Measure 97 is the most significant measure on our upcoming state ballot. If passed, it will raise funds dedicated to education, health care and senior services by increasing the minimum tax on corporations with more than $25 million in annual Oregon sales. Estimates of the new revenue range from $2 billion to $3 billion every year, so the stakes are high for Oregon residents and for the affected corporations. To date, supporters have raised $1.5 million for the campaign, opponents almost $8 million.
I’ve already invested time, energy, and money in Measure 97. My motive is simple — I’m committed to the public good, and the public good in Oregon has been compromised by an unbalanced and inadequately productive tax structure. But my purpose in this column and its two sequels isn’t to persuade you to vote for Measure 97. You probably will anyway, because you too are devoted to the public good. My purpose is educational. The issue involves several complexities, and I want to help you sort them out before we get barraged with competing claims. I hope you’ll then use the information to help others who may be undecided because they’re confused.
I’ll start with the main players. Both sides are stressing who stands to win or lose. So one framing narrative is that it’s big corporations vs. public sector unions. There’s truth in that framing — almost all the campaign money is coming from those sources. But truth won’t be served if we take that to mean it’s a contest between competing self-interests, not between private interests and the public good.
The new tax would be levied on about 1,000 corporations, the large majority of which (e.g. Walmart, Shell Oil, Home Depot) are headquartered out of state. By opposing Measure 97, management of these corporations are protecting their profits. Of course they’re using arguments suggesting less self-interested motives, but make no mistake: They’re working for their shareholders.
The main promoter of Measure 97 has been the Oregon Education Association, our public teachers’ union. Its most important allies have been two other unions representing public employees — SEIU and AFSCME. Whose interests are they advancing? Doubtless, passage will make raises more likely, though the unions must negotiate wages and benefits with each agency and school district. But the new funds will expand and improve public services in many ways.
Take education. For 25 years Oregon has been disinvesting in its public schools. Here are some of the results:
- In 2014-2015 Oregon had the third largest class sizes in the country.
- In 2014-2015, Oregon students averaged 169.9 days in the classroom. Most states require a minimum 180 days per school year.
- Oregon once had more than 1,200 career and technical education programs. Now there are fewer than 700.
- In 2013-14 the National Center for Education Statistics ranked Oregon’s graduation rate fourth lowest in the U.S.
- Education Week ranked Oregon 35th in school funding, with a D+ grade.
One more example: A 2014 U.S. Justice Dept. report faulted Oregon for woefully inadequate community mental health services. It’s to correct deficiencies like these that public employees are seeking more state revenue.
Next week I’ll explain what taxes corporations now pay in Oregon. In the following I’ll examine the claim that consumers, not large corporations, will foot the bill for Measure 97.
— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.