By: Mike Salsgiver
Executive Director, AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter
This article was published by the DJC on October 16 in Buildings Bridges and Roads and can be viewed here (subscription required).
Oregonians have a long history of working together to adopt strong and lasting public policy.
From the state highway system to the Bottle Bill to open beaches to the strongest workers’ compensation system in the nation, Oregon has proven that the best, longest-lasting public policy is one created collaboratively. Competing interests joined strong, bipartisan leadership to address these issues and pass laws that have survived and helped the state prosper to this day.
Today – at almost any level of government – bipartisanship appears to be a lost art. Instead, polarized interests stifle progress, drive distrust, and block the establishment of a political climate that can find common ground and consensus.
Because of this climate, even a document as venerable as the Oregon Constitution is being kicked to the curb.
In 1996, Oregonians passed a constitutional amendment requiring three-fifths (a supermajority) of all members elected to each House, to vote to pass bills that raise taxes and other revenue. And yet, we’ve recently seen that requirement ignored: parties have circumvented it via suspect legal analysis. That in turn led lawmakers to introduce revenue-raising bills that were passed by a simple majority.
Given the ability to work around the supermajority requirement, the legislative majority has little reason to work together. There is no need to reach across the aisle and discuss what’s best for the people of Oregon. No bipartisanship is necessary.
And because of these actions, the stage is set for taxes to be raised whenever a simple majority wants to do so.
On Nov. 6, Oregon voters have an opportunity to realign the government with our constitution. They have the chance to put bipartisanship ahead of isolation politics. In the second such debate over taxes in just two years, another ballot measure is before the voters that is designed to require the Legislature to follow the constitution: Measure 104.
The constitutional amendment proposed by Measure 104 would strengthen and clarify once and for all the supermajority requirement in Oregon’s constitution relating to revenue-raising bills. It would specify what qualifies as “revenue raising.” The measure would broaden the conditions that would establish when a supermajority is needed. The passage of Measure 104 would constitutionally require that tax hikes on Oregon’s small businesses and families are not passed by a simple majority of the party in control of the Legislature.
Opponents of Measure 104 complain that its passage would create gridlock, making government impossible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Raising taxes was never meant to be an easy process. True legislating requires members of both parties to work together to pass the best bill with the broadest support possible. The supermajority requirement was established and enshrined in our state constitution to ensure broad support for taxes and other revenue-raising measures.
In the legislative session held earlier this year, lawmakers disconnected Oregon from parts of the federal tax code. This meant that thousands of small businesses, including those that build our schools and pave our roads, will not see the full benefit of the federal tax bill passed in January. Their action was, in effect, a tax increase on small businesses and families, which make up the majority of businesses in our state. And yet the state treasury will see an influx of $244 million in new revenue – on top of the $1.3 billion in additional revenue it will receive because of a strong economy.
This action – actually a backdoor tax increase to raise new revenue – happened with a simple majority vote.
The business community has not taken the position that taxes should never increase. In fact, business leaders have pushed for state tax reform for years. Unfortunately, with the Legislature’s decision to effectively ignore the will of the voters and the state constitution, Measure 104 has become necessary.
Measure 104 is the product of a time in which it seems constitutional requirements are inconvenient. In an environment where simple majorities are passing tax increases, many interests and voices can be completely ignored.
Oregon is facing a fiscal crisis. The challenges are difficult and there are no easy answers. The policy discussions to solve this problem will be hard. Reaching consensus will be difficult. But strong, broadly-supportable and lasting public policy only happens when there is a consensus by both parties. Ignoring the constitution and passing whatever tax or revenue increase lawmakers feel like passing is one reason voters feel so disconnected from their government.
In 1990, voters passed Measure 5 when they saw property taxes increasing at a rate they couldn’t afford and wouldn’t support.
It is time for voters to take matters into their hands once again. It is time for voters to give clear direction to our elected leaders to work together to solve our fiscal problems. It is time for voters to tell our elected officials that ignoring the state constitution is not an option.
AGC urges voters to vote yes on Ballot Measure 104 on Nov. 6.
Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia Chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.