SALEM — An Oregon trade group has announced that it will no longer push to put a landmark business tax to raise money for the state's public schools on the ballot.
Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, which opposes the new $1 billion annual corporate activity tax, said Tuesday 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 Tuesday, July 16. "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 2019, 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.
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 Ohrt of Stayton, have already filed paperwork to refer parts of the law to voters under the title Keep Oregon Affordable.
Bowers said Tuesday that they have no plans to stop trying to get the measure on the ballot.
It must get 74,680 signatures to get to the ballot.
Jillions said he would advise them otherwise. "We'll have a conversation with them," he said. "In our view, they should withdraw the petition altogether, but we don't control that process."
If Bowers and Ohrt 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 Ohrt'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.
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.
What could be on the 2020 ballot? Mushrooms, tobacco tax, pension reform
SALEM — Roughly 30 measures are vying for a spot on your ballot in 2020.
Some are measures that state lawmakers voted to refer to Oregonians. Others have been proposed by citizens to reconsider or amend state laws.
Each, though, raises a hot-button issue. They range from taxes to tolling on highways to psychedelic mushrooms.
The most publicized — the referral of a business tax to fund education — took a likely fatal blow Tuesday when key backers said they were giving up the fight.
Oregon has three forms of direct democracy: referendums, referrals and initiative petitions.
For referendums, which allow citizens to refer laws that the legislature has passed to the ballot, supporters must submit nearly 75,000 signatures in support.
Legislative referrals, which lawmakers vote to approve for the ballot, don't need signatures. Referrals are needed for lawmakers to change the state's constitution.
Citizens' initiative petitions, meantime, must raise more than 100,000 signatures, with the exact number depending on whether the measure amends state statutes or the constitution.
Backers of initiative petitions have until July 2 of next year to submit the required signatures.
Here are some of the most notable measures you could see on your ballot next year:
• Tobacco tax
What it does: Increases the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $2 per pack.
Signatures needed: None
A tobacco tax increase was one of Gov. Kate Brown's priorities going into the session, and was expected to haul in $100 million per year for the Oregon Health Plan, which provides health care for low-income Oregonians and other qualifying groups. The increase was proposed to help fill the growing share of public health care costs that the state must cover as the federal government tapers its support.
However, Brown admitted before the session even started that it would be a tough battle against tobacco companies, and would likely end up on the ballot. That notion was solidified early in the session when House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, told reporters the proposed tax was low on the priority list.
However, after sitting inactive in committee for months, the bill was amended and revived. The new version included funding for mental health services and a ballot referral and passed on the final day of session.
What it does: Reduces criminal penalties for unlicensed manufacturing, delivery and possession of psilocybin mushrooms to violations and misdemeanors, creates a regulatory framework for a licensed person to administer the drug to "qualified adults."
Signatures needed: 112,020
In September, Sheri and Thomas Eckert of Beaverton filed an initiative petition to lessen the criminal penalties for psilocybin — the psychedelic component of "magic mushrooms" — and create an avenue for limited legal use.
If approved by voters, criminal penalties for growing and possessing the mushrooms would be reduced to violations and misdemeanors. The measure would also create regulatory framework where certain therapists could administer the drug to their patients. The Eckerts are therapists who advocate for the therapeutic use of mushrooms.
It may seem far-fetched, but the Eckerts' campaign comes amid a growing movement of tolerance and support for the medicinal use of psychedelics. This Spring, Oakland, California and Denver decriminalized psilocybin.
In 2018, author and Harvard University professor Michael Pollan published an acclaimed book touting the medicinal properties of mushrooms and LSD. Meanwhile, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found the drug to be a low-risk, high-reward mental health drug, and the federal government approved a United Kingdom company to do trials on administering psilocybin as medicine in the U.S.
What it does: Requires voter approval of tolls imposed on existing roads.
Signatures needed: 149,360
In December, the state approved plans to impose tolling on Interstate 5 and 205 to decongest the roads. A petition filed last summer is taking aim at the state's authority to enact such ideas.
If passed, the measure would require a statewide majority vote on any tolls on existing roads. It would also require a majority vote from the voters of any counties where the proposed tolling would take place.
That means the proposed tolling on I-5 in the Rose Quarter area would need majority support in Multnomah County and the entire state.
The petition is sponsored by former Rep. Julie Parrish, Rep. Mike Nearman and Gladstone Planning Commissioner Les Poole.
Parrish said she wasn't sure how many signatures have already been collected.
If passed, new capacity on the roadway — either a new lane or an entirely new road — could have tolling without voter approval.
Parrish said polling shows 72 percent of Oregonians are opposed to tolling.
On the proposed projects, Parrish said tolling on I-5 would push cars off the freeway and into low-income neighborhoods that already have air quality issues, and the I-205 project would funnel cars to backcountry roads not constructed to stand that much traffic. Those people should have a say in the matter, she said.
"It's a bigger question than for the 90 legislators," Parrish said.
• Taming the "wild west" of campaign finance
What it does: Lawmakers voted to ask Oregonians whether the state should change its constitution to allow limits on donations to state political campaigns.
Signatures needed: None
Oregon is one of just a few states that has no limits on what donors can give to candidates for state political office. In the final hours of session, the Senate passed Senate Joint Resolution 18, which asks voters whether to amend the constitution to allow limits.
• Grappling with Oregon's pricey retirement benefits
What they do: Several initiative petitions have been filed to address the staggeringly complex boondoggle that is the state's public pension system, which is facing about $26 billion in money it owes to retirees that it can't currently pay.
Signatures needed: 149,000
Initiative Petition 13 would change the state's constitution, so it would need about 149,000 signatures to get to the ballot. The other three measures, which have the same backers, are statutory, and would only require about 112,000 signatures.
One such measure, IP 13, propped up by two former state lawmakers and a former member of the state education board, would prevent public employers from adding to their unfunded obligations, and would prevent the state from borrowing money to pay down those obligations. Another set of measures, proposed by former governor Ted Kulongoski and former state senator Chris Telfer, would amend the state's pension benefits to save the state money. Altogether, four measures on the subject have been proposed, though you are not likely to see nearly that many on the ballot — three are just variations of cost-saving measures proposed by Kulongoski and Telfer.
The debt measure has not been approved for circulation. And it's also not yet been determined whether supporters of the Kulongoski-Telfer measures will move forward now that the legislature has passed Senate Bill 1049, which made some adjustments to the state's retirement benefits in an attempt to save money.
• Recall Gov. Kate Brown
What it would do: Recall Gov. Kate Brown
Signatures needed: 280,050
This week, Oregon Republican Party Chair Bill Currier filed a petition with the Secretary of State's Office to give voters the option of recalling Gov. Kate Brown. Calling the attempt a longshot is generous, as it would need 280,050 valid signatures collected in just 90 days.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this story misspelled Jordan Ohrt's name. Ohrt is from Stayton.
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