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June 12, 2013
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Editorial: Timber counties and taxes: rubbing salt in the wound

Let’s see if we’ve got this right. Federal forest policies and litigation by environmentalists have caused a shortage of logs. The shortage leads to closed mills, high unemployment, poverty, social ills and an inability to fund public services. Meanwhile, tree stands grow overcrowded and become more susceptible to fire, disease and insect infestations.

So the solution is ... raising taxes?!

Somehow squeezing turnips and seeing how much blood runs out has become the way to aid timber counties.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has made raising taxes a pillar in his otherwise amorphous approach to reforming management of Oregon & California Railroad trust lands.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Legislature is considering a bill that would allow the imposition of an income tax in distressed counties to fund public safety.

The alternative, says Gov. John Kitzhaber, is sending in the National Guard to maintain order. The governor also could ask legislators to fund more patrols by the state police.

But having more troopers on the road doesn’t have the dramatic flair of calling in the National Guard.

Another alternative would be to quit squandering the wealth that’s locked up in federal forests. But since it seems unlikely Congress will act anytime soon, the state and counties are stuck looking for short-term ways to preserve public safety.

The consequences of federal timber management are most evident in Josephine and Curry counties, where ballot measures to raise property taxes were rejected last month.

Some may dismiss voters in those counties as anti-tax and anti-government. But the vote was a practical response to forces that have stripped timber counties of their ability to generate wealth.

It’s true that property owners in timber counties, including Douglas County, pay lower taxes than taxpayers in many other counties. But timber counties also generally have higher rates of unemployment and poverty and lower household incomes.

If the economy were robust and failing to generate enough revenue to adequately fund public services, then raising tax rates would make sense. But the problem in timber counties is that there isn’t enough economic activity. Raising taxes may make matters worse.

The good news is that the legislation authorizing an income tax in timber counties, House Bill 3453, may include a provision requiring counties to OK the tax. Also, the state and counties may split the cost of increasing funding for public safety.

The bill also would let the tax expire in 18 months, unless reauthorized by the state and county commissioners. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think the causes of this crisis will have changed in 18 months. Higher taxes in timber counties could become the stopgap measure that never stopped.

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The News-Review Updated Jun 12, 2013 10:23AM Published Jun 13, 2013 07:09AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.