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An Oregon trade group has announced that it will no longer push to put a landmark business tax on the ballot to raise money for public schools

SALEM — An Oregon trade group has announced that it will no longer push to put a landmark business tax on the ballot to raise money for public schools.

Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, which opposes the new $1 billion annual corporate activity tax, said July 16 that lawmakers had passed barriers so significant to getting it on the ballot — including the date of election and how petitioners could gather signatures — that such an effort was "virtually impossible."

"We're extremely disappointed that lawmakers went to such great lengths to hamstring our referral efforts, but the reality is that they have rigged the system so far in their favor that our chances of success at this point are very remote," the group wrote in a statement. "Though we will not be moving forward with the referral effort, we will continue to explore opportunities to minimize the negative impacts of this new tax on Oregonians by any means possible, including through legislative action or a potential initiative in a future election."

The statement referred to four bills passed by legislators in the latest session, including one that more strictly regulates how electronic petitions are dispersed to collect signatures, and one that would refer the tax package to a January 2020 vote, not a November 2020 vote.

Having the vote in January gives business groups much less time to collect signatures.

State Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton) helped develop the tax proposal.

"I am not surprised," Hass said. "I think the majority of Oregon businesses support education and I am not surprised that businesses do not want to fight against Oregon schools."

Shaun Jillions, head of Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, said this in no way signals that his group is going along with lawmakers in supporting the tax.

Two petitioners, Marie Bowers of Eugene and Jordan Orht of Silverton, have already filed paperwork to refer parts of the law to voters under the title Keep Oregon Affordable.

Bowers said that they have no plans to stop trying to get the measure on the ballot, which would require 74,680 signatures.

Jillions said he would advise them otherwise: "We'll have a conversation with them. In our view, they should withdraw the petition altogether, but we don't control that process."

Tough fundraising

If Bowers and Orht try to go it alone, they face a tough fundraising task. After the tax package passed, Jillions vowed to try and take it to the ballot. However, he dangled the idea of backing off a referendum to try and convince Senate Democrats to vote against House Bill 2020, a carbon emissions regulation program.

When those talks fell apart, Rob Freres, president of Freres Lumber and member of Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, gave $1 million to a political action committee pushing the referral.

Jillions said he would talk with Freres about how to use that money. It can be moved to other PACs, or Freres could file for a refund.

Bowers' and Orht's PAC — Keep Oregon Affordable — has had about $44,000 worth of printing and consulting services donated to them, but the account has a cash balance of $100.

Staunch supporters

The Student Success Act is a measure that lawmakers have been trying to get off the ground in some form for years to support public education, in a state where students are among the least likely in the nation to graduate from high school on time.

"Great, great news for our kids," said Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, in a statement. "This announcement moves us one step closer to ensuring that this vital investment in our young people will become a reality. We will remain vigilant in planning for a possible referendum, but most of our attention is being focused on preparing districts for implementation of the Student Success Act."

The Oregon Education Association was quick to praise the announcement Tuesday.

Oregon Business and Industry, the state's largest business lobby, was officially neutral on the policy, while Business For a Better Portland and the Coalition for the Common Good, which included sportswear powerhouse Nike, were staunch supporters.

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