Updated at 9:15 a.m. CST on Jan. 28, 2010, to include quote from David Wheeler.
Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon. The state's voters passed two ballot measures, increasing taxes on the richest Oregonians as well as corporations. (Photo: Eric Guinther)
Faithful Oregonians ran with perseverance the race for justice, helping to defeat those opposed to tax fairness in favor of corporate selfishness and wealthy individuals, such as billionaire Phil Knight, founder of the Nike shoe company.
On Tuesday, Jan. 27, Oregonians passed twin ballot measures that will raise a projected $727 million to avert a shortfall in the state's two-year budget that would have resulted in cuts to public education, health care and services for the poor.
Both measures won approval with around 53 percent of the vote. An estimated 60 percent of the state's 2 million voters weighed in on the measures.
Measure 66 will increase the tax on the richest Oregonians. More than 97 percent of the taxpayers will see no tax increase. An individual making more than $125,000 and a household making more than $250,000 will see a tax increase.
Measure 67 will increase slightly the tax rate on corporations. For example, it will raise the minimum annual corporate tax on companies with less than $500,000 in sales to $150 from $10, an amount that has been unchanged since 1931. Corporations with more than $100 million in sales would have a maximum tax of only $100,000.
"Measures 66 and 67 should be labeled Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law II," wrote Knight. "They will allow us to watch a state slowly killing itself."
Knight said the measures "are anti-business, anti-success, anti-inspirational, anti-humanitarian."
Citing unnamed "reputable economists," Knight predicted that "thousands of our most successful residents will leave the state."
Joining Knight's opposition to tax fairness were the state Chamber of Commerce, the Oregon Republican Party, the Libertarian Party of Oregon and the banking industry.
On the pro-fairness side were Oregonian faith leaders.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Portland's Office on Peace and Justice/Respect for Life endorsed both measures and had information distributed in some parishes.
Its director, Matt Cato, wrote in January that "Measures 66 and 67 will prevent cuts to public education, health care, human services, and public safety, services which the poor and middle class rely on more. Catholic social teaching challenges us to meet the basic moral test of our society and put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first."
Rooting the Catholic moral tradition in Matthew 25:31-46, he noted, "A basic moral test for our society is how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst."
United Church of Christ minister and blogger Chuck Currie made a similar moral claim in support of the measures.
"Why would Oregon's faith community become involved in this election? For Christians, the answer is easy," he wrote. "Jesus taught that how we care for the least of these in society – children, the elderly, those who are sick – is akin to how we treat God. In other words, if we leave our state with inadequate schools, without care for the aged, without medical care for those who are ill, we are literally abandoning our relationship with the Almighty."
In an issues statement on tax justice, the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO) endorsed both measures and pointed out that the debate "takes place in the context of a long-term social trend that has seen growing poverty and inequality in American society, fostered in part by the decline of taxation on the wealthy and on corporations."
EMO, a statewide association of Christian denominations, said, "Over the past two decades the tax burden has shifted from wealthier individuals and large businesses to working people and small businesses."
The organization's Winter 2010 newsletter provided a briefing on the measures, arguing that the election "represents a moral, political and economic crossroads of great importance. It deals not merely with the abstract issue of balancing the budget, but with the more significant question of what kind of state and what kind of community we wish to be."
The Oregon Board of Rabbis also backed Measures 66 and 67.
According to Jewish Review, Daniel Isaak, rabbi of Portland's Neveh Shalom, told his congregation, "It is important that all Oregon citizens vote to pass both measures. Defeat would be devastating to schools, the environment and virtually all social services in the state."
Considered one of the architects of the tax fairness initiative is Oregon House Speaker David Hunt, a Democrat and a former president of the American Baptist Churches-USA.
David Wheeler, pastor of the historic First Baptist Church of Portland, told EthicsDaily.com that "the victories of the twin propositions showed that Oregon citizens' genuine concern for public education and other vital public services could overcome our culture's chronic aversion to taxation proposals of any kind. This will lead, I hope, to good-faith conversations across party lines for more fundamental and lasting restructuring of our state tax codes toward fairness and sustainability."
Since no straight line runs from the biblical witness to public policy, from the moral imperative to protect the poor to tax policy, people of faith have too often been silent about taxation. The lack of a biblical blueprint, the power of the moneyed interests in congregations and the noisiness of anti-tax ideologues have intimidated people of faith from applying the Bible's clear call for justice to taxation.
Perhaps faithful Oregonians have shown the rest of the American faith community a way forward toward tax fairness. Let's hope so. For now, we all owe faithful Oregonians our respect and gratitude.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.