The campaign against a November ballot measure to improve transportation in the Portland metro area by taxing large business payrolls has received nearly $840,000 in cash contributions — much of that from some of Oregon’s largest and more politically influential corporations.
The Stop the Metro Wage Tax campaign has received $100,000 contributions in the past few weeks from Nike, Intel, The Standard and Daimler Trucks. It has also gotten significant cash from Oregon businesses such as Tillamook Creamery, Lithia Motors and Cambia Health Solutions.
The multi-billion dollar transportation measure was referred to the ballot earlier this year by Metro, the regionally elected government that oversees land use in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. If voters approve it, the measure will tax businesses up to 0.75% on employee payrolls starting in 2022, excluding businesses with 25 or fewer employees and local governments.
The money raised would pay for 20 years of transportation improvements, including an expansion of the MAX light rail system, safety improvements along routes to schools and free youth transit passes. Along with local funding, Metro also expects to leverage more than $2 billion in federal or state money, making the transportation plan worth roughly $7 billion in total.
But Portland-area businesses are pumping big money, by the norms of local ballot measures, into the opposition.
“Local employers are proudly standing with the 70% of workers in the region, including those earning a minimum wage, to defeat this new tax on wages and paychecks,” Jeff Reading, spokesperson for the Stop the Metro Wage Tax campaign, said in an emailed statement. “Our growing coalition represents more than 24,000 jobs in the Metro area.”
“Intel is firmly committed to supporting our communities,” Intel spokesman William Moss said in a statement. “However, we disagree with this proposed tax on jobs, which could damage local businesses and deter future investment in the region.”
Although workers would not directly pay the tax themselves, the measure would increase the cost businesses pay to employ them, which opponents say would discourage local hiring.
Nike did not offer a comment on its contributions, but instead deferred to the statement from Stop the Metro Wage Tax.
The Get Moving PAC, the primary political organization supporting the transportation measure, has received roughly $560,000 — some of that from local unions, with other donations from out-of-state construction and infrastructure firms. Supporters of the transportation plan have talked up the number of construction jobs it could create.
The Metro package has been in the works for several years, and many business groups in the region initially supported it. That includes the Portland Business Alliance, the region’s largest chamber of commerce.
Some of those local business leaders even offered input into the creation of the measure, but views shifted as the coronavirus pandemic hit the state.
Back in July, groups including the Portland Business Alliance and other regional chambers of commerce wrote a letter to the Metro council, urging it to delay referral of the measure to a future year.
“The current proposed revenue mechanism is the worst possible new tax to propose at this specific time. There is no question that this measure will make it more expensive to employ people at a moment when we need to be doing all that we can to keep people employed and businesses fully staffed,” the coalition of business groups wrote at the time. “Simply put, imposing a new payroll tax now will lead to further job losses in the short term, and will slow economic recovery in the long term.”
Supporters of the measure say they expected businesses to oppose the tax.
“We would have liked them not to have opposed it, because we think it’s the responsibility of businesses who make profits in our region to support efforts that are good for the region, and we believe that this transportation effort is good for the region,” said Marcus Mundy, who is executive director of the Coalition of Communities of Color and was part of the task force that helped Metro officials shape the ballot measure.
“No measure is perfect, but this measure does pay attention to the most disadvantaged communities,” Mundy said. “It does pay attention to equity. It does pay attention to safety, and we spent a lot of time as a group, on the task force, looking at all the pieces of this. … Our region depends on transportation for the very businesses that are opposing it right now.”
The Metro transportation package is part of a crowded local ballot. Voters will also be asked to consider a bond measure for Multnomah County libraries, a tax levy for parks in Portland, a tax levy to create universal preschool in Multnomah County and a $1.2 billion bond measure for Portland Public Schools.
Several of the corporations that are fighting the Metro transportation package have made donations for the Portland schools bond, a reminder that the politics of local tax measures are complicated and often politically interwoven.
Nike, for example, has given $35,000 to the organization supporting the Portland Public Schools bond. Nike executive Julia Brim-Edwards is a member of the district’s school board and an at-large member of the Portland Business Alliance’s board.