Oregon Tax Activist Says She Deserves to Pay More

Published on
by
The Oregonian

Oregon Tax Activist Says She Deserves to Pay More

by
Dave Hogan

Jody Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon shows state-by-state tax comparisons to legislative candidate Jefferson Smith in a Southeast Portland coffee shop while talking to him about Oregon taxes. (DAVE HOGAN/The Oregonian)

SALEM. Oregon - Chat with Jody Wiser for a few minutes, and you begin to
wonder whether perhaps you've found a branch of Robin Hood's family
tree.

At 63, she's a wealthy Oregonian, thanks to the money her family
made in farming. But when she sits through tax hearings in the Capitol,
she's not one of the lobbyists telling legislators their clients need a
tax break.

She tells them that rich
people like her can afford to pay taxes, and that they should be paying
more than the average taxpayer. And while we're at it, she adds, the
state should be stepping up tax enforcement, too.

"I deserve to be taxed, and if you give the wealthy a tax benefit,
you're going to be giving it to me -- and I don't need it," she says.

The bottom line, she says, is the common good: Taxes used for
essential government services need to be shared by those most able to
pay them.

Wiser heads a small, all-volunteer group called Tax Fairness Oregon. And she's busy.

A public commission is about to recommend changes in Oregon's tax
system, a statewide tax proposal is on the Nov. 4 ballot, and
increasing corporate taxes has been proposed for January's legislative
session.

Wiser doesn't like the Robin Hood analogy. Her message is not about
robbing the rich. She argues that individuals and corporations need to
pay their fair share.

Instead, the average Oregonian pays more of the overall tax load,
and businesses and high-income individuals pay less, she says.

"I'm trying to keep them from robbing from the poor and giving to the rich," she says.

Life-changing moment

Wiser's
family farmed thousands of acres in Southern California for decades,
growing wheat, cantaloupe, tomatoes and other crops. But it was cotton
-- and the federal subsidies paid for growing it -- that still bothers
her, even though the money contributed to her family's wealth.

"In one 10-year period, we got $3 million in subsidies for growing cotton in the desert," she says.

What galls her now is the idea of the federal government paying so
much money to subsidize such a water-intensive, nonfood crop in the
desert. It provided an important lesson on the influence of lobbyists.

"It's a clear sign of political power," she says of the cotton subsidy.

About nine years ago, Wiser's life changed while taught at Northeast
Portland's Irvington School. It was, she says now, "like being called
to the ministry.

"I was driving to work one day, and it was the 10th year of budget
cuts," she remembers, and her school announced it would cut in half the
hours of a PE teacher and a social worker. "I thought, nobody voted to
destroy public education."

She went to her principal and announced she would end her 18-year teaching career.

"If I didn't have other resources, I wouldn't have made that decision," she says.

By 2003, she was traveling to Salem, urging legislators to keep the
state's estate tax. By 2004, she was hosting an appearance in Portland
by New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston about his book:
"Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit
the Super Rich -- And Cheat Everyone Else."

Wiser organized Tax Fairness Oregon shortly after that. Now, she considers herself self-employed.

"I feel like I'm using the assets I got from this country and I'm
giving them back by putting what I have into trying to get fair tax
policy," Wiser says.

Lesson in politics

The Oregon Capitol has given Wiser a new education.

"The first lesson is there's far too little citizen involvement."

Though a few issues, such as gay marriage and illegal immigration,
get lots of citizen interest, topics such as tax changes are off the
radar.

Another lesson is that lobbyists are plugged into Oregon's system.
She says it's no coincidence that businesses and high-income
individuals pay less of Oregon's tax load.

"People with the most can afford to pay lobbyists to take care of
them, but then there's no one to take care of the rest," she says.

Wiser and her group work to counter those lobbyists and their money.
But that work is tiring. She gets discouraged at times, such as at the
end of the six-month-long legislative session in 2007.

Wiser is a Democrat, and she's given $2,500 to Oregon Democrats'
campaigns this year. Even with Democrats in charge of the Oregon House
and Senate last year, she didn't attend the last few weeks of that
session because it was too distressing.

Lawmakers made several tax changes that she didn't agree with, such
as creating an estate tax loophole for farm and forest families and
expanding renewable-energy tax breaks -- without attaching measurements
or minimum requirements for the creation of new jobs.

"I was debilitated by disgust with some of the legislation they were doing," she says.

Talking taxes

With less than
four months to go before the 2009 legislative session convenes in
January, Wiser is back to work. She's in an inner Southeast Portland
coffee shop, amid tables full of scones, books and cups of java.

Seated next to her is legislative candidate Jefferson Smith, a
Democrat running unopposed in Southeast Portland's House District 47.

With her glass of iced tea sweating in front of her, Wiser is a
bundle of talkative energy. She rattles off an encyclopedic list of tax
statistics.

Oregon needs more tax enforcement, she explains to Smith, repeating
a message her group emphasized to lawmakers in the 2005 and 2007
sessions. She says more than $1 billion in Oregon taxes goes
uncollected each year because of cheaters.

She talks tax breaks and tax rates and tax changes. When she's in
the Capitol, Wiser carries information sheets in her handbag, with key
passages highlighted in yellow.

"Return taxation of corporations to a fair level," reads one.

She tells Smith the estate tax is best left where it is. Oregonians
pay the state's so-called death tax if their estates are valued at $1
million or more.

"Your job is to say 'Everything's fine here,'" she tells Smith.

Respect among peers

Lawmakers and lobbyists are unsure of what to make of Wiser. Even some
such as Rep. Vicki Berger, R-Salem, who don't normally agree with her,
say they respect her and view her as dedicated and honest.

"I like Jody, but when she brings things in, she cherry-picks her
arguments to make the point that we aren't paying enough taxes," Berger
said earlier this year. "I can tell you that's contrary to what a lot
of my constituents feel."

Lobbyists view Wiser as aligned with the union camp, a powerful
lobby at the Capitol. They question how much impact she has compared
with union lobbyists backed by tens of thousands of members.

Jim Craven, a lobbyist for the American Electronics Association,
says he has noticed Wiser having some influence in getting lawmakers to
focus more on increasing tax enforcement and limiting tax avoidance
strategies.

She has become a fixture in Salem's taxation hearing rooms.

"She's more liberal than I am by a long ways," said Sen. Frank
Morse, R-Albany. "Her passion is tax equity. I don't know that she's
championing any one scenario for tax reform, but she wants it to be
fair."

 

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