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Oregon must heed words of JFK, Obama

MY VIEW • Both former and current president ask 'what you can do for your country'
by: L.E. BASKOW, The auditorium at Portland’s Jefferson High School is packed with students and teachers and other supporters watching a broadcast of Inauguration Day events for President Barack Obama. A My View opinion writer says U.S. citizens must heed Obama’s message to stop seeing national issues “through a prism of personal interests.”

President-elect Barack Obama is encouraging people who couldn't attend his inauguration this week to participate in some form of community service in their own community.

As a former community organizer-become-president, this is a very appropriate idea. It also fits into the famous cliché - that all politics is local.

Those who decide to get so engaged should keep in mind that while a day of service is good, what is needed is an ethos of community service, which is yearlong.

Our needs as citizens may be different - whether the issue is access to health care, paying college tuition or paying for gas for the car. But the total is more than the sum of the individual parts.

We tend to see issues through a prism of personal interests and expect government to respond to 'our' needs, forgetting that each life is interconnected, as the response must be.

John F. Kennedy, in his 1961 inaugural speech, challenged us to 'ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.'

That's a good benchmark for taxpaying citizens to keep in mind.

As Oregon's 2009 Legislature begins, legislators will be besieged by constituents and lobbyists. The bottom line should be the JFK question: What is good for Oregon, not just you and me.

The producer of Oregon Public Broadcasting's 'Think Out Loud' picked my brain about Oregon's budget crisis and how the Legislature might respond to the worst economy in decades. Here's what I suggested.

The governor and Legislature have struggled to maintain a current-service level budget since the passage of Ballot Measure 5 in 1990 and its partner measures 47 (1996) and 50 (1997).

This has resulted in a net disinvestment in public programs from that time on - in human resources, higher education, even K-12 education and all other general fund programs.

We continually are faced with playing budget triage, trying to decide which programs get cut and which ones stay at existing levels of support (in effect a net decrease given demand/need). Sadly, triage is in play in Salem this session.

Budget triage means the most needy Oregonians see their programs cut. By contrast, corporate Oregon has seen a property and income tax windfall as taxation has shifted from mega-business entities like Nike to small business and individuals.

Until major tax reform takes place, nothing will change. The governor and legislators have said that they can't propose tax reform until Oregonians trust that their money is being wisely spent.

The governor has had six years to prove he can manage state agencies efficiently. The Legislature gets a crack at it every other year.

It's time for our leaders to engage us in a conversation about how we do the government's business in Oregon and what our priorities ought to be.

When this is done, people learn how tough these decisions are and that there are no quick fixes.

Why can't the governor use the bully pulpit and engage in such a conversation? Gov. Tom McCall and Gov. Barbara Roberts engaged Oregonians with minimal success. Facing jthe greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, it's time to try again.

Rep. David Edwards in a town hall meeting in Forest Grove last week said we need a paradigm shift in how we think about taxes, the general fund budget and our priorities. I agree.

Here are some options for that discussion:

• Suspend corporate and individual kicker laws. This would add more than $1 billion to the general fund.

• Raise the corporate minimum tax to the level of a progressive income tax, not just a minimum tax.

• Bring back the unitary corporate tax that taxes worldwide income of a corporation, not just income generated in Oregon.

• Roll back Measure 50.

Notice I didn't mention the sales tax. This is a non-starter in Oregon. The answer has been a loud 'no.'

Taking a poll to find out what kind of taxes or programs people support is not engaging in a conversation, it is simply measuring our private interest - not the common good.

As our new president suggests, we need to think in terms of 'us,' not just 'me.'

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus in the Department of Politics and Government at Pacific University and an adjunct professor of political science at Portland State University. He lives in Forest Grove. The full-length version of this column is at www.fgnewstimes.com.