City Club of Portland: wrong on Measure 97

tax-increaseAppalling! What else can you say?

Members of the City Club of Portland voted Tuesday to support Measure 97, which proposes imposing burdensome gross receipts taxes on Oregon businesses that could total $6.1 billion in the 2017-19 biennium.

It’s hard to believe that such a distinguished civic group could support such a flawed scheme.

Oregon’s General Fund expenses are expected to grow by about 14 percent, or $2.7 billion, in the 2017-2019 biennium. The budget anticipates only about half that will be covered by new revenue, translating to a projected $1.35 billion shortfall.

Given such things as public employee pay increases, higher Medicaid expenses, and pension rate increases for state government and school district employees covered by PERS, some additional revenue may be justified. But not $6.1 billion. That’s highway robbery.

And collecting the additional revenue through an odious gross receipts tax, which ignores a business’s profitability, or lack thereof, is irresponsible. How well-educated City Club members, many of whom presumably work in the private sector, could endorse such a tax is inexplicable.

Also damning is the uneven applicability of Measure 97’s proposed taxes. Taxation of just C Corporations would create a vastly uneven playing field for Oregon businesses.

As the minority noted in the City Club’s committee report, “Many large businesses are LLCs and S corps, and they often compete with C corps in similar sectors. For example, Fred Meyer (Kroger) and Safeway grocery store chains are C corps and would pay the tax. New Seasons Market, a B corporation,47 and Albertson’s, a limited liability corporation (LLC),48 would not pay it. “

The flaws in the City Club’s arguments in favor of Measure 97 are evident right off the bat.

The City Club committee charged with determining the merit of Measure 97 said it “…presents a long-awaited opportunity to assure adequate investment in the health, education and the well-being of Oregonians.”

Nonsense!

The fact is there is absolutely no guarantee the legislature will apply Measure 97 revenue to early childhood through grade 12 public education, healthcare and services for senior citizens, in the coming years as the measure states.

If Measure 97 is approved by voters, the Legislature can appropriate its revenues “in any way it chooses,” Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson said in an Aug. 1 letter to Rep. John Davis, R-Wilsonville, a member of the House Committee on Revenue. Not only are Legislators “not bound by the spending requirements” of Measure 97, they can “simply ignore” them,” Johnson added.

What is most likely is that over time Measure 97 revenue would be spread around like honey in response to pressure from self-serving special interests with access to, and influence on, decision-makers.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) said when endorsing the measure, “If that passes, we’ll have a lot of money to pay for stuff.” The hundreds of groups that spend millions annually lobbying the legislature will have plenty of ideas on what “stuff” to spend the money on.

There’s also a high likelihood that some of those lobbyists will seek exemptions from all or part of the tax, just as Nike cut a deal with former Gov. John Kitzhaber and the legislature in 2012 to protect it from changes in the way the state calculates the company’s state income taxes.

Gov. Brown has already said she’d favor some “technical adjustments” if Measure 97 passes, including:

  • Allowing businesses to subtract a portion of their Oregon payroll from their corporate tax bill.
  • Prohibiting businesses from changing their corporate status “for the primary purpose” of evading the new gross receipts tax. (As written, the measure would exempt “benefit corporations” from the new tax)
  • Helping out software companies in Oregon by classifying sales of their services based on the location of the purchaser, rather than the location of the company selling the service.

The majority of the City Club committee that recommended a “yes” vote on Measure 97 also argued that “… the potential benefit of adequately funded state services outweighed any of the tax’s potential detrimental effects and that the consequences of prolonging the state’s revenue shortage where (sic) too great.”

Outweighed “any of the potential detrimental effects”? In other words, satisfying the state’s greed with $6.1 billion in additional revenue per biennium is more important that an expected dampening of income, job and population growth. Give me a break.

Finally, in endorsing Measure 97, the City Club is giving an easy out to liberal Democrats who want to avoid tackling difficult spending issues.

For example, as the minority pointed out, the unfunded PERS liability is $21-$22 billion. If nothing is done to deal with the creeping cost of PERS, even the Measure 97 windfall won’t be enough to avoid a funding crisis.

It’s not as though Oregon’s budget problems snuck up on the Democrat-controlled Legislature, leaving it no choice but to abdicate its responsibilities and leave it to a poorly crafted union-inspired ballot measure to fix things.

It’s been abundantly clear for a long time that trouble was coming. Where was the grit to fix things right?

 

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