Editorial: Squeezing life out of tax limits wrong move

Recently, the city hosted a forum with area politicians and candidates. They were asked whether they would strip away compression for local option levies, which fund our library, Police Department and Sheriff’s Office.

The League of Oregon Cities is lobbying state legislators on the issue in anticipation of the next legislative session. While the organization makes good points on other issues, and while legislators should probably comply with its wishes on several, our legislators should deny any attempt to gut property tax limitations.

The arguments speak to the heart, they appeal directly to our need for security, promising a future of unstable funding for the indispensible law enforcement and our beloved books if we don’t change.

We’ve been running this way since 1990 when compression, the central limitation created by Measure 5, came into existence.

It is the feature of the measure that ensures general government taxes never rise above $10 per $1,000 except in the case of general obligation bonds used to pay for capital improvements, such as a new city hall or police department building.

Opponents of the property tax limitation will tell us that the will of the majority of voters who show up to increase taxes well above the $10 cap should not be thwarted by such limitations. After all, we’re a democracy, and in a democracy, the majority rules. They argued this over the double-majority requirement in Measure 50, another property tax limitation they hate.

We can quibble over whether a republic is a democracy. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that our form of democracy has never been about whether the majority should rule no matter what the good people at City Hall, the State Capitol or League of Oregon Cities might say.

A three-fifths vote is pretty much required to move anything through our national Senate. Three-fourths of states must approve amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Our Constitution was written to protect minority viewpoints. Everything from our right to free speech to our rights against search and seizure are predicated on this idea. The majority is not inherently correct, nor should it rule. Witness how fast our minds change about the people whom we elect.

Supermajority requirements, limitations on power and other checks and balances exist precisely to limit the impact of a whimsical majority group of voters. Our important local option levies were limited by one set of voters. Another set, at the local level, usually a small group of civic-minded folks, turn out for the minor local tax elections while many other voters wander on with their daily lives worrying about presidential elections.

That small set often likes tax increases. This doesn’t justify removing the property tax limits. We might be able to find other ways to reduce the pain of compression on our service. One may be the way our county pays for law enforcement, one of the components of compression inside the city limits.

Perhaps the League of Oregon Cities might study and lobby for a split tax rate for county patrol services. City residents already pay for patrol services. It’s mandated by state law. Then they pay the county for patrol services at the same rate as residents outside the city limits. It may be complicated figuring out precisely the cost and benefit of county patrol services, but it can be done. State law should allow counties to split law enforcement tax rates to adjust for local police department services.

That approach would likely reduce some amount of compression on the Sheriff’s Office and cities, a win-win; although it would have a downside for property owners in unincorporated areas who receive county-funded patrol services at a discounted rate.

Certainly, the exceptionally intelligent folks who run our cities can come up with other ideas more elegant than simply trying to beat down a voter-approved law that gets in their way.