Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Oregon

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Election Thoughts

President Obama had hoped that recent signs of economic strength would benefit Democrats in the recently completed election.  While it is true that job creation has picked up, the unemployment rate is falling, and growth is stronger, the reality is that most Americans have not enjoyed any real gains during this so-called expansionary period.

The following two charts highlight this on the national level.  The first shows how income gains made during the expansion period have been divided between the top 1% and everyone else.   There is not a lot to say except that there is not a lot of sharing going on.

income distribution

The second shows trends in real median household net worth.  While declines in median net worth are not surprising in a recession, what is noteworthy is that median net worth has continued to decline during this expansion.  Adjusted for inflation the average household is poorer now than in 1989.

Median-Net-Worth

Oregon provides a good example of state trends.  The chart below shows that the poverty rate in Oregon is actually higher now than it was during the recession.

fs20141106graphicviewofpoverty_graph1_small

The poverty rate for children is even higher. In 2013, 21.6 percent of all Oregon children lived in families in poverty.

And, not surprisingly, communities of color experience poverty rates far higher than non-hispanic whites.

fs20141106graphicviewofpoverty_graph5_small

Electing Republicans will certainly not improve things, but it is hard to blame people for feeling that the Democratic Party has abandoned them.  

More promising is movement building to directly advance community interests.  One example: voters in five states passed measures to boost minimum wages.   Another was the successful effort in Richmond, California to elect progressives to the city council over candidates heavily supported by Chevron, which hoped to dominate the council and overcome popular opposition to its environmental and health and safety policies.

Corporations And The General Welfare

There is general agreement that the economy is not growing fast enough to boost employment.  The question: What to do about it?

The response, at all levels of government, seems to be: increase corporate subsidies and lower corporate taxes in hopes that corporations will boost investment and, by extension, employment.  Those who promote this response no doubt reason that corporations must be struggling along with workers and need additional incentives and support to become successful “job-creators.”

The chart below, taken from a Paul Krugman blog post, certainly raises questions about this rationale and response.  It shows trends in corporate profits (in red) and business investment (in blue), both measured as shares of GDP.

Profits and Investment

As you can see, profits have clearly been trending upwards over time, especially during our current recovery.  At the same time, business investment, although improving, remains historically quite low.  It is hard to see a poor profit performance as the root cause of our slow growth and job creation.

Moreover, banks are sitting on record amounts of money.  The chart below, from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, shows that banks are holding approximately $1.5 trillion in excess reserves.  In the past, excess reserves averaged roughly $20 billion.  In other words, our banks just aren’t motivated to make loans.  And, instead of taxing these excess reserves to encourage loan activity, the Federal Reserve is actually paying the banks interest on their holdings.

EXCRESNS_Max_630_378

Now, as noted above, it would not be fair to say that governments are not actively trying to create jobs.  It is just that they are going about it in the wrong way, the wrong way that is, if their aim is to actually create jobs.

Governments continue to shovel huge subsidies and tax breaks at our major corporations.  This, despite the fact that most studies find little evidence that they help promote investment or employment.  What they do, of course, is enhance corporate profits.  They also force cutbacks in public spending, which does have negative effects on the economy and social welfare.  Ironically, these negative effects then cause corporations to shy away from investing.

The New York Times recently ran a good series on state and local tax deals and subsidies written by Louise Story.  She wrote:

A Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of local incentives granted nationwide and has found that states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies. The beneficiaries come from virtually every corner of the corporate world, encompassing oil and coal conglomerates, technology and entertainment companies, banks and big-box retail chains.

The cost of the awards is certainly far higher. A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid. . . .

A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.

Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, creating a high-stakes bazaar where they pit local officials against one another to get the most lucrative packages. States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race with the goal of defeating their neighbors.

These subsidies can dominate state budgets.  The Times reports that they were equal to approximately one-third the budgets of Oklahoma and West Virginia and almost one-fifth of the budget of Maine.

Here in Oregon, we continue to struggle with budget shortfalls.  And, fearful of losing corporate investment, the state legislature is doing what it can to keep corporate costs down.  In December 2012, Governor John Kitzhaber called the state legislature into special session to pass a bill specially designed to help Nike.

Nike had privately told the Governor that it planned to spend at least $150 million in an expansion which it claimed would create at least 500 jobs over a five year span.  If the state wanted that expansion and those jobs to be in Oregon, it had to reassure the company that its current favorable tax treatment would remain unchanged far into the future.

Although state legislators were not pleased to be presented with a major tax bill with little if any time to study its terms, they passed it.  The new bill guarantees Nike that the state of Oregon will not change how it calculates the company’s state taxes for the next 30 years, regardless of any future changes in the state’s tax policy.  More specifically, it gives the Governor power to offer such a deal to any major company that plans to invest at least $150 million and create at least 500 jobs over a five year span.  It just so happened that Nike is the only company, at least for the moment, receiving this benefit.

To appreciate what is at stake in this deal a little background on how Oregon taxes multi-state corporations like Nike is helpful.  Prior to 1991, Oregon taxed Nike using a formula that considered the state’s share of Nike’s total property, payroll, and sales, with each weighted equally.  In 1991, Oregon double weighted the sales component.  This greatly reduced Nike’s state tax bill, since while its property and payroll are concentrated in Oregon, only a small share of its sales are made in the state.

Then in 2001, Oregon began introducing a “single-sales factor” formula.  As Michael Leachman of the Oregon Center for Public Policy explains:

Under this formula, only in-state sales relative to all US sales matter in determining how much of a company’s profits are apportioned to and thus taxable by Oregon; it doesn’t matter how much of their property or payroll is based in Oregon. The Legislative Assembly in 2005 cut short the phase-in process and fully phased-in the “single-sales” formula for tax years starting on or after July 1, 2005.

The Oregon Department of Revenue estimates that using the single-sales factor formula instead of the double-weighted sales formula is costing Oregon $77.6 million in the current 2005-07 budget cycle, and will cost another $65.6 million in the upcoming 2007-09 budget cycle. The projected decline in the cost of “single-sales” in the upcoming budget cycle is temporary. It is due primarily to a corporate kicker that will slash corporate tax payments by two-thirds this year. In subsequent budget cycles, the revenue hit from “single-sales” will return to a higher level. . . .

Take Nike, for example. Nike lobbied for the switch to single-sales factor apportionment and it’s easy to see why. At the Oregon Center for Public Policy, we conservatively estimate that Nike’s 2006 tax cut from “single-sales” was over $16 million. Other prominent, profitable firms such as Intel also received a massive tax break from “single-sales.”

As Michael Munk points out:

The governor’s deal is also particularly cynical when at a time of declining public services desperate politicians are dragging out a regressive sales tax out of mothballs and The Oregonian’s “fact checker finds “mostly true” a finding that Oregon’s existing tax breaks (including almost $900B a year in corporate welfare) exceed tax collections.

Of course, this stance towards the needs of Oregonians is nothing new for Nike.  In 2010, Oregonians voted in favor of two measures (66 and 67) which temporarily raised taxes on the very wealthy and corporations.  Phil Knight, the Nike CEO, not only gave $100,000 to the anti-Measures campaign, he also wrote an article published in the Oregonian newspaper in which he said:

Measures 66 and 67 should be labeled Oregon’s Assisted Suicide Law II.

They will allow us to watch a state slowly killing itself.

They are anti-business, anti-success, anti-inspirational, anti-humanitarian, and most ironically, in the long run, they will deprive the state of tax revenue, not increase it.

The current state tax codes are all of those things as well. Measures 66 and 67 just take it up and over the top.

Knight even threatened to leave the state.  He didn’t, but I guess the last laugh is his, now that his company’s tax situation is secure for the next 30 years.

So—what lies ahead—more counterproductive state policies and head scratching about why things are going poorly for working people, or a change in strategy?

Wage Inequality in Oregon

wage-gap-widens.jpg

The chart above comes from an Oregonian story by Jeff Manning.

It shows that average annual wages for Oregon’s top 2 percent of earners grew by 29.5 percent (adjusted for inflation) over the period 1990 to 2008.  By comparison, average annual earnings for those at the 50th percentile grew by only 2.5 percent over the same period.

And of course earnings inequality is far greater than these numbers suggest since they only include wage earnings.  The richer the person the more their earnings typically come from investment income.

The significance of these trends: our economy is structured so that only a very few enjoy the benefits of growth.  Our challenge then is not to renew existing economic patterns and relations (which is what current government policy seems designed to achieve, even if not very effectively), but rather to create a new economy.  And this will have to be an intentional restructuring.  Relying on market forces means relying on those who already dominate our economic lives, and it is pretty clear where their interests lie.

The State Fiscal Crisis–Responses Needed

A recent article by economist Rick Wolff highlights one of the many serious challenges facing the country–the growing fiscal crises that are hitting our states and municipalities.  He presents the following table from the work of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which shows the gap between the fifty states’ tax revenues and expenditures during the last (2001) and current (2007-?) recessionary periods.

As the chart makes clear, while a recession generates a budgetary shortfall, the shortfall extends for years after the recession is over.   In particular, the expected shortfall over the next two years will be very large–some $360 billion.   This shortfall will have to be closed through some combination of revenue increases or expenditure cuts.

state-budget-shortfalls.jpg

The CBPP has studied state responses to current budget shortfalls and reports the following:

  • 27 states have reduced health benefits for low-income children and families
  • 25 states are cutting aid to K-12 schools and other educational programs
  • 34 states have cut assistance to state colleges and universities
  • 26 states have instituted hiring freezes
  • 13 states have announced layoffs
  • 22 states have reduced state workers’ wages

With fiscal problems set to grow we need bold action.   If we do nothing budget cuts will only further weaken our economy (by reducing demand)  and worsen living and working conditions for the great majority of citizens.

Oregon is no exception.  In fact, according to a story in the Oregonian, a Pew Center on the States report “names Oregon as one of 10 states at greatest peril of following California over a state budget cliff.  Even though the national economy has started to rebound, Oregon is likely to have a harder time coming up with enough money to pay for schools and other public services — or finding enough places it can cut back its spending — than it did when patching together a balanced budget for 2009-10 said Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center.”

One part of any rational response to this situation has to be increasing revenue by raising taxes on the wealthy and our large corporations.  Oregon is trying to do just that with Measures 66 and 67.  These measures–passed by the legislature but put on the January ballot by opponents–deserve our support.

Obviously significant national action is also needed to address what is a major structural problem.  One obvious response: cut military spending (which continues to grow) and channel some of the savings to state and local governments.

More generally, we need a government-directed, integrated industrial and employment program.  For example, our government owns large holdings in major auto and finance enterprises.  Rather than remain passive owners, we should take control over the firms we own and redirect their activity.  We should start producing mass transit vehicles and require that the banks direct needed funds at reasonable rates to support that production.  And we should direct federal transportation spending to state and local governments so that the new vehicles can be purchased.

We should do the same for the production of needed technology and equipment to develop and expand alternative energy sources like wind and solar power.

At present, federal stimulus money is being used to encourage private firms to retrofit buildings to improve energy efficiency.  Instead, we should encourage the establishment of local publicly owned enterprises to carry out this work, with the profit earned from the work redirected back to local government budgets to support desired social programs.  And all publicly organized production should guarantee living wages and encourage democratic unionization.

Much more could be done—including the cancellation of so called free trade agreements which encourage capital flight and the pitting of workers in one country against another.

The point is that we need a dramatic rethinking and reorganization of how our economy works.  There are plenty of good ideas available—at issue is the political organization and will.

Tax Fairness in Oregon

Oregon faces a severe fiscal crisis.  In short, the state is just not taking in enough money to fund all the services needed by people.  In response the 2009 Legislature passed two measures (66 and 67) that will raise $733 million in new revenue in the 2009-11 biennium.  While not a solution to the crisis, this extra money will help reduce cuts in spending on education, health and public safety.  These measures also help produce a more equitable tax structure.

In brief, Measure 66 raises taxes on high income Oregonians—couples earning over $250,000 a year and individuals earning over $125,000 a year.  Measure 67 raises taxes on profitable corporations. (More details on both measures here).

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are those that oppose any tax changes, even ones as important, needed, and justifiable as these.  They succeeded in putting these measures on the January ballot, hoping to get voters to reject them.

One of their arguments is that the tax increases are unfair.  But really what is unfair is the unbalanced nature of our existing tax system (see table below).  For example, as the Oregon Center for Public Policy explains:

Today, low-income Oregonians pay a larger share of their income in state and local taxes than wealthy Oregonians. In fact, the highest-income Oregonians pay the lowest share of their income in state and local taxes. . . . After accounting for the deduction of state income taxes on federal tax returns, the lowest-income Oregonians currently pay 8.7 percent of their income in taxes, the highest share among all income groups. Middle-income Oregonians pay 7.9 percent. The wealthiest 1 percent — households with income in excess of $410,000 and averaging over $1 million — pay only 6.1 percent of their income toward state and local taxes.

The passage of Measure 66 will help move things in a more equitable direction:

The lowest-income Oregonians will still pay the same 8.7 percent of their income in state and local taxes, but the share will increase for those at the highest levels of the income scale. For the wealthiest 1 percent, for example, state and local taxes will increase from 6.1 to 6.6 percent of their income. For the next highest 4 percent of taxpayers, taxes will increase from 7.0 to 7.1 percent of income. These slight changes for those at the top 5 percent of the income scale constitute a small but important step toward making our tax system better based on ability to pay.

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Other opponents are calling these measures “job-killer tax increases,” especially Measure 67.  The recently established Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes (OAJKT) argues that “Oregon government doesn’t even need the new taxes. They already have the money sitting in bank accounts.”  Their website says that if the measures are defeated “no services have to suffer.”

In a recent Oregonian column, Steve Duin examines those behind the OAJKT effort to overturn Measures 66 and 67.  He concludes as follows:

As Chuck Sheketoff at the Oregon Center for Public Policy noted, these riffs are necessary because only 3 percent of Oregonians will pay higher taxes if Measures 66 and 67 pass. . . .

Tis the season. I’ll end with this. The OAJKT website insists that “the most damaging” tax increase for business would require that a C-corporation with $25 million-$50 million in Oregon sales will now pay a gross sales tax of $30,000.

That’s all? Less than one-tenth of 1 percent? For many companies that, for years, have paid the $10 minimum? Who in the world considers that unreasonable?

A number of economists teaching and working in Oregon have recently published a statement in defense of Measures 66 and 67.   You can read it here.

The Oregon Economic Experience

It is often hard to know how our fellow Oregonians are doing — for a good look check out “Survey shows how recession has hit Oregon households” by Richard Read in The Oregonian, September 17, 2009.

The articles makes clear that there is a lot of suffering going on in Oregon, even more than in the nation as a whole.  Some highlights:

  • “Almost a third of Oregonians polled recently say they or a family member in their household have been laid off or lost a job in the past year.”
  • “Forty-one percent say they or a family member at home have had work hours cut during the recession. Nearly a third have housed a family member or friend because of money.”
  • “In other responses, 40 percent of Oregonians interviewed say they worry all or most of the time that their total family income will not be enough to meet expenses. That’s 6 percentage points higher than nationally and 9 points higher than last year, when the question was asked in Oregon during a similar survey.”
  • “More than a quarter of Oregonians say they or a household member have had problems paying for necessities such as mortgage, rent, heating or food during the past 12 months. Fifty-six percent say that if they were suddenly unable to pay for necessities, they wouldn’t know where to go for help from the government or a charity.”

Why The Status Quo Is Unacceptable

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The table above comes from the Oregon Center for Public Policy report by Joy Margheim entitled Labor Day Woes and Wishes.

Consider the table carefully—among other things it shows that over the period 2000-2007, the bottom 60% of state income earners actually lost money (in real terms).  Only the top 20% gained, and most of that gain went to the top 1%.  This outcome represents a sharp challenge to our media and elected officials who talk about overcoming the Great Recession and returning to “normalcy.”  Is a return to a political economy in which the majority actually suffers an income loss really our goal?

Clearly, we need to transform the way our economy works and our economic policies should be judged accordingly.  At the same time, a look at the enormous gains enjoyed by those at the very top of the income distribution speaks volumes about the source of resistance to the needed changes.

Unemployed Councils: Lessons For Today

Economic conditions are bad; what should we do?  In many ways the problem is not a lack of ideas—if we had power we could strengthen labor laws making it easier for workers to defend their rights; implement a single payer health system; nationalize the banks and re-direct funds to priority areas like mass transit and green technology; raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy to fund vital social services and programs; change trade laws to undercut corporate power.  The list goes on.

No, the problem is more a lack of political power and will.  People feel isolated and discouraged.  How do we overcome that problem?  History offers some important examples that deserve serious study.  One is the experience of the 1930s Unemployed Councils.

By the end of 1931, Unemployed Councils in Portland had more than 3000 registered members.  When individual efforts to work within the system failed, the Councils often took direction action in defense of their member’s interests. For example, after some 400 unemployed stormed City Hall, the city agreed to provide housing and shelter for over 1000 unemployed working people.  [The picture below illustrates the work of the unemployed councils in Portland “reversing” an eviction]

If unemployed workers could come together in the midst of the depression and form a powerful national organization to fight for meaningful social changes for themselves and others,  why can’t we help today’s hungry, homeless, and unemployed (modern day victims of social forces beyond their control) organize and work with other movements to demand change?

Here are some places to learn more about the Unemployed Councils:

The Pacific Northwest Labor History Project

KBOO’s Labor Radio

“Organize among Yourselves”: Mary Gale on Unemployed Organizing in the Great Depression

“I’m Going to Fight Like Hell”: Anna Taffler and the Unemployed Councils of the 1930s

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