering class in Oregon has been focused on assessing the damage from the political earthquake. What do the billions of unfunded PERS costs mean for the state moving forward?

At this point, it doesn’t look like the Oregon Supreme Court’s PERS earthquake has shaken things enough to mobilize Oregonians in support of increased taxes to maintain funding for public services.

Many wonder if the earthquake has shaken the taxpayers enough that they are now willing to tax themselves to prevent cuts to important public services, including schools and public safety.

DHM Research did some earthquake damage assessment to determine where Oregon voters are on PERS and the question of higher taxes to prevent cuts to services.

Voters registered significant concerns about the state’s ability to pay for an adequate level of public services such as education and public safety. Good news if you think that the climate may be changing for tax reform. The magnitude of concern, however, remains moderate: Less than one half of Oregon’s voters are “very” concerned (45 percent Democrats; 37 percent Republicans; 22 percent independents). Yes, despite the PERS decision.

Furthermore, voters listed high taxes among the top issues they want their officials to address. School funding remains a top concern, but is mentioned by less than a majority and split between those who feel the schools already have enough money (and just need to spend it more wisely) and those who feel schools need more money.

Two more data points suggest it may take some earthquake aftershocks and a prolonged economic recovery before the political landscape shifts enough in Oregon to safely support building a request of the voters to increase their taxes.

The state remains very divided on the need for more state revenue, even after the PERS decision. When asked if now with the PERS decision there was a need to raise taxes, 43 percent agreed and 47 percent disagreed.

You want a party divide? While 72 percent of Democrats agreed that it is time to raise taxes, only 16 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of independents felt so. That’s not good calculus for tax advocates.

Wonder if people view the situation differently when framed in terms of “my local schools?” That should tug at the heart strings, right?

Given four statements, only 24 percent felt the statement that comes closest to how they feel is “my local public schools just don’t have enough money, and now with the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning PERS reform, the problem is worse. I’m prepared to pay more in taxes for my local schools.”

Slightly more, 28 percent, felt even with the PERS reforms being overturned, “I’m not prepared to pay more in taxes for my local schools until education reforms have been put in place to ensure that any additional money will increase student academic growth.”

The most common viewpoint, chosen by 31 percent, was that “I’m not prepared to pay more in taxes for my local schools. Even with the PERS reforms being overturned, I feel the schools have enough money; they just need to spend it more wisely.”

A smaller number, 10 percent, said “I just can’t afford it. Even though I feel my local school don’t have enough money, I can’t pay more in taxes for my local schools.”

At this point, it doesn’t look like the Supreme Court’s PERS earthquake has shaken things enough to mobilize Oregonians in support of increased taxes to maintain funding for public services.

Also, consider that we’re only talking about the need for additional revenue to prevent cuts in services. How about the money needed to address new expenses such as our deteriorating water, sewer and transportation systems?

We do know that any future earthquakes would have to be of seismic magnitude to penetrate the voters’ consciousness, significantly affect their attitudes about government and politics, and alter the political landscape. It will likely take more than one.

Not likely to happen? OK then, let’s just go after the wealthy and big business. What a novel idea.

No wonder only about a third of Oregon voters feel that over the next 10 years we’ll find common ground and work together to make progress addressing the critical issues we face as a state.

Adam Davis is a founding principal in DHM Research, an independent, nonpartisan

polling firm.

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