Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Yes on Oregon Measure 97

Straight Talk About Measure 97

If we want Oregon to prosper we need to dramatically improve our state’s badly underfunded public schools, health care system, and senior services.  Here are some of the consequences of current funding levels: Oregon ranks 38th in school funding, has the 3rd largest class sizes, and has the 4th lowest graduation rate in the country.  Growing numbers of working people are unable to afford health care or financially survive a medical emergency; Oregon ranks 39th in the country for public health funding.  The number of seniors being forced to leave their homes because of a lack of social services also continues to grow.

The primary reason our state doesn’t have the funds it needs is that corporations operating in Oregon have quietly but steadily found ways to stop paying state income taxes.  As the Oregon Center for Public Policy pointed out in a recent study, “In the 1973-75 budget period, corporations paid 18.5 percent of all Oregon income taxes. Today they pay just 6.7 percent, a decline of nearly two-thirds. Absent any significant policy change, corporations are projected to pay just 4.6 percent of all Oregon income taxes by the mid 2020s.”  A study funded by The Council On State Taxation, a business lobbying group, found Oregon tied with Connecticut for the lowest “total effective business tax rate” in the country.

There is no point in beating around the bushes.  The only reasonable way to generate the tax revenue we need to fund critical state programs is by forcing corporations to pay more in taxes. If we don’t, as bad as things are now, they will get worse.  The state Chief Financial Officer, George Naughton, reports that the state of Oregon is facing a $1.4 billion gap between projected revenue and what it needs to maintain existing service levels.  State officials are talking possible 7 percent cuts across state programs.

There is an answer: Pass Measure 97 in November.

The virtues of Measure 97

Measure 97 will tax few corporations and the heaviest burden will fall on large out of state corporations.  Measure 97 makes one change to the existing Oregon tax code: it raises the corporate minimum tax on Oregon sales over $25 million for the largest C-corporations selling in the state.

Currently, the state minimum tax for C-corporations with sales of 25 to 50 million is $30,000 and tops out at $100,000 for C-corporations with sales above $100 million.  Measure 97 would impose a new tax rate of 2.5% on sales above the $25 million threshold.  The Oregon Legislative Revenue Office (LRO) offers the following example: “a C-corporation with Oregon sales of $50 million would pay a corporate minimum tax of $30,001 for the first $25 million in sales (the current tax) plus 2.5% on the second $25 million ($625,000) for a total minimum tax of $655,001.”

Oregon has some 400,000 businesses, 30,000 of which are classified as C-corporations.  According to the LRO, only 1051 of these corporations have more than $25 million in state sales and would be required to pay the higher minimum tax; that is approximately one-quarter of one percent of all businesses and 3 percent of all C-corporations selling in the state.  The real burden of the tax will fall on even fewer firms: the LRO estimates that the top 50 C-corporations would likely be responsible for more than 50 percent of the resulting increase in tax revenue.  And most of the money raised by the tax, more than 80 percent, will come from companies headquartered outside the state.

Measure 97 is an effective tax that will raise significant funds.  Measure 97 raises the minimum tax on large C-corporation sales, not profits.  By taxing sales rather than profits firms will not be able to fudge accounts and escape their responsibilities.  And Measure 97 taxes large C-corporations on their sales in Oregon.  Because the tax is on where the sales take place rather than where the goods are produced, firms cannot escape the tax by shifting production outside the state.  As for revenue, the LRO estimates that the tax would raise some $6 billion each biennium, which would boost the state budget by more than 15 percent; we are talking real money.

Measure 97 also makes clear where the money is to be spent.  The measure says that the funds generated by the tax are to be used to “provide additional funding for: public early childhood and kindergarten through twelfth grade education; health care; and services for senior citizens.” While it is true that the legislature will have the final say, passage of the measure will send a clear signal of our priorities to our elected leaders.

Misleading controversies over Measure 97’s effectiveness

The Oregon Legislative Revenue Office studied the likely impact of Measure 97 on the Oregon economy.  Some who oppose the measure have drawn on parts of its report to buttress their opposition.  Unfortunately, most of their objections to Measure 97 have been based on a misunderstanding of both the LRO’s methodology and the report’s conclusions.

Let’s be clear on what the report does say:

First, the report finds that Measure 97 will raise more than $6 billion in each of the next two budget cycles and that the new tax will ensure a more stable funding base for the state going forward.

Second, the report also shows that there is little reason to fear tax pyramiding.  Tax pyramiding is a common consequence of what are called gross receipt taxes, which are taxes that are levied on all business transactions.  As goods and services are sold from one business to another the tax tends to pyramid, growing larger and larger.  Measure 97 is not a typical gross receipts tax.  First, it is not levied on all business transactions.  As we saw above, only 1000 firms will likely pay the tax.  Competition within the economy will make it difficult for these firms to pass on the cost of the tax and other firms that may purchase their products will not be responsible for paying an additional tax.  Second, the LRO report shows that the tax will fall heaviest on large firms that are engaged in “final” rather than “intermediate sales,” for example, retail sales.  Thus, there is no evidence to support fears that Measure 97 will result in significant tax pyramiding and escalating tax rates.

Third, the report also concludes that the gains from greater and more stable funding of vital services come with minimal negative economic consequences.  The LRO study does find, as critics of Measure 97 point out, that the Oregon economy with Measure 97 in place will grow more slowly and create fewer jobs over the next five years than if the measure were not passed.  However, the negative impact of the tax is quite small.  For example, the LRO model predicts that there will be 20,000 fewer jobs in Oregon if Measure 97 is passed, but this is out of a projected labor force of some 2.7 million.  In reality we are talking about rounding errors.  This is highlighted by the results of a study of the effects of Measure 97 by the Northwest Economic Research Center (NERC) at Portland State University.  The NERC, using a similar methodology, concluded that adoption of the measure would generate a small overall gain in employment.

Most importantly, critics of Measure 97 do not appear to understand the LRO’s methodology and the biases that shape its conclusions.  The LRO did not use a forecasting model to assess the economic consequences of Measure 97.  In other words, the LRO never actually tried to predict what would happen to the Oregon economy if we passed or didn’t pass Measure 97.  For example, it did not try to model the consequences of slashing state budgets if the measure does not pass; it did not take the looming budget deficit into account at all.

Rather the LRO used an idealized model of the 2012 Oregon economy that operates in its own time and space, with firms that keep no profit (since all earnings are distributed to their owners) and full employment.  The authors of the study introduced the tax, made assumptions about firm responses, and used their model to simulate their created economy’s return to a new equilibrium state over a five year period.

While this model has its uses when comparing two different tax proposals, it is not very helpful for modeling the actual economic consequences of Measure 97.  In fact, its structure is such that its predicted results overestimate the costs and underestimate the benefits of the measure.  One serious flaw in the model is its assumption that businesses have no retained profits.  This means that firms will automatically seek to pass the entire tax along to consumers, leading to higher prices and declines in real income.

However, there are many reasons to think that this outcome is unlikely.  First, competitive pressures will, in many cases, make it difficult for large firms to raise their prices.  After all, only some firms in each industry will be required to pay the new tax.  Second, studies have shown, including a recent one jointly authored by the Oregon Consumer League and Our Oregon, that large firms tend to have national pricing strategies.  In other words, these firms charge the same prices for the same products in every state in which they operate.  The study also found no relationship between state tax policies and the cost of living in each state.  Thus, it is likely that large multi-state firms operating in Oregon will simply absorb much of the new tax, accepting slightly lower profits, rather than try to pass it on to consumers through higher prices.

When you hear opponents of Measure 97 confidently predict that its passage will lead to higher prices and real income losses for consumers because businesses will simply pass on the cost of the tax to consumers, take a minute to investigate who is bankrolling the opposition to the measure.  Among the leading contributors to the no campaign are companies like Comcast, Standard Insurance, Procter and Gamble, Weyerhaeuser, Walmart, Well Fargo, and US Bank.  Would they be pouring tens of thousands of dollars each into the campaign if they didn’t fear that the tax will cost them profits?

Another serious flaw in that the model is that it does not try to capture any of the broader social benefits that would accrue to the state and its citizens from passage of Measure 97.  For example, the model does not account for the fact that a better educated and healthier population will likely attract new businesses and employment opportunities.  Or that well-funded social services would enable more people to work, boosting their incomes, or help families better weather hard times and plan and save for the future.   If the LRO had adjusted its model to compensate for these flaws, there is no doubt that its assessment of the effects of Measure 97 would have been far more positive.

In sum, most Oregonians know that many people are hurting.  And we are facing a huge budget deficit that will, if nothing is done, require more cuts to education and critical social services, leading to more suffering.  Measure 97 is a game changer.  Yes, this measure will force a large tax increase on some of the country’s biggest corporations.  But the reason that we need such a large increase is that these corporations have essentially been using our public services for close to nothing.  Until 2010 the state minimum tax was $10.  Even now, many corporations find ways to completely avoid paying even the minimum tax.  Measure 97 will put an end to that.  It will go a long way to creating an Oregon that works for the great majority.

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