Oregon Gov. Kate Brown responds to a question at a gubernatorial debate at Winston Churchill High School in Eugene on Oct. 6, 2016.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown responds to a question at a gubernatorial debate at Winston Churchill High School in Eugene on Oct. 6, 2016.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

When Gov. Kate Brown spoke to the Portland Business Alliance on September 21, she described how reluctant she was to embrace the Measure 97 corporate tax initiative.

“It truly was the most difficult decision I ever made in my time in elected office,” Brown told the group, which is one of the main centers of opposition to the tax.  The measure would raise $3 billion a year by increasing taxes on companies with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon. 

At first glance, Measure 97 might seem like a no-brainer for Brown. Her allies in the public employee unions had unveiled the measure just as she became governor in February of 2015. 

But for nearly 18 months she sidestepped taking a position.  

Brown knew passage of the measure could give her a legacy denied every governor of at least the last four decades: firm financial footing for schools and other services.   The initiative would finance the progressive government Democrats have been building in Oregon. 

“If we could accomplish that, that would be extraordinary,” Brown said in a May interview with OPB, when she was still neutral on the measure.

However, she was reluctant to make such a sharp break with the business community, which argued the measure would hurt the state’s economy.   She prizes her long working relationships with many business figures, and knows she needs business help on such things as raising more revenue for transportation.

So Measure 97 was a tough call for a governor who prizes collaboration over confrontation.  And for someone who values a sure game plan over a risky gamble.   A month later, the governor said she was still trying to see if there was a path to a compromise.

 “I’m meeting with the business community, fully understanding the impacts and also asking them about what their alternative is,” she said.

What the governor wouldn’t say is that she was also under huge political pressure to swallow any doubts.  

The public employee unions bankrolling Measure 97 are also her most important campaign supporters. She needs them this year as she runs to fill the last two years of John Kitzhaber’s term. And if she wins, she’ll need them again in 2018 when she would be up for re-election. 

House Republican Leader Mike McLane said in June that he couldn’t imagine Brown parting ways with the sponsors of 97.

“Kate Brown has had a couple of core constituencies in her career,” he said, “and one of them are government unions.”  

However, Brown couldn’t find any room for compromise between business and labor.  So, in August, she endorsed the measure, two months after it had qualified for the ballot. 

Brown said Oregon’s rising economy allowed her to boost education budgets.  But she argued those improvements couldn’t be sustained without Measure 97.  

“This is a viable option,” she said.  “It provides resources on the table for key programs.”  

Still, Brown didn’t hide her own doubts about the measure.   

She told the business alliance that she had long supported a sales tax.  But she said voters wouldn’t buy it.  

“Would I have liked another path forward?,” she asked rhetorically. “Yes.  Obviously.”  

Brown also seems to be steeling herself for a potential loss on Measure 97.    

Opponents are spending millions to portray it as a hidden sales tax. And Brown’s Republican gubernatorial rival, Bud Pierce, honed in on the issue in his first ad.

In an August interview, Brown made it clear she is not staking her political future on the initiative.   “I’m confident that my vision is a better reflection of the future that Oregonians want,”   she said.

“Even if they decide to reject this measure?  she was asked.

“Definitely. Absolutely. No question,” Brown replied.

Brown made a similar pitch to the business alliance.  Win or lose on Measure 97, she said, she hoped they could work together starting the day after the election.