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On taxes, we should go green

My View • Land-only levy system would drive sustainability

For more and more Oregonians, the word “sustainability” rolls off the tongue in that tone peculiar to true believers. Weekly, our neighbors, like us, dutifully take yellow recycling bins to the curb, keeping our landfills sustainable. My co-workers collect banana peels and other wet garbage to start composting beneath the break-room sink. I even bicycle to my day job, leaving our up-to-54-miles-per-gallon car in the garage and earning sustainability merit points, for whoever’s counting. Too often, I find that sustainability initiatives are just well-intentioned, voluntary window dressing. I’d like to see Oregonians take steps to implement a green economy in Oregon, something beyond what we now know. I’m not convinced that volunteer sustainability efforts will check the larger woes of progress: rampant real estate speculation, traffic congestion by driver-only cars, shoddy stick houses … the list goes on. I believe real sustainability won’t gain purchase without shifting our tax structure over to green taxes. I interpret green taxes simply: If the resource is a gift of nature such as land, water, air, forest or mineral (often referred to as the “environmental commons”) and it is used by an individual or corporation, then it is taxed to benefit the community and preserve the resources. Everything else is tax-free, including productive work and efforts of individuals and corporations. No more income taxes; income is not a gift of nature. Can this really be done? Yes, if staged. A form of green taxes applied to land has been around in isolated form since its original formulation by the American journalist and economist Henry George (1839-1897). Land-only tax structures (with buildings tax-exempt, encouraging highest-and-best use) have existed in a pure or modified form in Pennsylvania, along with foreign countries like Australia, China and Taiwan, since the 1920s. Alan Durning, of the environmental think tank Sightline Institute in Seattle, wrote in 2006 that almost two-thirds of state legislators and local officials are somewhat or very familiar with the green tax approach to property taxation. Unfortunately, they never hear from constituents about this issue. Still, these government representatives tend to believe, as Durning states, that “land-value (or split-rate) taxation” would be a positive stimulus for urban development by discouraging parasitical land speculators. The missing piece for action is public support. Our task is to get smart on green taxes and urge our representatives to encode our economy with shifts to the green taxes that drive sustainability and conserve natural resources. Instituting a suite of green taxes to replace the productivity-sapping taxes we have now would ensure Oregon’s future livability. Charlie Dickinson lives in Northeast Portland.