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Saving money, not spending it, should be the focus in Salem

Last Friday, the Oregon Legislature got an update about how much money the state has to pay for the services we need — schools, healthcare and public safety. While generally favorable, the new projection won’t fill the gaps in services we continue to face.

Last Friday, most people were asking, “How much money will we have?”

But the correct question should be, “How much money can we save?”

Our priority should be to make sure that we don’t need to cut any school days and we don’t need to lay off any teachers. Since I’ve been in Salem — now a total of two weeks — the one thing that’s become crystal clear to me is that we won’t get the money we need for schools unless we find savings and close loopholes in other areas of the budget.

So, for the last two weeks, we’ve been scouring the budget for places we can save. By starting through the lens of savings, we can create a budget that is transparent, efficient and accountable — which could mean we’ll make real progress toward a longer school year and smaller class sizes. We have some ideas already that should mean real dollars in the classroom:

n Close the tax gap: One principle I believe strongly in is that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes we all owe. In Oregon, thats not currently happening. Tens of thousands of Oregonians aren’t paying their state taxes, and their delinquency means real shortfalls. According to the latest report, Oregon doesn’t collect 18.5 percent of the money it’s owed in taxes. That’s our “tax gap” and it’s one of the highest rates in the country. If we closed our tax gap by just 0.75 percent we could find $101 million dollars in revenue for our schools and other services. That’s 1,000 teachers we could have hired for our schools.

n Close corporate loopholes: Sometimes the state creates tax breaks that simply cost us money and don’t grow our local economy. Take for example the bonus depreciation. It’s a tax giveaway that accelerates how quickly corporations get their tax write-off for equipment. That loophole cost us $110 million in 2011 and folks are hard-pressed to find actual jobs that were created by this loophole. Another $110 million couldve been another 1,000 teachers. This is starting to become a trend.

n Corporate carry-forwards and credit trades: This is what we call fancy bookkeeping that costs the state money. How much money? We don’t even know because the number of tax credits that are held and traded isn’t necessarily public knowledge (a challenge itself). But if we’re going to have a fair tax policy, it should be public and transparent so we can know our state investments are going to the right places to create the right jobs.

There are lots more ideas where these came from. Some of them are $100 million ideas; some of them are $100,000 ideas. Every dollar is important and if we keep asking the question “How much money can we save?” we’ll find them all and be able to make a real difference for our schools.

State Rep. Ben Unger, a Democrat, represents Oregon House District 29, which stretches from central Hillsboro to Gales Creek.




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