© 2022 Tootie Smith for Oregon. All Rights Reserved.

Upholding the Social Contract

There are certain expectations that come from living in a free society. The most important is that, as long as you work hard, obey the law and don’t hurt anyone else, you’re generally free to go about your business peacefully.

That is what is often referred to as the social contract. In exchange for taking care of your business, you are essentially left alone. The taxes that you pay go towards government services that you and your neighbors will use on a regular basis.

What we’ve witnessed, as time goes on, has been a one-way violation of the terms of the longstanding agreement that is the social contract.

Many responsible taxpaying citizens have suddenly found the government and its agencies to be interfering in their affairs for no good reason. Instead of working for them, they feel more and more like those agencies are praying on them. Those agencies become less responsive while demanding additional taxpayer dollars. People start to feel like they’re serving the government, instead of the other way around.

The social contract is one of those things that binds of all, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s an inherent understanding that we all carry deep down inside. But we also know when it isn’t working as it’s intended.

It’s a violation of the social contract when well-connected elites seem to live by a different standard than the rest of us do. If the rules only apply to some of the people some of the time, that means that the contract is not being honored.

There are dire long-term consequences of the continued breaching of the social contract. Business owners who are constantly victimized by vandalism and theft, only to see those crimes go unprosecuted, will no longer wish to uphold their end of the deal. They will relocate their businesses, and this is something we’re already seeing in areas like Portland.

Citizens who feel that their taxpayer dollars are being squandered on things they never asked for will vote against further increases. They’ll also start demanding accountability from their elected representatives who have failed to deliver.

Those were the kinds of circumstances that inspired me to run for chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners in 2020. As a longtime resident, I was concerned that the county’s budget was becoming bloated. Instead of county services being improved, I saw consultants getting paid exorbitant amounts of money and wondering what benefit we were getting out of it. I didn’t feel that the county was working for the benefit of the people who were paying its bills.

It’s important to me that the people of Clackamas County feel that our organization is holding up its end of the social contract. I’ve made every effort to emphasize and prioritize the services that are most essential to county residents. And I will continue to take this approach for as long as they allow me to serve as the chair of the county board of commissioners.  

The Relationship Between Business and Government

The coronavirus and the resulting shutdown continue to have devastating consequences for businesses and workers alike. An economy that had been growing at a healthy pace has literally come to a halt as storefronts remain shuttered worldwide.

Job creators are becoming increasingly anxious amid uncertainty as to when they can open their doors again. Some may never be able to. Many are still incurring expenses, even though their sources of revenue have dried up.

Having been a small business owner, I’m familiar with the struggles faced by our entrepreneurs. Throughout my years of public service, I always remembered the valuable perspective that I gained from that experience. That’s why I feel that it’s important for government at all levels to create policies that enable businesses to grow and thrive.

But far too often, politicians and bureaucrats take the approach that the needs of government must come first. They seem to forget that the revenues that fund their agencies come out of the pockets and paychecks of people who work for a living and those who employ them.

This current crisis highlights the differences between our leaders who understand how business works and those who do not. Those who do not understand are moving ahead with plans to increase tax burdens on employers, employees, property owners and anyone else who pays into government coffers. They’re already bemoaning the lost revenues that they were already counting on to grow government programs, hire more consultants and add to agency payrolls. I have experience in this area. When I first took office as a State Representative, the nation was reeling from a recession. The state’s budget was out of balance, and there were constant calls for tax increases.

As a member of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, I was tasked with figuring out the best way to balance that budget. And I’m proud to say that we got it done, by prioritizing key functions, and without raising taxes.

Despite the difficult circumstances we’re in right now, plans are underway to raise taxes on the residents of Oregon and Clackamas County. Those proposals were developed when the economy was surging. Now, with peoples’ livelihoods in the balance, and families struggling to make ends meet, those demands for higher taxes are unchanged.  

At the state level, businesses are going to be asked to pay the Corporate Activity Tax that was passed by the Legislature last year. That tax is applied to sales instead of profits, meaning that a business will have to pay it, even if it is losing money.

Also being proposed is a tax increase whose proceeds will go to Metro under the guise of providing services for the homeless. Much like the “affordable housing” measure that was passed in 2018, there is no guarantee that the funds will go towards their intended purpose or do anything to solve the problem. What it will do is give Metro more of your hard-earned dollars to grow its bureaucracy while producing little in the way of results.

I’m running for chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners to represent all of the small business owners, families and workers who are the backbone of our economy. Their needs have been ignored for too long by those who would put government first, instead of encouraging our businesses to prosper and thrive.

The Fundamentals of Good Management

There were a lot of things I learned when I served in the Oregon House of Representatives from 2001 to 2005. One of them was how to best prioritize and utilize taxpayer resources to fund critical government services.

I was assigned to the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. Many of my colleagues were on policy committees and would be able to go home once they were done meeting. Not me. Because Ways and Means has several subcommittees, I would often find myself at the capitol in Salem early in the morning and well into the evening.

All of that time learning the ins and outs of the state budget was very necessary, as the national recession devastated Oregonians’ pocketbooks. Our state government is largely dependent on income tax, so that meant fewer revenues were available. But the budget still needed to be balanced.

The demand for government services outpaced the dollars that were available, so we had to determine which programs provided the best value to the state’s residents. By the time we were done, the budget was balanced without citizens being burdened by more taxes.

I took the same approach when serving on the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners from 2013 to 2017. Not only was the budget balanced, but the county had a surplus of funds.

Sadly, that is no longer the case. Under its current board of commissioners, the county has taken a completely different direction. The result is that the budget has faced a shortfall of $20 million over the past two years.

How did we get here? It’s simple. County government grew beyond its means. More programs were added. Consultants were paid to conduct “special projects,” with no accountability for performance or their value to county residents.

Starting last August, I began to publicly question current Clackamas County Commission Chair Jim Bernard about how and why things have gotten to this point. His response, or lack thereof, helped me conclude something I had long suspected—he’s a huge part of the problem.

Bernard’s lack of leadership results from the fact that he is not a manager. That’s why he doesn’t know how to budget public funds with a proactive approach to preparedness. And it’s one of the main reasons that, instead of planning for the future, the county government is lurching from crisis to crisis.

In that sense, and in terms of basic governing philosophy the contrast between Bernard and myself could not be clearer. Let me elaborate and spell it out.

I have always firmly believed that the government exists to serve the public, and not the other way around. The responsible approach is to work with the revenue that the county has available to it and properly prioritize those resources. Constantly asking citizens for more money just to grow budgets, for the county and for other entities like Metro, is irresponsible.

Instead of telling citizens how the county can help them in this time of crisis, the county’s leaders are choosing to put the government first and ask for more money.

The crisis occurring right now is that companies are losing money and workers are losing their jobs. It isn’t that the county and Metro don’t have enough of other peoples’ money to grow their budgets and bureaucracies as much as they would like to.

My governing philosophy came from years of running private sector businesses. I know what it’s like to manage organizations through good times and bad. Most importantly, I’m proud of the work I’ve done both in the Legislature and on the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners to put good management practices in place. As your next commission chair, I plan to build on those years of experience to get the county government back on the right track.

My Approach to Taxing and Spending

Politicians often scoff at the idea that government agencies should budget the way that businesses and households do. We’ve seen the disastrous consequences of that approach at every level of government, from the trillions of dollars of federal debt right down to the local level here in Clackamas County.

Think about the way you balance your checkbook every month. You know how much you have coming in through your paycheck and other sources of income. Many expenses like rent are fixed. Others, like utility bills, vary from month to month. But you put together your household budget based on what your income and expenses are.

The government tends to do the exact opposite.

Too often, the approach in government is to put together a wish list of what politicians and bureaucrats want, then declare a budget crisis when the tax dollars coming in don’t reach whatever lofty amount they set for their priorities. That so-called budget crisis is then used to justify more taxes and fees coming out of your pocket. The end result is that it becomes more difficult for you to balance your checkbook and pay your bills every month.

However, the strain on your pocketbook is only an afterthought to politicians and bureaucrats who forget that the funds they spend so freely come from you, the hardworking taxpayer. Consequentially, they spend the money in ways that you, as a responsible individual, would never think to do. Remember—politicians don’t care how much money they spend or what they spend it on, because it isn’t their money. It’s yours.

Can you imagine if a business was run this way? It would keep raising the costs of goods and services on customers, who would then take their business elsewhere. That business would have no choice but to close its doors.

As chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, I intend to take a common-sense approach to managing tax dollars responsibly. Any decisions made about taxing and spending will be done with the understanding that these resources come out of the pockets of working people like you and need to go towards providing the critical services you expect to receive.

I stand firm against reckless and irresponsible spending and have always insisted that government should live within its means, the same way that we do as individuals, households and business owners.