With rising pension and health care costs, the state of Oregon is facing a likely budget shortfall. One ballot measure this November could give voters significant influence over how lawmakers find money to fund the state's school and fix the roads.
A measure heading for the ballot will ask voters whether they want to make it harder for politicians to curtail current tax breaks and raise fees. Proponents of the measure say it will force politicians to negotiate when it comes to spending state resources, but opponents have decried it as a mechanism to hold the budget hostage.
Currently the state's constitution requires the Legislature to have a supermajority, or three-fifths vote, to raise taxes. That's been interpreted as applying only to passing new taxes.But proponents of Initiative 31 believe the supermajority vote should also apply to scaling back current tax breaks and raising fees, both of which also raise revenue for the state.
“Voters in Oregon more than 20 years ago gave a directive to the politicians and bureaucrats that they wanted a supermajority to raise taxes in Salem and … [politicians] have found loopholes to get around the will of the voters,” said Derrick DeGroot, one of the measure’s chief petitioners and the chair of the Klamath County Commission.
The coalition of groups backing the measure, including the Oregon Association of Realtors and the Oregon Home Builders Association, have until July 6 to submit 117,578 valid signatures. As of Wednesday, they had submitted 174,006.
The measure has raised more than $1 million, with realtors being the measure's biggest financial backer.
Proponents of the measure have been galvanized in recent years by votes they believe should have required a supermajority but instead fell along party lines.
During the 2017 legislative session, the majority of House Democrats voted to curtail a tax break by around $100 million a year. Democrats argued that the tax cut primarily benefited well-off professionals and they were eager to trim the break. House Democrats passed it on a simple majority despite cries from Republicans that it warranted a supermajority.
Oregon Republican Sen. Brian Boquist, of Dallas, will be watching the measure carefully.
The state senator is suing the governor and legislative leaders over another measure he believed warranted a three-fifths vote but passed along party lines. Senate Bill 1528, which disconnected the state from federal tax changes, didn't technically increase taxes but it did result in businesses not receiving hefty tax breaks.
The state's legislative attorney Dexter Johnson disagreed with Boquist, writing 1528 “is not a bill for raising revenue and therefore may pass with a simple majority."
If voters approve this initiative, Boquist said, the key difference is the parties will be forced to to work together. Democrats control both chambers in the state Legislature.
“Everyone will have to stay in the room and solve the problem, that’s the key point right there,” Boquist said.
Left-leaning progressive groups initially said they would counter this initiative with their own measures to make it easier to raise taxes by limiting or repealing the three-fifths vote requirement. They eventually withdrew those efforts, saying they didn’t believe Initiative 31 had the support with voters to pass.
Daniel Hauser, a policy analyst with the Oregon Center for Public Policy, said the initiative is an assault on the state's constitution.
"It raises the bar unreasonably high for simple, common-sense actions such as adjusting fees and reigning in runaway tax loopholes," Hauser wrote in an email. "A small group of politicians will be able to hold Oregon's budget hostage until they are paid their ransom: more tax breaks for themselves and their special interest funders."