Rob Freres Jr., an Oregon timber company owner long known for his political activism, has given $1 million to the referendum campaign seeking to overturn a new business tax to fund schools.
The donation from Freres, president of the Freres Lumber Co. in the Santiam Canyon town of Lyons, shows that opponents of the tax will likely have the financial resources to put the issue on the ballot.
In a related development, the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday released a proposed amendment to Senate Bill 116 that would set a Jan. 21, 2020 special election for a referendum on the tax if opponents gather enough signatures.
The amendment would also give the Legislature the power to write the ballot language explaining the bill, which would be important help to supporters of the tax.
The new tax — passed by the Legislature last month — is designed to provide an additional $1 billion a year for schools. It imposes a 0.57% levy on sales by businesses with revenue of more than $1 million a year, though it allows companies to deduct certain expenses.
Much of the business community is staying neutral on the new tax after winning concessions from Gov. Kate Brown and Democratic legislative leaders.
But one group of about 15 companies, Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, on May 30 filed a referendum on the tax. The group needs to collect about 75,000 signatures by 90 days after the legislative session wraps up, likely around the end of June.
Leaders of Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce could not be reached for immediate comment Wednesday. But the group’s leader, Shaun Jillions, said recently that he was confident of collecting enough money to both get the issue on the ballot and mount a robust campaign.
Supporters of the tax have hoped that won’t be the case.
A statement from Our Oregon, a union-backed group, said opponents “appear to be relying on a fringe group of special interests intent on taking funding away from Oregon students.”
Our Oregon went on to say that opponents would not be able to match the coalition coming together to “protect this vital investment in our classrooms.”
This $1 million donation appears to be by far the largest contribution that Freres has personally given to an Oregon campaign. His company has donated more than $1.4 million total to candidates and ballot measure campaigns since the end of 2007, according to disclosure records filed with the Oregon secretary of state.
While the Freres donation is large by Oregon standards, much of it could be easily eaten up collecting the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. The question then becomes how much money opponents of the tax can raise for an advertising campaign to win over voters.