Rep. Sal Esquivel is on the right track with his idea of a state sales tax in place of property taxes, but his plan is too complex to work the way he envisions it.
This is not the first time the Medford Republican has floated the idea of a sales tax, and he deserves credit for broaching the idea despite Oregonians' history of turning it down every time it's been proposed.
Esquivel is right that the only way voters would consider a new tax is if they could see relief from an existing tax, especially one as disliked as the property tax.
His plan calls for eliminating the property tax for owners of primary residences assessed at $500,000 or less. That's a large proportion of single-family homes, given that assessed value is considerably less than real market value.
In place of that, the state would levy a 4.5 percent sales tax, exempting food, clothing, medicine, medical equipment and utilities. Esquivel says he thinks property owners would accept a sales tax if they were relieved of their annual property tax bill.
But they wouldn't be — not entirely. Esquivel's plan would not affect local option property taxes approved by voters, such as Ashland's youth activities levy, or bond levies for school construction. So property owners would still get a tax bill every year.
Commercial property owners wouldn't see any reduction in property taxes, but they would have to pay sales tax on purchases just like everyone else. The same goes for owners of rental properties. Those two groups would be sure to strenuously oppose the plan.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that a sales tax would be a state tax, but property taxes are local, benefiting local taxing districts, including cities and counties and school and fire districts. The state would have to distribute sales tax proceeds to those local taxing districts in the right amounts to compensate them for the property tax revenue they would lose. That would be an accounting nightmare requiring an extensive new state bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, county assessors' workloads would not decrease. They would have to continue to assess residential properties for the taxes still being collected, not to mention commercial properties and residences assessed at more than $500,000. And their staffs would have to make sure property owners were billed for all the special levies and bond measures.
Tax reform is badly needed in Oregon, which lacks what is known as the three-legged stool: income, property and sales taxes that tend to keep the state's revenue stable through good times and bad. A sales tax coupled with a dramatic reduction in property tax rates for everyone across the board could accomplish that, keeping the overall tax burden revenue-neutral.
But this plan doesn't do that. It would create something more like a two-and-a-half-legged stool, which is anything but stable.