The Oregon income tax kicker has been a political football since its inception in 1980. It has gone from checks in the mail to a tax credit and a cunning way to control the size of government to a potential cash register for an expanding government liability.
Governor Kate Brown initiated the latest play for kicker funds last week with a proposal to keep $500 million of a projected $1.4 billion in personal income tax refunds that Oregonians will receive when they file their tax returns next year. Brown says half of the amount would pay down the PERS unfunded liability, $200 million would pay for rural housing and $29 million would go to expand rural broadband.
Brown’s proposal didn’t contain a lot of specifics, which reflects that it is more of a sales pitch right now than a well-tuned legislative initiative. According to OPB political reporter Dick VanderHart, Brown sounded out her plan with Senate and House Republicans, some of whom would be needed to reach the two-thirds requirement in the Oregon Constitution to divert kicker refunds. Their initial response wasn’t too encouraging – or surprising.
House Speaker Tina Kotek earlier suggested a portion of kicker refund revenue should be retained and pay for various transportation projects. Brown was cool to that idea, indicating any retained money from the kicker should go to hold down PERS costs to public employers.
Brown admitted her proposal is a tough sell. However, she drafted it in a way that most Oregon taxpayers wouldn’t feel the pinch. Under her proposal, kicker refunds would be capped at $1,000 per tax filer, which means Oregonians who declare $55,000 in taxable income wouldn’t see any reduction in their kicker refund. The average kicker refund is estimated at around $338.
Some 331,000 Oregon taxpayers would see their refunds reduced. The biggest rollers in the state may receive kicker refunds as high as $14,000.
The $1.4 billion kicker is a tempting target to spend rather than return. However, rounding up even Democratic votes might be challenging after tough votes to approve a $1 billion per year commercial activities tax to fund the Student Success Act and a PERS measure that included a requirement for public employees to contribute to their own retirement accounts. Tough votes loom on a much-amended cap-and-trade proposal and a potential funding measure to sustain the Oregon Health Plan. Add to that an earlier session vote to divert $108 million of kicker rebate funds to bolster the state General Fund.
The income tax kicker is unique to Oregon. It was created on a belief that you could capitalize politically on an economist inclination, which some call prudent, to underestimate personal and corporate income tax revenue. The way the kicker law works is that if tax revenue exceeds 2 percent of projections, all the revenue above the projection must be returned to taxpayers based on what they paid in taxes.
Former Oregon Senate President Gordon Smith recognized the political potential of a kicker based on an economic formula, with no real basis in economics, and sealed it in the Oregon Constitution. To cement the idea into Oregonian lore, Smith insisted kicker refunds be sent to taxpayers in checks they could fondle, sign and deposit.
The kicker underwent some rethinking as school funding suffered, college tuition soared and the public pocketbook went wanting during economic downturns. The corporate income tax kicker was the first political casualty, with its revenue siphoned off to a rainy day fund, which happens to total currently around $3.5 billion.
The personal income tax kicker commands more voter loyalty, so political leaders over the last four decades have been chary to challenge refunds when times are good enough to generate them. That seems to be changing as the collective public memory of the kicker fades.
A confusing explanation of what produced the historically large projected kicker refund doesn’t make it seem all that sacred. A chunk of over-realized revenue results from a business tax break that Brown and the legislature ended. The GOP-backed federal tax cut wasn’t kind to many Oregon taxpayers, which contributed to reduced taxpayer refunds on state income tax returns. A strong economy played a role, too.