We’re disappointed, if unsurprised, that the revenue committees are focused on tax credits and other giveaways. We aren’t shocked that the tax bills under consideration lack any guiding philosophy but represent a grab-bag of gifts to whatever constituency is squawking.
Number 1 on our Hit Parade, albeit a relatively small item, is HB 4097, which would give volunteer firefighters $1,000 a year through the tax code. It arises from anecdotes that, Gosh, surely the money would help attract volunteers. Never mind that fire fighting is a local responsibility paid for with local tax revenue, or that no one has studied whatever the problem may be. Five of seven members of the House Revenue Committee are cosponsors.
Number 2 is of consequence: a tax credit intended to maintain low-income housing by giving the credit to multi-unit owners who sell to new owners that pledge to maintain low-income rents for 30 years. HB 4043 has amendments that would improve the bill, but it remains a flawed way to preserve low-income housing.
Number 3 is the $16 million-per-year tax giveaway to Washington County under the “Gainshare” program. Stuffed into the Senate omnibus, SB 1524, the program (which dispenses $700,000 to seven other counties and nothing to 28) would be renewed ahead of its six-year schedule for renewal, meaning that no agency has performed review of its effectiveness. The legislature put sunsets on tax credits more than a decade ago to ensure real review of tax expenditures every six years. Senate Finance seems poised to let Gain Share jump past that hoop.
Number 4. The tax committees last year maneuvered the same advance renewal of this now $20-million annual subsidy for the movie industry. This year’s omnibus would provide that the reimbursements paid for every qualifying movie would be increased, thus disbursing the available funds from annual tax credit auctions to fewer movies than under current law. In Senate Finance on February 14, Alan DeBoer, a former senator from Ashland, brought up our February 7 testimony and described frustrating participation in the auctions, which the Department of Revenue administers. “Get rid of the tax credits. You’re just helping people that don’t need the money [to] pocket the money and pay less in taxes, which is contrary to our philosophy.” DeBoer urged the committee to abolish the tax credits and fund the industry through the Ways and Means process. Committee Chair Lee Beyer conceded that option was “not politically possible.” We assume that’s because Ways and Means has higher priorities—and the tax committees don’t.
These and other efforts to give away revenues come amid big budget surpluses. Oregon’s official economist projected February 9 that taxpayers may be in line next year for a nearly billion-dollar kicker, thanks to the state’s kookie constitutional provision that makes economic projections more important than the legislature’s budget. But the Office of Economic Analysis also warned that the budget is likely in for a shock when the Fed’s interest rate hikes have their intended effect on inflation, the economy—and government tax receipts.
Yet the mood in the legislature appears to be: What me worry?
The clever reality of tax expenditures in our Hit Parade is that the state never collects the taxes, so they don’t show up in the budget—they never existed. Outside the revenue committees, few legislatures pay attention to tax expenditures because, you know, tax is hard.
At least we’re not Mississippi (we say that a lot), where the legislature is intent on abolishing the income tax despite its citizenry ranking nearly last in nearly everything. Neighboring Idaho is on a similar jag. In Utah, Republicans are prepared to reject the Democrats’ proposed cut in the sales tax on groceries in favor of their own cut in income taxes. So things could be worse here.
As always, we urge you to write your representatives on whatever among these or other issues make you simmer.