PRESERVING LOCAL HISTORY
The Southern Oregon Historical Society had humble beginnings, forming in 1946, in response to a proposal to tear down the old courthouse in Jacksonville, Oregon. In 1966, they led a successful effort to make the entire town of Jacksonville one of the first officially designated National Historic Districts. For decades Jacksonville (and neighboring Medford) were popular destinations for travelers taking in a play at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespearean Festival, sampling southern Oregon wines, and hearing nationally recognized artists at the Peter Britt outdoor music festival.
Since its inception, the SOHS has collected, preserved and shared photographs and documents that reflect the lives and stories of those that resided int he Rogue River Valley and the surrounding Siskiyou Mountains The Archives include many pioneer stories, including the oldest urban Chinese community in Cascadia, as well as those of later settlers, and of people born and raised in the Valley, including the native Takilma people, a tribe that went extinct soon after gold miners arrived in the 1850s.
However, in September of 2009, the SOHS Executive Director was forced to shut down most of the organization piece by piece. Their showcase Jacksonville Museum of Southern Oregon History, in the county’s original 1883 courthouse, closed its doors, soon followed by five more historic structures operated by the society in Jacksonville’s National Historic District. The historic US Hotel downtown would no longer host weddings, and the children’s museum and a living history farm that plows its fields with draft horses both slashed their hours.
The shutdown was the climax of a ten-year fall, marked by a change to the state constitution, new state laws, a failed local citizens initiative, a county budget squeeze, and finally, the loss over the summer of a major tenant (an auto dealership caught in the Great Recession) leasing space in the SOHS research library building. Without that monthly revenue, SOHS had to lay off four of its six paid staff or risk putting its $600,000 annual operating budget in the red.
But the most important factor driving the crisis was a decision by Jackson County commissioners in 2007 to halt a half-century-long tradition of funding the society’s operations. As a result, the 200,000 residents of Jackson County, including the cities of Medford and Ashland, have lost nearly all access to SOHS’s collection of 1 million artifacts and 800,000 documents and photos. Not even professional researchers can view the collections. In other words, local people, not to mention all Oregonians, were barred from a broad swath of their state and local history, including the second largest collection of artifacts in Oregon.
Today they are a shadow of their former selves, at serious risk of becoming a historical footnote. But how did all of this happen? As it turns out Southern Oregon Historical Society’s world started to unravel in 1997, when Oregon voters approved a statewide measure that consolidated special levies into a single county tax base. A decision which would have lasting and damaging consequences for the state…
BALLOT MEASURE 5
A landmark piece of direct legislation in Oregon history, Ballot Measure 5 was narrowly passed in the November 6, 1990 general election, with 574,833 votes in favor, 522,022 votes against, leading to an amendment to the Oregon Constitution (Article XI, Section 11), established limits on Oregon’s property taxes on real estate. Although measure numbers are reused, the effect of this measure on the state was significant enough that when Oregonians speak of Measure 5, they are usually referring to this specific measure, as it remains today one of the most contentious measures in Oregon election history.
Ballot Measure 5 fundamentally changed Oregon’s property tax and public-school funding systems. Voter approval of Measure 5, and of the related Measure 47 in 1996 and Measure 50 in 1997, demonstrated the great force of anti-tax fervor in that decade. The resulting restrictions in local school district revenues transformed the funding of Oregon’s public-school system to make it primarily dependent on state general revenues controlled by the legislature rather than on local school boards.
One might wonder, if the measure was so contentious and so radical, how was it ever voted into being? Measure 5’s passage reflected three factors of the time: firstly, the rise of ultra-right-wing insurgency in the state that was not above disseminating dishonest and misleading information; secondly, it illuminated the great inconsistencies and disparities among local schools districts and general voter ignorance of the school funding system; and thirdly, the acceleration of housing values and property taxes in the Portland metropolitan area.
Crafted by Don McIntire (1938-2012) and Thomas P. Dennehy (1928-1998), anti-tax activists and the measure’s chief petitioners, Measure 5 initially focused on property taxes. On the surface it seemingly protected local school funding by requiring state government to compensate school districts for the property tax losses during the phase-in period, during which property tax limits were gradually reduced to one-half percent of real market value for local school districts and one percent for all other local government by the 1995-1996 budget period.
A rise in real estate value in the 1980’s, caused by an economic boom and the continued influx of new homeowners in the bounded Portland metropolitan area, caused a rapid rise in taxes for some residents in Clackamas and Washington Counties. By November 1990, voters could not ignore the accelerating property taxes and the instability of the public-school funding system, highlighted by temporary school closures in towns like Estacada. In some parts of the Portland metropolitan area, property taxes were as high as $33 per $1,000 value. While there was much disagreement over exactly what should be done, across the political spectrum and throughout the state there was a sense that some sort of reform was inevitable and necessary. Even the liberal weekly newspaper Willamette Week endorsed Measure 5.
Despite vigorous opposition by those who rightfully feared either the budget consequences of or the uncertainty related to the measure—including gubernatorial candidate Barbara Roberts, the Oregon Education Association, and the Associated Oregon Industries—it won 52%of the vote, primarily from Portland-area voters.
Measure 5 constitutionally limited total non-school property taxes to 1% ($10 per $1,000 real market value), which significantly limited local revenue options. The most visible effects of the measure, however, are the limitation of basic local school property taxes to one-half percent ($5 per $1,000 assessed value) and the state’s obligation to replace lost school revenues during the phase-in period. Technically, the state was not responsible for replacement costs after 1996, but the legislature’s increased commitment to local school funding has become both a practical and a political reality.
The policy effects of Measure 5 are inextricable from those of Measure 50, which Oregon voters passed in 1997 to respond to perceived or real shortcomings in Measure 5. Measure 5 required all counties to more frequently reassess property values. Almost immediately it was clear that the upward revisions of assessed values would offset the impact of lower tax rates for many homeowners, particularly in the Portland metropolitan area. Consequently, some homeowner tax bills actually increased following the passage of Measure 5. Further, industrial and commercial property owners enjoyed much greater savings due to the accuracy of their assessments.
According to the October 2006 issue of Oregon Business, the first sixteen years of Measure 5 and Measure 50 reduced local revenues by $41 billion. The proportion of K-12 operating expenses funded by the state’s Basic School Support Fund (primarily the state’s general fund) went from 28.6% in 1990-1991 to a high of 70.6% in 1998-1999. School district dependency on state general funds remained above 66% until the recession starting in 2009 brought the number down to 63 percent. Increased state funding promoted school district equalization, stabilizing and increasing spending in poorer districts while making relative cuts in per capita spending in the state’s wealthier areas.
In response to Measures 5 and 50, the share of the state general fund going to the Basic School Fund rose from 25% in 1989-1991 to 42% in 1999-2001. This increase squeezed other elements of the general fund, with higher education’s share declining from 14% to 7%. Even with the boom times of the 1990s and cuts in other general fund programs by 2011, a state legislative panel found that Measures 5 and 50 were the foremost explanation of why funding for K-12 schools fell more than $3 billion short of the amount needed to meet state goals.
TENDRILS OF A SHADOWY CABAL
Don McIntire, commonly known as the father of Measure 5 as well as many other anti-tax activities going back several decades would go on to join Jason Williams, who is best known for working with Oregonians In Action, an anti-Environmental organization which funds politicians which actively denied climate change, promote the hunting of endangered species, seek to remove environmental protection from sensitive land areas, and at one point sought to strip veterans and disable veterans of their civil service preference upon ten years of being discharged from the military.
Together these two founded the Taxpayer Association of Oregon (TAO) in 2000, an organization allegedly aimed at monitoring and reporting government spending excesses, even though their metrics are notably skewed, and curiously absent regarding certain political figures potentially friendly to their cause.
The TAO’s website, OregonWatchdog.com, is now ranked at the top of web searches involving ‘Oregon political news’ keywords. However, the very same website platforms a wide number of openly fascist, corporatist, and white-supremist entities, such as Victoria Taft and Oregon Report, as well as regionally recognized terrorist organizations, such as the Proud Boys and the NRA.
Today TAO also has partner organizations and Political Action Committees to funnel money to various fronts, including ballot measures, candidates, lobbyists, and propaganda. In addition to pushing an agenda of income inequality and destruction of the commons, they lobby for voter suppression, greater corporate control, and actively seek to take money from public works.
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE AND LASTING EFFECTS
Ballot Measure 5 passed, but its impact was not immediate and wasn’t uniform across Oregon. What’s more is that it didn’t actually force the change in funding that the anti-tax advocates envisioned; one effect of the measure was that funding for local schools was shifted from primarily local property tax funds to state funds. With this, it led to a general equalization of funding between districts as funds are now given to districts based on the number of students in each district. Schools with higher value property in their districts previously could fund local schools at a higher rate than more economically depressed areas. Passage of the measure and the limits led to some discussion of eliminating county services in Multnomah County by combining them with Portland city services or Metro, as well as talks of combining Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties into one large urban county for the Portland metro area.
Today Measure 5 is blamed for cuts in school programs, the budget crises of 2002 and 2003 and cuts to government services and statewide public safety programs, including deep cuts to the Oregon State Police which never fully recovered from 50% staffing reductions. Advocates for public programs point out that Measures 5 and 50 have crippled important public services, while McIntire and his cronies remain heroes to corporatists for changing the trajectory of Oregon’s spending, even at the price of greater state control over local school budgets and increased dependence on the more volatile income tax.
Low-income, rural districts continued to struggle with their budget, and that often meant under-paying teachers. Year after year, legislators continued to fund schools through income taxes at amounts that rose and fell with what the economy, and year after year, the Quality Education Commission published reports showing how inadequate the spending was. In 2006, school districts were fed up, and the Pendleton School District led a multi-district lawsuit against the state over school funding, with the case going all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court, where school advocates won a Pyrrhic victory; The ruling required adequate funding of schools – but it gave lawmakers an out — a loophole. If funding levels fell short of the mandated amount, legislators could write a report, instead of adequately funding education. In the years since, scores of reports have been written, but not once have lawmakers fully funded Oregon schools.
As for the Southern Oregon Historical Society, they now had to make an annual case for funding to Jackson County commissioners. Eying the revenue during a time of falling timber tax receipts and shrinking budgets, commissioners declared that SOHS should become self-sufficient and cut funding. SOHS sued, got a three-year reprieve, and increased its earned revenue from nearly zero in 2003 to $500,000 a year in 2007. But it wasn’t enough to maintain operations, and they asked the commissioners for more money. The commissioners refused, claiming the historical society’s request for an additional $750,000 over two years somehow demonstrated mismanagement.
SOHS then gambled that voters would again approve a special levy as they had in 1948. But organizers failed to get the 16,632 signatures needed to put a measure on the 2008 ballot. The society survived with a line of credit against its property in Medford. But when the auto dealership pulled out in August of 2009, SOHS couldn’t service the debt. So began the painful shutdown and re-organization.
THE BIGGER (REGIONAL) PICTURE
The precarious funding of Southern Oregon Historical Society is not a unique situation. In 2008, King County’s revenue from the state-sanctioned lodging tax, which is dedicated to arts and heritage activities, funded $1.1 million in heritage and historic preservation projects, and a good portion of the money went to subsidize the operations of non-profit historical societies and similar groups. The millions being funneled into the renovations for KeyArena in Seattle prove a dangerous presidency. Typically museums and historical societies earn only about half their revenue through ticket sales, memberships, donations, and private grants, with local governments provide the rest. Having funding reduced for heritage projects and organizations, threaten the existence of these financially weak groups. The loss of support in Washington for heritage and preservation could have devastating effects on local economies. A 2006 study by the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation found that heritage tourists spent $307 million in King County alone, with 8,472 jobs tied to the industry. If small museums die because government subsidies disappeared, so would thousands of jobs and millions in economic activity.
The situation with SOHS illustrates the importance of local funding for heritage activities, and the vulnerability of cultural organizations when elected officials lose faith in not-for-profits entrusted with history’s care. It also illustrates the importance of history to many small Cascadian communities
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The sad part of this tale is that the damage has been done. But hope is not lost. Despite the gloomy situation, SOHS is trying to stay upbeat, and continues to fight for southern Oregon’s past and future.
It might sound clichéd, but every little bit helps. If you are a visiting tourist, offer a monetary donation. If you a local to the area, considering offering volunteer time at the Research Library or at Hanley Farm.
Network with others in the region, especially if you are a similar historical society or museum. If you or a friend have legal backgrounds, see if you can offer assistance, especially come election season. Teach yourself about local politics, and make sure you know the actors and the stakes.
But perhaps the most important thing you can do, is to vote while you still can. Those forces which stripped funding from the museums, that stole from hospitals and schools, that robbed from poor families will without a doubt one day soon set their sights one smothering your voice. Thomas P. Dennehy and Don McIntire may thankfully be gone, but their ilk are still out there, looking for a chance to worm their way into power for so they can make themselves and their cronies rich at the expense of all others, while leaving our corner of the Earth an impoverished husk.
Do what you can, as much as you can, to make sure evil men like this do not win.