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Rainy-day flap brings out worst in GOP

The Oregon Republican meltdown over House passage of a measure converting this year's corporate kicker into a permanent rainy-day fund and increasing the minimum corporate tax is reminiscent of the penultimate scene in the Wizard of Oz.

Toto rips down a canvas curtain to reveal a wizened old man hollering into a microphone, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" as he frantically pulls at levers that no longer respond and the mighty machine emits screeching noises and clouds of smoke as it implodes.

No sooner had the rainy-day fund measure passed with the necessary Republicans voting with House Democrats, than the Republican Noise Machine went into high gear attacking House Democrats for "raising taxes." Preprinted post cards went out to voters in districts where Democrats are supposed to be vulnerable. The legend, "You would be smiling too if you didn't have to pay the bills," accompanied pictures of smiling Democratic legislators.

Robocalls began descending on unwary voters in Rep. Chris Edwards' district in Eugene. "I'm your neighbor Sheri and I thought you ought to know that Chris Edwards has just voted to raise taxes," came the breathless voice on my cell phone.

When these tactics failed to generate a hysterical wave of anti-tax sentiment, Jason Williams of the Taxpayers Association of Oregon decided to manufacture one. His fake "grassroots" group started drumming up the "news" that businesses all over Oregon were upset that the new minimum corporate tax, which has been fixed at $10 since the 1930s, was about to be increased.

House Minority Leader Wayne Scott - a fellow who understands political bullying from extensive practice - so far has refused to go back on the agreement he had made with the House Democratic leadership. Williams has decided to work the Senate in the hope he can persuade Senate Republicans to deny the Democrats the votes they need to pass the House-approved measure. Senate Republicans have supposedly told House Republicans there isn't a single Republican vote in the Senate for the rainy-day fund and the increased corporate minimum tax.

Williams' group should not be confused with Bill Sizemore's defunct Oregon Taxpayers Association. Williams is associated with the lobbyist Grover Norquist's conglomerate of Washington, D.C.-based anti-tax organizations that have been tainted by their association with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The calls and postcards attacking Democrats - but not the Republicans - who voted for the rainy-day fund measure are financed by a Washington D.C.- based group named Freedom Works. It's a leftover from Newt Gingrich's Contract With America marketing gimmick. Freedom Works' shill in Oregon, Russell Walker, has managed to become an officer in the Oregon Republican Party.

Walker and Williams are not members of Associated Oregon Industries, the Oregon Business Association and the Portland Business Alliance, all of which are willing to turn their record corporate kicker into a rainy-day fund just this one time, primarily to stabilize school finances during economic downturns and to avoid a measure on the ballot repealing the corporate kicker permanently.

Williams insists voters do not want the kicker tampered with. Voters, he insists, approved the kicker by more than 60 percent.

That was, of course, before Oregonians realized the refunds were phony - the result of cooked books that justified "surplus" refunds. When they were in the majority, Oregon Republicans gleefully mailed out refund checks just before Christmas, then quietly arranged to borrow the money to pay the state's bills - about $1.2 billion over a little more than a decade. The payment on that borrowed money is around $150 million in this budget period alone. It's the Republicans' hidden tax increase from their reckless policy of borrow-and-spend.

The national Republican Party's attack machine is suddenly wheezing, coughing and blowing dark smoke. Its effort to deny Oregonians their traditionally maverick solutions to their own problems and replace them with national conservative ideological prescriptions has failed. It was recognized and rejected by the voters last November. Some Oregon House Republicans finally seem to get it, despite signs of wavering late in the week. Now it's time for Senate Republicans to demonstrate they are Oregonians before they are Republicans.

Legislators in both parties in the Oregon House voting for the rainy-day fund measure are simply doing what voters expected when they swept house last November. They are cleaning up the fiscal mess left over from the period the Republicans were in the majority. Some House Republicans are doing their penance and doing their part. Now it's time to see if Senate Republicans have the same steel in their spines.

Russell Sadler has commented on Oregon politics for more than 30 years.