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Endorsement: Ballot box no place to set fiscal policy
Editor's note: This endorsement is part of an ongoing series of editorials in advance of the Nov. 6, 2018, general election. Our endorsement editorial in the previous issue on Sept. 19, 2018, recommended voters reject Ballot Measure 105. Our Sept. 12, 2018, endorsement editorial recommended voters approve Ballot Measure 102.
Two years ago, opponents of Ballot Measure 97 — including this newspaper's editorial — argued forcefully that it was wrong for public employee unions to write tax law through the initiative process. In the end, voters agreed overwhelmingly with that position when they rejected the proposed 2.5 percent gross receipts tax.
Now, in 2018, some of the groups opposed to Measure 97 are using the initiative process to try to create tax policy of their own. Measures 103 and 104 have more basis in reality than did Measure 97, but we still believe the ballot box is no place to decide complicated fiscal issues. Oregon has seen enough of that already, and we are all living with the inequities and unintended consequences of previous one-sided ballot measures.
Voters should reject Measures 103 and 104 and insist instead that the Legislature perform the heavy lifting required to control costs of state government, while also raising new revenue where appropriate.
Here's a brief look at the two measures:
Measure 103: Prohibits taxes on groceries
This initiative is a direct reaction to Measure 97, which would have imposed a gross receipts tax on large companies, including most major grocers.
Measure 103 is a proposed constitutional amendment to ban any sales tax on groceries.
We agree with Measure 103's proponents that there should never, ever be a tax on basic needs such as groceries (or medicine). Oregon doesn't have such a tax now, and it's hard to envision it ever would.
Oregonians have grown accustomed to not having to pay the same regressive sales tax that Washingtonians, Californians and others pay on the things they buy. We believe that's a good thing, as the sales tax often hits lower-income households disproportionately hard. Oregonians like not having a sales tax. And we understand that many voters will see an opportunity to strike a blow against the sales tax on their ballot and be inclined to vote "yes." But we believe embedding tax policy in the state constitution is unnecessary and unwise.
Another difficulty is Measure 103's attempt to define "groceries." The definition is so sweeping that it captures products, such as sugary soft drinks, that people can reasonably argue ought to be taxed, much as we tax tobacco products and alcohol. (In fact, the measure would be retroactive — apparently so it can block a soda tax in Multnomah County that was never implemented.) Conversely, the measure's definition of groceries doesn't include other basic needs, such as medicine, which leaves the opportunity for those items to be taxed by a "Son of 97" type of measure.
And that brings us to our final objection to Measure 103: It divides the business coalition that defeated Measure 97 and opens the door for public employee unions to come back in 2020 with a new measure that taxes everything but groceries.
This back-and-forth battle between the unions and the business lobby is helpful in framing political debates, but it is not the way to craft thoughtful public policy. Voters should start rejecting all tax-related measures and demand that their representatives in Salem tackle the tough issues instead.
Measure 104: 60 percent majority for fee hikes
This measure also has a logical motivation at its core. When voters approved a 1996 ballot measure that required a three-fifths legislative majority for revenue-raising bills, they made a broad statement about their aversion to taxes. However, the Legislature and courts are now interpreting the definition of that law narrowly, giving the Democratic-controlled Legislature loopholes that allow it to take a simple-majority vote on large revenue increases, including certain fees and elimination of tax breaks.
If Measure 104 were simply a technical fix to the problems created by the 1996 law, we would be inclined to support it. However, Measure 104 vastly expands the requirement for a 60 percent majority to every fee that needs legislative approval. If the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, for example, decides it needs to increase the cost of a fishing license to keep up with inflation, it will need a three-fifths majority vote in the state House and Senate.
This could create havoc in the legislative process, as every fee increase would present an opportunity for lawmakers to engage in horse-trading: "I'll support this fee increase, but only if you vote for my bill even though you think it will be bad for Oregon." That kind of transactional politics is the antithesis of what we want to see in Salem. Compromises should be based on common ground, not on needing to line up votes for unrelated legislation.
We agree with proponents that legislators are starting to abuse their definition of "revenue," but Measure 104, which would become part of the state constitution, has too much risk of creating its own unintended consequences.
In our view, a more precisely worded measure could close the loophole from 1996, but until then, voters should say no to further constitutional changes.
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