ROSEBURG, Ore. — Inside the big wood-paneled downtown library here, a sign spells out the future in four words. Come June 1, “All services will cease.” For generations in America, small cities like this declared their optimism and civic purpose with grand libraries that rose above the clutter of daily life and commerce. But last fall, Douglas County residents voted down a ballot measure that would have added about $6 a month to the tax bill on a median-priced home and saved the libraries from a funding crisis. So this spring, it has been lights out, one by one, for the system’s 11 branches. The Roseburg central library here is the last to go. “We pay enough taxes,” said Zach Holly, an auto repair worker in a shop a few blocks from the library who said his vote against the tax was not about libraries at all, but government waste. “I vote against taxes, across the board,” he said.
Former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank once described government as “what we decide to do together.” The key word in that description is “together.” America is a community, and the success of any community depends on the collective decision to pull together…or fail separately.
Beginning around 2010, the Tea Party (“
lready”) became the bellwether for those who were tired of being paying taxes. The problem was (then as now) that many of those who identified with the Tea Party want the services government provides without the onerous burden of having to pay for them. To call this an unsustainable model seems obvious, but this unrealistic and ignorant expectation continues today. The results have been predictable. Here in Oregon, we’re finding out what happens when people decide they’re done being taxed…and the outcome ain’t pretty.
An instinctive reaction against higher taxes has been stitched into the fabric of America in recent decades, starting with the property tax revolts of the 1970s through the anti-tax orthodoxy expressed by many conservative members of Congress today. But few places in the nation are seeing the tangled implications of what that means — in real time — more vividly than in southwest Oregon, where a handful of rural counties are showing what happens when citizens push the logic of shrinking government to its extremes.
No one likes paying higher taxes, but there’s a price to be paid for living in a country where things generally work. Roads, bridges, law enforcement, the military- those things don’t just spontaneously appear. There’s a cost associated with living in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The problem with the Tea Party, as with most anti-tax advocates, is their “something for nothing attitude.” They want it- nay, they demand it- but paying for it is another story altogether.
There are two fallacies those who oppose taxes seem to operate from:
1. They demand an end to government interference in their lives, starting with what they see as an unfair and unjust tax burden. The problem with this is that it doesn’t take into account the role government plays in our day to day lives. Who pays for building and repairing roads and bridges? Who pays for law enforcement? Who pays to ensure that businesses have a stable economic and regulatory environment to operate in? These, and so much more, are government functions. And they aren’t free.
2. They have no problem with programs which they benefit from…while objecting vociferously to programs they see no direct benefit from. They ignore the reality that a community’s responsibility is to serve ALL its members. That sometimes means your tax dollars going to schools when you have no children. It sometimes means paying for roads even if you don’t own a car. It’s about the benefit to the community; collectively we underwrite the functions of government. That we may not necessarily use some of those functions doesn’t alleviate us of the responsibility to chip in to pay the freight.
These are all things communities decide to do together, because there’s a collective benefit which accrues to society from infrastructure, schools, and social services, among other things.
A quick look at what’s happening these days in southwestern Oregon shows what can happen when people decide they no longer want to pay taxes. The truth quickly became apparent- there’s no “something for nothing.” You get what you pay for. When you’re not willing to pay, it shouldn’t come as a shock that you get nothing in return.
When you consistently vote against tax proposals, you can’t credibly claim to be surprised when libraries close, when law enforcement isn’t available after midnight, or when there’s not enough money to even stage an election. Nor do you get to complain when government services dry up from lack of funding; not when there’s a simple solution available.
As President Barack Obama once said, “Elections have consequences.” That people in southwestern Oregon are seeing government services- even vital ones- disappear because there’s no money isn’t a surprise. It’s what happens when you refuse to pay for something.
Jerry Wyatt, 66, a sales manager and lifelong resident of the Roseburg area, said conservatives like him had seen the truth that government often operated for its own benefit, not the people’s. Like most people here, Mr. Wyatt is a strong supporter of Mr. Trump, who got two-thirds of the vote in Douglas, even as a majority of voters in Oregon supported Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump is changing Washington, Mr. Wyatt said. Change on the local level starts in places like Douglas County.
Too often, the problem with Conservatives like Wyatt is they begin from the assumption that government is inept, inefficient, and out to screw them. Everything gets filtered through that prism. Inevitably, government comes to be seen as the enemy…and voting down tax measures amounts to cutting off their nose to spite their face. Ignorance, reaction, and misinformation come between Conservatives and reality. In the end, everyone suffers.
Government, after all, is what we decide to do together.
Not that the function and purpose of government shouldn’t be frequently examined and re-evaluated. A community taking a long, hard look at what it wants from its government is a good thing. It’s quite possible the collective decision might be to do away with or severely curtail funding for things like libraries, road maintenance, and law enforcement. As long as community members understand the likely consequences of their decision, that’s on them.
Unfortunately, those who proudly proclaim “I vote against taxes, across the board” do themselves and their community a disservice. Especially when it’s these same people who will inevitably complain about degradation (or the absence altogether) of government services they take for granted.
As with anything else, when it comes to government you get what you pay for. If a community can’t see its way clear to voting for a $6/month addition to their property taxes to keep libraries open, it doesn’t deserve to have libraries.
The last person leaving Roseburg should remember to turn off the lights…if they haven’t already been turned off for lack of payment.