As a progressive who was happy when liberals wrested control of the Salem City Council from conservatives in 2017, now I'm worried that the payroll tax debacle could be a harbinger of a right-wing renaissance in local politics.
What's disturbing is that this is a self-inflicted wound by five of the six progressive members of the City Council who provided the votes to pass a new payroll tax on everyone who works in Salem on a narrow 5-4 vote. Now that wound is like blood in the water to energized conservative "sharks."
(The five were Mayor Chris Hoy and councilors Virginia Stapleton, Trevor Phillips, Linda Nishioka, and Micki Varney; Vanessa Nordyke favored having citizens vote on the tax.)
Public testimony was strongly in favor of referring the tax to voters. This would have been the wisest course of action, since it was clear that people were upset as much about the City Council not wanting to have the public vote on the tax, as they were about the tax itself.
Unsurprisingly, Oregon Business & Industry led a petition drive to put the payroll tax on the November ballot. The effort collected about 13,000 signatures, many more than the 4,000 needed.
This is a sign that the tax is going to be defeated. Another sign is that unscientific surveys by the Salem Reporter and Statesman Journal indicated that most respondents oppose the tax. Now there's a third sign.
The headline of an October 17 Salem Reporter story tells the tale: "Business groups spend big to defeat Salem payroll tax."
The November election which will decide whether Salem workers put part of their paychecks toward city services is fast approaching, with opponents raising nearly $170,000 to kill the tax according to campaign finance records.
In contrast, supporters have raised less than $6,000.
With local, regional and nationwide heavyweight backers, Oregon Business & Industry’s Defeat the Tax on Salem Workers campaign committee has raised $168,816 of in-kind and cash contributions as of Tuesday, Oct. 17.
Among their contributors is $10,000 in August from the Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group funded by two of the nation’s most influential people in politics, brothers Charles and David Koch. The group promotes cutting taxes and reducing regulation of businesses, and is best known for its role in the Tea Party movement during the Obama administration.
...The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce donated $20,135 to the effort to refer the tax to the ballot, and another $10,000 on Friday, Oct. 13.
...Oregon Business & Industry, the statewide business group running the campaign, and its PAC have spent a combined $85,766 on the referendum and subsequent campaign.
Other contributors to the no campaign include the political action committee affiliated with the Home Builders Association of Marion and Polk Counties, called Mid-Valley Affordable Housing Coalition, which contributed $5,000. The conservative group Marion + Polk First has contributed nearly $9,000.
Now, the conservative candidates for Mayor and City Council almost always outspend their progressive opponents. But the payroll tax shows a huge gulf between the liberals working to pass the tax and the conservatives working to defeat it.
If Salem voters end up agreeing with opponents of the tax, this will be wind in the sails of the conservative groups hoping to take back control of the City Council.
Every two years, half of the eight city councilors are elected. The mayor, who is a member of the City Council, is elected every two years.
So in 2024 progressives will be defending four of the nine City Council seats -- the seats held by Mayor Hoy and councilors Virginia Stapleton, Trevor Phillips, and Vanessa Nordyke. Conservative councilor Jose Gonzalez also is up for reelection. Phillips has said he won't be running again. That makes his seat an enticing pickup for a conservative.
It's entirely possible, though unlikely in my current view, that conservatives could have a net gain of two City Council seats in 2024, which would result in progressives on the short end of a conservative 5-4 majority.
A lot will depend on the outcome of the payroll tax vote.
If it passes, or is defeated narrowly, the damage to the local progressive cause will be less than if it goes down by a large margin. In that case, conservative candidates will have a valid argument: tax and spend liberals on the City Council have lost touch with citizens, so vote for us and we'll make things right (in both senses of that word).