SALEM, Ore. — Nearly three years after voting to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, Oregon voters will weigh in again this November on a few more tweaks to the state's tax code.
The three tax-related measures on this year's ballot haven't generated the sort of bitter, big-money campaigns that drove a wedge between voters in early 2010. But each of the current measures has developed its own controversy.
Measure 79 would ban taxes on the transfer of real-estate. Measure 84 would eliminate Oregon's estate tax. Measure 85 would throw out a tax break known as the "corporate kicker."
Measure 79 is sought by real-estate agents, and nearly all of its $4.7 million in funding has come from the state and national associations of Realtors. They say it's a pre-emptive strike, amending the state constitution to outlaw a type of tax that is almost nonexistent in Oregon but has been used in other states.
Real-estate transfer taxes are assessed when property transfers from one owner to another, usually through a sale. While nobody has spent much money on a campaign to block it, opponents have been vocal, calling it a solution in search of a problem.
Oregon law already prohibits local governments from creating such a tax, and the only one that currently exists is a small Washington County levy that would be allowed to continue even if Measure 79 passes. Washington County's 0.1 percent tax amounts to $200 on the transfer of a home worth $200,000.
Over the last decade, state legislators have introduced bills to get rid of the ban on transfer taxes or to create one outright, but none of them gained traction. Still, the measure's proponents say the whims of politicians can change at any time, so it would be best to enshrine a ban in the state constitution.
"A chunk of money like that could keep a bunch of people out of home ownership," said Jon Coney, a spokesman for the measure's proponents.
Measure 84 would phase out Oregon's estate and inheritance tax by 2016. The tax is assessed on the portion of an estate above $1 million.
The proponents say the tax unfairly threatens small businesses, which might have more than $1 million in assets but not enough cash to pay the estate tax when the owner dies. Critics say it would deprive the government of millions in revenue to benefit a small group of wealthy taxpayers.
"This is really all about protecting small business and family-owned businesses in the state," said Kevin Mannix, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and veteran initiative sponsor behind Measure 84.
The proponents dismiss that argument, saying the majority of assets in large estates are stocks, bonds and cash.
The nonpartisan Legislative Revenue Office projects the estate tax will generate just under $200 million during the current two-year budget cycle.
Federal estate taxes would still apply regardless of the outcome of Measure 84.
"It comes down to who needs help the most," said Scott Moore, a spokesman for Our Oregon, the liberal group funded mostly by public employee unions that is leading the campaign against the measure through its campaign arm, Defend Oregon. "Is it a third grader who's stuck in an overcrowded classroom and is missing out on the education that we all expect she should have?...Or is it the richest two percent?"
The measure also eliminates taxes on property transfers within families. Critics say the provision creates a massive loophole for wealthy families to get around capital gains taxes. Mannix disagrees, but says it can be fixed by the Legislature or the Department of Revenue if it becomes a problem.
Measure 85 was proposed by Our Oregon and would eliminate the "corporate kicker" tax break and direct the Legislature to use the money instead for schools.
The kicker is a tax break unique to Oregon. When corporate income tax collections at the end of a two-year budget cycle exceed projections by at least 2 percent, the surplus is kicked back to corporations. When all other forms of tax revenue exceed their projections, the excess is kicked back to individual taxpayers.
Measure 85 would only affect the corporate kicker.
Many legislators, social service advocates and business leaders have long complained that the kicker contributes to Oregon's roller-coaster budget cycles, preventing the state from using excess money collected during boom times to help during economic busts. The Legislature has discussed several bills that would eliminate or change the kicker but none has gotten off the ground.
"We've waited for a decade, and now's the time to take action to fix this bad policy, and to begin the conversation about what it's going to take to start reinvesting in our schools," Moore said.
Critics are annoyed that the measure would spend kicker money instead of saving it for tough times and that Our Oregon sought a limited measure dealing only with the corporate kicker instead of searching for a more comprehensive kicker overhaul. However, nobody is spending much money to fight Measure 85.