Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Polygon, Oregon, Tax-e-gon

In the few days that have passed since I landed in Portland, I've found many familiar things: hipsters, the rain, urban greenery, the rain, the liberal proclivities of its people, the rain, the equally liberal flouting of posted transit arrival times, and of course the rain. What wasn't familiar was the tax - or, rather, the lack thereof. Oregon is one of the five American states that has no sales tax, and since there appear to be no federally-levied sales taxes like the GST in the United States, this results in the strange situation of posted prices being exactly what you pay.

I wasn't expecting to find this; I mean, everything is cheaper in the United States thanks to that national border no longer being a barrier, It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that something that cost $3.99 would not actually total out to four dollars and change. For me, this is excellent; not only do I have the opportunity to load up on things that just aren't available in British Columbia, like Wasatch Polygamy Porter (tag line: "why have just one"), I can do it with the least strain on my bank account. It's a good thing Washington State levies its own sales taxes, or they'd be backed up at the Peace Arch for hours with all the Vancouver shoppers streaming down south. I understand that this happens a lot in Vancouver, Washington, for example - you know, the other Vancouver - which sits across the Columbia River from Oregon.

At least, it's excellent as long as I don't think about it. I'm not just restricting my purchases here because I'll have to lug it all to Seattle, but because I honestly have to ask myself whether it's moral to do so. Yes, ladeez and germs, now you've seen it all - someone questioning whether the absence of taxation is immoral. I'm here all week, folks! Seriously, though - I think it's something that at least bears considering, especially given the degree to which state budgets have suffered in the five years since the economy cratered. Simply put, where is Oregon getting its money?

This is just one of the many, many, many "For Lease" or "For Sale" or "For Rent" signs I've seen around downtown Portland.

The "no sales tax" jurisdictions I'm more familiar with, like Alberta and Alaska, get away with it because they have an embarrassment of riches and make way more money then they need to run things without going to the people; hell, the Alaska government gives everyone thousands of dollars a year from its oil revenues. While Oregon may grow a hell of a lot of hops, unless there's some kind of crop plague that devastates hop production outside the Willamette Valley, Oregon's not going to be able to boast that kind of resource-based revenue - maybe not even then. I'm told that Oregon manages to get away with it because its tax burden falls even harder in other areas; not being an Oregon taxpayer, however, I'm at a loss as to what those areas are.

I know there are those who think sales taxes should be done away with, that it's a tax that falls disproportionately on the poor because while the more affluent can juggle and dance and slip through as many loopholes as they can, you can't really get out of paying sales tax. My answer to that is rebates, as they're done in Canada - when you file your taxes, depending on your income you get a few checks back from the government to even things out. Beyond that, it starts to go beyond sales taxes toward "you have serious systemic problems that you need to deal with first."

Still, though, why's it important? Because society doesn't pay for itself, at least not the sort of society that most of us (dare I say, almost all of us) would want to live in. I read in this week's Willamette Week that TriMet, the public transit operator for metropolitan Portland, is hemorrhaging money - partially due to retirement benefits coming due, among other liabilities, but again I can't help but wonder the benefit that an unused revenue stream would have when used to finance things that help society as a whole. Yet - I'll freely admit that I've waded into a completely unfamiliar situation here, and that I'm no doubt missing any of things. Oregonians, feel free to enlighten me.

Perhaps something could be done about all the rain. Like a giant dome over Portland, maybe.


  1. Uh, they use property tax and income tax? Those are the standard alternatives, easily confirmed by a moment's websearch. High income tax rates, capped property tax rates, and the killer, a 'kicker' that sends surplus money back to taxpayers, so no rainy day saving combined with the usual borrowing limitations.

  2. I am equally confused as to why this post didn't answer the question. It's trivially easy to find state revenues; it isn't much harder to calculate them as effective rates. Andrew, this is a bad post!

  3. Yes. In retrospect I drifted too far from my original concept of Oregon setting itself up in this way despite not being a resource-based economy. Learn me to write posts while on vacation.