Oregon public employee unions drop corporate tax transparency initiative to focus on defensive ballot fights

BIGGER FISH TO FRY? Top Oregon public employee unions were ready to go on a ballot measure disclosing how much (or little) corporations pay in taxes in Oregon, but the need for business allies in a coming fight against two anti-tax measures led them to put the initiative aside.

By Don McIntosh

Leaders of SEIU Local 503 and Oregon AFSCME announced July 6 that they decided to withdraw a ballot initiative that might have shed light on how much Oregon’s biggest corporations pay in taxes. The announcement came on the day signatures were due, after their campaign had gathered over 130,000 signatures. The stand-down by the two biggest state employee unions followed a visit from Oregon governor Kate Brown to Local 503 headquarters and weeks of conversations between Brown and labor and business leaders.

The withdrawal puts Oregon labor in an all-defense posture on ballot measures this November, but it may also result in the addition of new allies as unions campaign to defeat several initiatives. Money that some businesses might have spent opposing the tax transparency initiative known as Initiative Petition (IP) 25 could instead now go to fight anti-tax initiatives IP 31 and 37.

To that end, top Nike lobbyist (and Portland Public Schools board chair) Julia Brim-Edwards formed a new political action committee June 29 called the Common Good Fund, which on July 3 reported a $100,000 contribution from Nike.  Listed as president of the fund is Portland real estate developer John Russell, who’s also vice chair of the governor-appointed body that directs the investment of state funds like the Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund. Russell, who has been held up as an example for paying his office building’s union janitors and security guards a dollar an hour above the union scale, was also part of the governor’s behind-the-scenes discussions.

In a statement released by governor Brown’s re-election campaign, Russell said Brown helped business and labor leaders develop a new coalition focused on “the biggest challenge this fall, a pair of unnecessary and poorly written constitutional amendments headed to the ballot.”

IP 31, which turned in final signatures June 27, is the latest entry in a series of anti-democratic measures that attempt to thwart majority rule. It would change the Oregon constitution to require a three-fifths supermajority for lawmakers to approve any legislation that would result in increased taxes or fees — including efforts to rein in tax breaks. Thanks to Ballot Measure 25 in 1996, Oregon already requires a three-fifths legislative supermajority to raise taxes, but in 2015, the Oregon Supreme Court determined that doesn’t apply to the repeal or scale back of tax breaks. IP 31 is financed in part by realtors, who reportedly hope it will prevent the Legislature from scaling back the mortgage interest deduction. Their campaign is represented by attorney Jill Gibson, who was the chief petitioner on an aborted anti-union “right-to-work” ballot initiative in 2016.

IP 37, which turned in signatures May 23, declares groceries exempt from any new taxes. It’s aimed in part at preventing any local government from levying a tax on sugary drinks like soda. The Oregon Attorney General’s office has said the way the constitutional amendment is worded, it would also prevent any tax on restaurants, and would exempt food businesses generally from any increases in the corporate minimum tax. The measure will appear as Constitutional Amendment 103 on the ballot

“We are encouraged that a growing number of businesses are joining this effort to defeat these harmful measures” said Oregon AFSCME Executive Director Stacy Chamberlain and SEIU 503 President Steven Demarest in a joint statement released by the Governor’s re-election campaign.

Dropping IP 25 was seen as a green light to potential business allies. The initiative would have required publicly traded corporations to disclose information including how much they pay in state taxes, as well as their total Oregon sales, and the total Oregon wages and compensation they pay. But it was always seen as a means to the end of greater tax fairness.

“There’s always tradeoffs,” SEIU Local 503 executive director Melissa Unger told the Labor Press. “The reality is we wanted to make sure we had a broad coalition to defeat these ballot measures.”

IP 31 and 37 aren’t the only measures unions are expecting to oppose. As of June 5, the Oregon AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education is also opposing IP 1 and IP 22:

  • IP 1, the Stop Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act of 2018, would reduce access to abortion by eliminating funding for abortion and women’s healthcare for people on Medicaid and public employees.
  • IP 22, the Stop Oregon Sanctuaries measure, repeals a 30-year-old state law that bars the use of state resources or personnel to detect or apprehend persons solely for violating federal immigration law. The initiative’s opponents say IP 22 would increase racial profiling, harm immigrant communities, and jeopardize public safety.

Unions had earlier introduced several prospective initiative petitions aimed at the November 2018 ballot. But the grocery union UFCW Local 555 withdrew a pair of measures aimed at curbing work schedule abuses after the Oregon Legislature passed some of those ideas into law. And the teachers union OEA filed but never put resources into a pair of measures that would have addressed school funding.

As for the corporate tax transparency idea, it could come back in the future, but in next year’s legislative session Unger said SEIU would rather focus on how to fund services and achieve greater corporate tax fairness. Oregon businesses continue to have the lowest overall tax burden of any state.

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