On your mark, get set … go! Here comes election year 2016.
Oregonians will be facing a number of potentially divisive issues including raising the corporate minimum tax, raising the minimum wage, and rolling back climate change legislation. We are entering a year that state Sen. Peter Courtney describes as possibly being our Armageddon. It is also the time of year for reflection and list-making, so here’s another one for the record book, based on DHM Research surveys and focus groups: Oregonians’ values and beliefs that will inform the state’s political landscape in 2016.
First at the 50,000 foot level.
1. Oregonians remain woefully ignorant about how government, politics, and public finance work. Many do not know how many branches of government we have in Oregon and cannot name a tax that helps pay for state government service.
Sadly, they also have little knowledge about the state’s geography and history. How much of the state is outside the Willamette Valley? Which way does the water flow in the Willamette River? What can you tell me about the beach bill, the bottle bill, SB 100, Tom McCall?
“Who?” “What?” . . . Oh well, you get the idea.
2. Oregonians are split in assessing the state’s current direction. About the same number believe the state is headed in the right direction as believe we’re off on the wrong track.
Scary, however, is how soft the right direction people are in their feelings. Bring up such issues as the state’s high school graduation rate, rural poverty statistics, PERS, or even national and international issues like terrorism, immigration, and climate change and they are quick to get squeamish.
3. The economy and education are important to Oregonians, and they want their state government officials to do something about these issues. Underneath this sentiment, however, the negativity and skepticism on both issues runs high.
For example, with the economy, government officials’ self-congratulatory breast-pounding over the falling unemployment rate does not impress voters; they are looking for family-wage jobs with benefits in eco-friendly businesses. For education, voters want better use of the money the schools already have as much as they want more money for them. It is also more specifically about K-12 education and less about colleges and universities.
And while the economy and education are important, just as important is government spending and taxation. Related to this is also a growing sentiment that our system of government is broken.
4. Despite strong differences between political parties about how much government should be involved in addressing the challenges facing the state, and what that involvement should look like, we Oregonians continue to value the same things about living here: the clean air and water, natural beauty, outdoor recreation opportunities, sense of community, and climate (snow, baby, snow!).
We also are concerned about the future of small businesses in Oregon and our low-income children and seniors. This common ground represents something we can build on moving into 2016.
5. Perhaps as validation of what they value about living in Oregon, residents consider the most important “public services” still to be police, fire and emergency services, all basic to feeling secure and having a sense of community. But, just as important to Oregonians is protection of productive forest and farm land and air and water quality, along with K-12 education and services for low-income children and seniors.
Economic development subsidies and tax breaks for attracting or developing business remain at the bottom of the list.
These preferences cut across political and demographic subgroups, but — because they’re public services — they are also susceptible to concerns about government spending and taxation, which can quickly put people in opposing camps. Talking about core values and public, private, and nonprofit partnerships helps unify feeling, especially with more involvement and leadership from the private and nonprofit sectors.
Now at the ground level.
6. Proponents of increasing the corporate minimum tax are currently sitting pretty. They have going for them a good ballot measure title, voter antipathy toward big business, and concern about K-12 funding, fueled by headlines about low graduation rates.
On the other hand, the measure would be in trouble if there was another measure on the ballot directing any increase in taxes to property tax relief or a companion measure with a reduced tax rate.
7. A graduated increase in the minimum wage to $15 in 2019 is a toss-up at this point, but $13.50 by 2019 does better.
But a strong 40 percent or so appear to oppose the measure either way. Many of these are older residents, Republicans, or voters who live outside the Willamette Valley.
8. If the unions go for increased corporate taxes, will business go after the unions? Well, we’re not sure where that would get them.
Currently voters appear split on a Right-to-Work measure similar to Wisconsin’s.
About 40 percent support Oregon’s current law, which allows collective bargaining agreements that require non-member, union-represented employees to share in the costs of union representation. A similar number support allowing non-union public employees to refuse to share costs. A good chunk of voters are undecided.
9. And what about repealing current law requiring the Environmental Quality Commission to adopt rules for low carbon fuel standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
“No” is up by 17 points. This is not surprising in light of a strong majority of Oregonians who tell us that climate change requires us to change our way of life, such as driving less or living more simply.
10. And number 10 for our list is . . . the ground game. It is all going to be about voter turnout. The higher the turnout of younger and minority voters, the better the results will be for Democrats. It is that simple.
A competitive presidential election will help, but here in Oregon will less frequent voters take time to wade through a long list of ballot measure descriptions and local candidate choices? Hard to say, but that is where the action will be this coming year: Get out the vote!
Is 2016 the year of Armageddon for Oregon? Considering what Oregonians don’t know about government and politics, one wonders whether they know what Senate President Peter Courtney means.
The Webster Dictionary’s definition for Armageddon is “the site or time of a final and conclusive battle between the forces of good and evil.”
The site is Oregon, the time is now, and good and evil are in the eye of the beholder. As battle lines are being drawn, we may want to keep in mind what voters know, care about, and how they’re feeling about some key issues. It may serve us well as we start the battle that is election year 2016. Gird your loins (know what that means?)!
Adam Davis, who has been conducting opinion research in Oregon for more than 35 years, is a founding principal in DHM Research, an independent, nonpartisan firm. Visit www.dhmresearch.com.