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By Janie Har October 3, 2012

Did Ben Unger want to stick a 15 percent tax hike to seniors?

PolitiFact Oregon knows there are a handful of legislative races that could determine which party controls the Oregon House in 2013. House District 29 in Washington County is one of them.

The Promote Oregon Leadership PAC, which is the campaign arm of House Republicans, put out a mailer targeting Democrat Ben Unger, a political consultant who grew up in Cornelius and is challenging incumbent Rep. Katie Eyre, R-Hillsboro. The mailer urges voters to ask the candidate these three questions should they spot him on their doorstep:

Why did he hand out anti-Nike literature while at University of Oregon? Why did he work for candidates who supported early release of violent criminals? And this: "Why did you support a 15 percent property tax increase on Oregon seniors?" Sources are in footnotes.

We’ll dispatch with the first two questions quickly so we can delve into the third, which is really the first question on this mailer and the one that tickles our fancy. Honestly, hitting up poor seniors on fixed incomes? How could he?

We followed up on the sources cited and figured out rather quickly that Unger circulated anti-Nike literature back in 1997 when he was vice president of the university’s student government, as part of a global effort to protest the company’s labor practices in overseas factories. (College students do that kind of thing.)

As for working "for candidates who supported early release for violent criminals?" Unger ran the campaign for Oregon Senate Democrats, whose candidates backed compromise prison legislation to help close the state budget. An analysis by The Oregonian discovered that a loophole resulted in the early release of hundreds of violent offenders. It was unintended, Democrats say. We’re not sure that qualifies as active support.

And now back to the claim about property taxes and seniors. We looked up the citation and found … a news story about Portland Public Schools pushing two tax measures on the May 2011 ballot. In case you don’t remember, voters approved the operating levy, and just barely killed the construction bond measure. From the article:

But if voters say yes to both tax increases -- one for school construction and renovation, the other for school operations -- property tax bills inside the district, already among the highest in the metro area, will rise more than 15 percent in a single year. That's daunting, even to some people who consider themselves supporters of schools.

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Now, for full disclosure, the two school measures would not have accounted for the entire increase, because property taxes increase three percent every year, which is how the reporter got to the "more than 15 percent in a single year." Some people may think those percentage points matter, but we think that’s picayune.

The more important question is how is Unger involved? As a political consultant, he managed the campaigns for both the schools bond measure and the operating levy. It’s fair to say he supported the measures and thought it was OK to ask for the money. But is it fair to single out seniors?

Nick Smith, spokesman for the House Republican caucus, said absolutely.

"It's clear to us, at least, that senior citizens are affected most by such large increases in these taxes," Smith wrote. "Voters need to know about Unger's past political work, and his support for tax increases that are especially harmful to Oregonians who are vulnerable."

We applaud House Republicans for looking out for the elderly, but we’re not buying it. The property tax increases would have applied just as well to wealthy people, young people, middle-aged people and lower-income working people, people who like cats, people who hate children, and so on.

Look, we know this is standard campaigning. Take a candidate’s position on an issue and weed out the context so you end up with something like Unger supported "a 15 percent property tax increase on Oregon seniors," as if he wanted to single out old folks for additional taxes. To us, the statement is missing important details that voters should have. But then, the mailers wouldn’t be as fun, would they?

We find the statement Half True: partially accurate, but missing important details.

Our Sources

Emails from Jared Mason-Gere, spokesman, Future PAC, (House Democrats) Oct. 2-3, 2012
Emails from Nick Smith, spokesman, Promote Oregon Leadership PAC, (House Republicans) Oct. 2-3, 2012
The Oregonian, "Nike critics plan protests around world on Saturday," Oct. 17, 1997
The Oregonian, "Law intended to save tax money cuts prison time for violent inmates," Dec. 5, 2009
The Oregonian, "Tough choice for Portland Public Schools' voters: Big school woes, big tax hikes," Feb. 12, 2011 (online)
Forest Grove News Times, "Mailers fudge facts on Unger," Sept. 18, 2012

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