Ballot initiatives are not the right place to create tax policy
Two years ago, opponents of Ballot Measure 97 — including the Pamplin Media Group editorial board — 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 taxes 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. But 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, which 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 proposed soda tax initiative in Multnomah County that was postponed). 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 initiative 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 some 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 for votes.
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.