Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

The Importance of Oregon’s Measure 97

Approval of Measure 97 is critical for the well-being of most Oregonians; its passage could also encourage efforts in other states to reverse the slashing of public capacities in the name of tax relief for profit-rich large corporations.

The national picture is well illustrated in a New York Times article.   As David Leonhardt explains:

Consider corporate taxes, which ultimately tend to be paid by the well-off, because they own the most stock. The official corporate rate is 35 percent, infamously higher than in any other advanced economy. Yet there are so many loopholes that companies often pay relatively little in tax.

The following chart highlights just how well corporations have done at avoiding taxes—and remember this shows the tax rate for all taxes paid (federal, state, local, and foreign) by corporations.

national-tax-mess

Here in Oregon, corporations have also done well.  In fact, according to the Anderson Economic Group, which does a yearly state-by-state study of the overall tax burden faced by businesses relative to their profits, Oregon has the lightest business tax burden in the country, and has secured that dead last position three years running.  The table below comes from its 2016 edition.

anderson-tax-burden

No wonder Oregon is short of funds and unable to deliver high quality early childhood and K-12 education, affordable health care, and critical senior services.

Measure 97 is designed to change this situation.  Although the Oregon initiative process limits the kinds of changes people can make to state law, the authors of this measure have crafted a well-designed change to the tax code.   The proposed measure makes one simple, but critical change to the state’s existing minimum tax code.

Here a bit of history is useful.  Oregon introduced a $25 minimum corporate tax in 1929.  The tax was lowered to $10 in 1931 and the rate remained unchanged until 2010.  By 2009, some two-thirds of C-corporations were paying just this $10 minimum.  As we can see below in the figure taken from an Oregon Center for Public Policy study, corporations currently pay only 6.7 percent of Oregon income taxes; thirty years ago it was 18.5 percent.

shrinking-oregon-corporate-taxes

The Great Recession, which caused the state deficit to explode, finally forced the legislature to act on tax reform.  It proposed, after consultation with the business community, a ballot measure which called for a new flat tax for all businesses and a new minimum tax schedule based on sales only for C-corporations. This measure, Measure 67, was approved by the voters.  The change, although helpful, was a modest one.  Most importantly, the new minimums remained set in unchanging dollar terms; were quite low; and were regressive in that the implicit minimum tax rate went down as sales went up.

Measure 97 seeks to remedy these shortcomings by changing only the minimum tax schedule, and only for the largest corporations.   Corporations with less than $25 million in in-state sales will see no change in their taxes.  Corporations with more than $25 million in in-state sales will now have to pay a new higher minimum tax equal to 2.5% of the amount of their sales above $25 million.

According to the Oregon Legislative Revenue Office, this new minimum will raise taxes on only 1051 corporations, less than one percent of all businesses operating in Oregon and less than 4 percent of all corporations operating in Oregon.  It will however raise a significant amount of money, some $3 billion a year; that amount will produce a 30 percent increase in the state’s general fund.  Moreover, as structured, the tax will fall heavily on the largest firms; more than half of the new revenue will come from the top 50 firms.  Finally, because the tax is based on sales, corporations will have little choice but to pay it.  They cannot fudge their sales figures like they can their profits, and it doesn’t matter where they produce as long as they sell in Oregon.  No wonder these large corporations don’t like the measure.

More money has been spent on the fight over Measure 97 than on any any other ballot measure in Oregon’s history.   According to the Oregonian:

With more than two weeks to go before the state’s Nov. 8 general election, groups against the corporate tax measure have contributed more than $22.5 million toward its defeat.

That surpasses the previous record of $21.2 million contributed in 2014 toward the defeat of Measure 92, the proposed GMO labeling measure. . . .

The group supporting the measure, Yes on 97, has raised more than $10.5. That puts the combined figure for spending on the measure at more than $33 million, which also eclipses the previous record of $29.6 million in total spending on a ballot measure. The prior record was also set during the contentious run-up to the GMO labeling measure election, in which it lost by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Among the biggest contributors to the No on 97 are retail corporations like Costco, Safeway, and Kroger, each of which has given almost $2 million.  More than 80 percent of the new revenue is predicted to come from large, multi-state corporations headquartered outside Oregon and not surprisingly it is these firms that are pouring in the most money to defeat the measure.

Their strategy is to scare working people, by claiming that the tax will be passed on to consumers through higher prices.  Little is said, of course, about the fact that the measure directs that the new money is to be spent on improving early childhood and K-12 education, expanding health care options, and funding senior services—all programs with high payoff for working people.  However, this fact aside, corporate threats of higher prices are merely that, empty threats.

There are three simple reasons why these large corporations will have little choice but to absorb the tax, and accept lower profits.  First, as mentioned above, very few firms will have their taxes raised by the measure.  Thus, these firms will be facing many firms that will not be subject to higher taxes. This is well illustrated by the following figure taken from an Oregon Center for Public Policy study.  If the firms affected by the new tax try to raise their prices, they risk losing market share.  In short, competitive pressures will make it difficult for them to raise their prices.

affected-firms-by-industry

Second, research shows that most large, out of state corporations employ national pricing strategies.  This means that they charge the same price for the same product in every state in which they sell.  In other words, there is no relationship between their pricing strategies and the various tax regimes they face in the different states in which they operate.  For example, the Oregon Consumer League examined prices charged by a number of major retailers.  What they found in the case of Target was typical:

Target is one of the biggest retailers in America, making $3.4 billion in net profits from $73.8 billion in sales in 2015. Target stores can be found in every state except Vermont. We selected one Target store in each state and looked up prices online for a sample of five items: a digital camera, laundry detergent, sunscreen, a box of Cheerios, and a spiral notebook. No matter which store was chosen, the prices did not change. . . . [P]rices remain consistent despite Target paying higher taxes in some states and much lower taxes in others.

Finally, there is the internet.  Most large firms offer on-line shopping.  Oregonians could easily check to see whether firms were raising local prices and if they found that to be true, simply order the same product on-line for the national price.  And, there is always Amazon, which is ready to sell anything to anyone.

In short, Measure 97 will raise much needed money that will be used to boost the quality of the state’s schools, health care, and senior services.  And it will do so by targeting the biggest and richest corporations, making them finally pay the taxes they have so far avoided.

For more on the importance of this measure and why I strongly support it you can read my article, Measure 97 corporate tax would put state on right track, which was recently published in the excellent local newspaper Street Roots.

 

 

 

 

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