personal income tax kicker

Raising $2 Billion Won’t Be a Slam Dunk

Democrats hold all the main levers of power in Salem, including supermajorities in the Oregon House and Senate that could pass tax hikes without any Republican votes. But meeting Governor Brown’s $2 billion revenue challenge won’t be easy and certainly won’t be a slam dunk.

Democrats hold all the main levers of power in Salem, including supermajorities in the Oregon House and Senate that could pass tax hikes without any Republican votes. But meeting Governor Brown’s $2 billion revenue challenge won’t be easy and certainly won’t be a slam dunk.

Democrats hold supermajorities in the House and Senate to pass revenue-raising measures without Republican votes. Business interests may be relegated to the political sidelines. Yet, Governor Brown’s $2 billion revenue challenge in the 2019-2021 biennium seems tenuous.

In her budget message, Brown didn’t specify how she wanted to raise an additional $2 billion in revenue to fund public education. However, she has been very clear she isn’t interested in tying a revenue increase to reduction in PERS benefits, which business interests have advocated. The implication is that legislative Democrats have the votes and can decide on the details.

It may not be that simple. 

For starters, the PERS unfunded liability is likely to be larger. As The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger reported, PERS investments so far this year have fallen significantly short of the assumed 7.2 percent return rate, which actuaries say could balloon the unfunded liability by as much as $4 billion. 

That won’t affect the current public employer contribution rate, which is already fixed for the next two years and cost an additional $1.1 billion. The PERS actuary predicts even steeper contribution rate increases beginning in 2021. Such a prospect may propel public employers to press harder for legislative solutions.

Jody Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon has suggested paying down the PERS unfunded liability with a one-time diversion of the personal income tax kicker, pegged at $724 million. Voting to redirect a kicker payment to PERS is not impossible to imagine in a Democratically controlled legislature, but it still wouldn’t be an easy vote. Most of the kicker benefits flow to middle- and upper-income Oregon taxpayers, the people who typically write campaign checks to legislators.

Democrats have a comfortable supermajority in the Oregon House, but a less reliable one in the Oregon Senate. Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, isn’t always a sure bet to go along with her 17 other Democratic colleagues on tax issues. As one of the two Senate co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, Johnson will be part of the Democratic leadership team, but also hold more political leverage. Johnson is one of those votes you have to earn, not just count on.

Governor Brown touted her $2 billion revenue challenge by saying, “Our current strong economy gives us the best chance in a generation to address persistent, structural challenges so we can achieve our full potential.” Brown’s challenge drew this response from House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, “This is not a challenge to the legislature; it is a challenge to the wallets and pocketbooks of hardworking Oregonians.”

Governor Brown touted her $2 billion revenue challenge by saying, “Our current strong economy gives us the best chance in a generation to address persistent, structural challenges so we can achieve our full potential.” Brown’s challenge drew this response from House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, “This is not a challenge to the legislature; it is a challenge to the wallets and pocketbooks of hardworking Oregonians.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the $2 billion revenue challenge is the lack of a specific plan. Democrats pushed in the 2017 session a corporate tax restructuring proposal, but the proposal or something like it wouldn’t generate $2 billion. That means a tax plan would most likely need to affect business and personal income taxpayers.

A business tax hike might be a lighter lift after the congressional GOP tax cut that included several business tax breaks. But the federal legislation contained personal income tax provisions that limit state and local tax deductions, which will mean higher federal taxable income starting in 2018 for a chunk of Oregon taxpayers. Again, not insurmountable, but not necessarily easy.

Designing a tax proposal, especially one as large as $2 billion in Oregon’s context, will be messy. Tax ideas will be floated and dropped. The final product may not be a single tax increase, but a series of tax and fee increases. This revenue-raiser will be in addition to taxes and fees levied to fill the budget gap for Oregon’s Medicaid program.

How the $2 billion will be spent also will be the source of endless debate. A special committee traveled the state during the interim gathering ideas on how to improve public education in Oregon. It came up with a long list – and didn’t include suggestions for higher education.  

The slim 22-member House GOP caucus, with Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, as its new “superminority” leader, expects to be largely spectators on tax legislation this session. However, that doesn’t rule out a role as spoilers who seize every opportunity to take political pot shots at Democratically backed tax proposals – and rising PERS contributions by cities, counties and school districts.

There is always a possibility of a bipartisan revenue package, which might avoid a voter referral that would be costly and delay any revenue increases. Compromising on a $2 billion tax package would pose political risks for both Democrats and Republicans, but also afford potential political benefits.

Republican legislative control in a blue state seems remote, so negotiating for some “victories” as part of a tax package could be viewed by GOP voters as turning lemons into lemonade. Democrats could win accolades for leadership by including some GOP priorities instead of plowing them over in the legislative process.

One thing is sure. Raising $2 billion in the next biennium is not a slam dunk because there will be votes on one or more tax measures to raise that sum, huge debates over where the money should go and a dark shadow cast by PERS.

 

Hass: Boost Student Success and Curb Tax Volatility

Oregon’s economic forecast continues to look rosy, but also a little “bizarre,” according to State Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, because the strong economy contrasts with struggling schools and Oregon’s unique personal income tax kicker law.

Oregon’s economic forecast continues to look rosy, but also a little “bizarre,” according to State Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, because the strong economy contrasts with struggling schools and Oregon’s unique personal income tax kicker law.

Legislative newsletters and press releases can be informational, but not always newsy. The one dispatched today by Senator Mark Hass combines informational and newsy.

Senator Mark Hass, whom the Portland Business Journal referred to as Oregon’s Mr. Fix-It, hopes the work of the Joint Committee on Student Success, a rosy economic forecast and the prospect of returning a half billion dollars to state taxpayers could prompt action on Oregon’s volatile tax system.

Senator Mark Hass, whom the Portland Business Journal referred to as Oregon’s Mr. Fix-It, hopes the work of the Joint Committee on Student Success, a rosy economic forecast and the prospect of returning a half billion dollars to state taxpayers could prompt action on Oregon’s volatile tax system.

The occasion for the communication from Hass, a Beaverton Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, was the release of the latest quarterly Oregon economic forecast.

“I want to update you with my impression of the remarkable economic forecast released today,” Hass wrote. “Most indicators – including jobs, income and gross domestic product (GDP) – are all improving. This suggests Oregon’s booming economy will continue into the foreseeable future.”

A booming economy also means higher-than-projected state tax revenues – quite a bit higher. Hass says state coffers will have $911 million more revenue than was projected in the state’s two-year budget approved during the 2017 Oregon legislative session.

“Because revenues grew faster than what economists estimated, the state will send back $555.3 million to taxpayers due to Oregon's unique ‘Kicker’ law,” Hass said. “So, we have this bizarre confluence of a strong economy, struggling schools and sending back a half billion dollars to taxpayers.”

Hass has tried unsuccessfully to convince his legislative colleagues on both sides of the political aisle to look seriously at ideas to reduce the volatility of Oregon’s income-tax-dominant taxation system and modernize state taxation of corporations. Here’s how he explains the dilemma:

“Oregon's volatile tax code is too reliant on the income tax. In good times when unemployment is low, the state brings in too much revenue and we send it back to the taxpayers. In bad times when people are struggling, Oregon has a train wreck. While today's forecast paints a rosy picture, it is important to remember the big jump in projected revenue is emblematic of Oregon's boom-and-bust revenue cycle.”

This may not be new “news,” but it isn’t information that makes its way into a lot of political discussions these days. When it does, it is usually in the context of calling for more revenue or blaming the Public Employees Retirement System for Oregon’s unsustainable spending.

Hass threads the needle differently. He says fixing Oregon’s “bizarre confluence” of a strong economy, struggling schools and a personal income tax kicker should occur during economic good times, not economic bad times. Warning signs abound, he says. Oregon’s economy is still growing, but the pace of its growth is slowing. The housing affordability crisis is taking its toll on many Oregonians. Personal income taxes make up 80 percent of the state’s General Fund, while corporate taxes contribute 6 percent.

Hass hasn’t given up on some type of tax reform, but is concentrating his efforts leading up to the 2019 legislative session on traveling around Oregon as part of the Joint Committee on Student Success, talking to students and education and business leaders.

“My hope,” Hass wrote, “is that through the work of the Student Success Committee and this economic forecast, we end up mixing new educational policies with structural tax reform for stable, well-funded schools, community colleges and universities.”

A Tale of Two Tax Systems

Washington’s sales tax, which carries the revenue load in the Evergreen State, faces a shrinking tax base because of the growth of online sales and the ease of driving to Oregon that doesn’t have a general sales tax.

Washington’s sales tax, which carries the revenue load in the Evergreen State, faces a shrinking tax base because of the growth of online sales and the ease of driving to Oregon that doesn’t have a general sales tax.

Oregonians regard their state tax system as the worst possible – except for all the alternatives, especially a sales tax. That hasn’t blunted calls for “tax reform” in Oregon, including a new initiative to subject large corporations to a gross receipts tax.

KUOW, the NPR affiliate in Seattle, aired a story about the woes of Washington’s state tax system, which depends heavily on a sales tax. The punch line of the piece was that if Washington had Oregon’s system that taxes income, it would raise almost double what the state generates now per fiscal period.

That “unofficial calculation” by the Washington Department of Revenue is based on data that shows the Evergreen State’s sales tax base is shriveling as a percent of an expanding economy, while Oregon’s relatively progressive income tax rakes in increasing revenue when the economy expands. 

Studies in both states have shown that a sales tax may be a little less volatile than an income tax in up and down economic cycles. But Washington’s analysis of its sales tax base shows it may be inadequate to the task of keeping pace with economic growth when more and more economic growth occurs online. It doesn’t help that Washingtonians cross the border into Oregon and make purchases they can cart home without paying sales tax. 

KUOW’s online version of its story includes “Washington’s Chart of Doom,” an analysis by Treasurer James McIntire that shows sales tax revenues peaked in 1987 as 6.93 percent of the state’s economy and have steadily declined since then to 4.8 percent in 2015. McIntire projects revenue to keep falling to 4.65 percent by 2021.

That’s a tough trend line, aggravated by economic and population growth that places new demands on public revenues.

Oregon and Washington have talked for years about the three-legged stool of taxation – income, sales and property. You don’t have to look far for a state with all three – Idaho. The KUOW report says if Washington adopted Idaho’s tax system, it would collect $10 billion more per fiscal period.

Oregon goes through spasms of tax reform fever, which often involve brief romances with a sales tax. The KUOW story quotes Oregon Legislative Revenue Director Paul Warner as estimating it would take a 12 percent sales tax to equal what the state’s income tax yields. Washington’s state sales tax rate is 6.5 percent.

Contrasts between the two states note that Oregon has no sales tax, which isn’t exactly true. Oregon and some Oregon localities have imposed a few selective sales taxes, most notably on hotel and motel stays, and in some tourist-centric towns on food and entertainment. When you add in Oregon’s gas tax and state-controlled pricing on distilled spirits, one of the main selling points of a sales tax – capturing revenue from tourists – isn’t especially convincing, not that Oregonians seem persuadable on the subject anyway.

There is little motivation from retail businesses to support a sales tax, especially in border communities like Portland that reap benefits from Washington commuters who already drive here to work, eat lunch at restaurants, shop on their way home and pay income tax on their Oregon-based earnings. This explains the success of the Costco store on the Oregon side of the Glenn Jackson Bridge. 

The Oregon tax system demon is economic volatility, which produces plentiful revenues in good times and sparse revenues in bad times. Economic theory would say that problem is curable by stashing away “excess revenue” during economic booms to fill in gaps when the economy lags. This is where economic and political theory diverge. With growing demands for spending, “excess revenue” is hard to define. That drove a GOP-led legislature many years ago to install, with voter approval, the personal income tax kicker, which rebates revenue that exceeds a state revenue forecast by 2 percent or more. Oregonians received a modest personal income tax kicker rebate based on their 2015 tax returns, which averaged around $125 and sucked $402 million out of the state’s General Fund.

It’s inevitable some Washingtonians and Oregonians will continue to cast covetous eyes at each other’s tax system as political leaders struggle with how to generate revenue, particularly for public education. It’s unlikely the two states will trade out their current core taxes, but very likely they will keep complaining about their shortcomings.

A Session of Accomplishment and Failure

The 2015 Legislative session ended last night, and it included a mixture of wins and losses.

The 2015 Legislative session ended last night, and it included a mixture of wins and losses.

Legislative sessions are remembered for what they accomplished – or what they didn't. The 2015 session might be remembered for both.

The Democratically controlled House and Senate pushed through bills that automatically register to vote anyone with a driver's license, require criminal checks for private gun sales, expand access to contraception for women, require paid sick leave and retain a low carbon fuel standard for motor vehicles.

There was broad consensus on a 4-year extension of the hospital tax as part of a package to sustain Medicaid funding and an early vote on a K-12 budget that gives local school districts time to plan around the actual amount of money they will receive. Legislation passed to regulate police body cameras and forbid racial profiling by law enforcement officers.

Legislators avoided an uglier battle by finding a compromise on gain-share revenues – the amount of state tax revenues returned to communities that enter into large property tax abatement-for-jobs deals with major employers such as Intel. Just before adjournment, legislators approved a $1 billion bonding measure that includes $300 million for school construction.

On the flip side, the 2015 legislative session failed to pass a transportation funding package, which Republicans refused to support unless some or all of the low carbon fuels measure was repealed. There were frantic negotiations around some compromise, but in the end a core of House Democrats refused to budge and the plan died.

Speaker Kotek's attempt to raise the state's minimum wage faltered, as did the effort to require so-called inclusionary zoning for affordable housing units. Senate President Courtney also suffered a high profile defeat when House Democrats failed to go along with $300 million in bonding for seismic retrofitting and restoration of the Oregon Capitol, Courtney’s pet project these past several years.

Lawmakers didn't try to undo the personal income tax kicker, which will send back around $500 million to Oregon taxpayers next year. They also did very little to deal with rapidly rising pharmaceutical costs that threaten to overrun cost savings elsewhere in the health care system.

The 2015 session started fast as Democrats punched through their key agenda items and as Governor Kitzhaber's ethics scandal deepened, leading him to resign in February. Secretary of State Kate Brown, herself a former lawmaker, stepped in and provided a seamless transition and leadership on most legislative issues. Brown put her personal signature on several ethics bills that passed.

The entire session took place under the cloud of how and when to implement Measure 91, the voter-approved initiative to legalize recreational marijuana. Lawmakers allowed the legalization to take effect July 1, even though state-approved dispensaries won't open until later. They settled on how and by whom marijuana can be taxed, but stalled on issues such as the sale of edibles made from marijuana.

Lawmakers return to Salem next February for a short 35-day session. A number of state officials and legislators will have decided by then whether to run for other or higher office in the 2016 general election. House Majority Leader Val Hoyle already has stepped down to start her campaign for secretary of state. Brown is expected to run for the remaining two years of Kitzhaber's gubernatorial term. Democratic Rep. Tobias Read of Beaverton wasted little time in announcing his bid to run for state treasurer. Treasurer Ted Wheeler, who is barred from seeking re-election, has been mentioned as a potential candidate for another statewide office or mayor of Portland. Kotek's name also has been mentioned as a mayoral challenger in Portland. 

Not Just Another Day at the Capitol

Kate Brown assumed the governorship in Oregon, but her swearing in was hardly more than a coffee break in a legislative session off to a very fast start.

Kate Brown assumed the governorship in Oregon, but her swearing in was hardly more than a coffee break in a legislative session off to a very fast start.

The Oregon legislature took time out Wednesday morning to witness the swearing in of new Governor Kate Brown before returning to its fast-paced start that has startled many observers and caused lobbyists and staffers to hustle like they do at the end of sessions.

In a brief six-minute speech, Brown paid respect to the contributions made by former Governor John Kitzhaber, who resigned amid an influence-peddling scandal, then made clear she wouldn't allow any family members close to state policymaking or payrolls.

While no one downplayed the significance of Brown's ascension to the governorship (she is the 38th governor, but only the second female governor in the state's history), neither she nor legislative leaders made a big deal of the transition. Legislative work continued as if nothing really big had happened. That may be because Brown is no stranger to the building or the process. She is a known quantity in Salem.

On her first day in office, Brown joined the governors of California and Washington in calling for an end to a labor dispute that has crippled West Coast ports and stranded cargos, including perishable farm products from rural parts of Oregon. Trouble on the docks was doubly on Brown's first-day agenda after Hanjin announced last week it was abandoning use of Terminal 6 at the Port of Portland because of what it called low productivity.

Day two of the Brown tenure was greeted by the release of the latest quarterly economic forecast, which predicted the state's quirky personal income tax kicker would be triggered. The good news is that the state's economy is performing better than projected. The bad news is that state tax revenue will exceed the 2 percent threshold that triggers the kicker and rebates to taxpayers.

The projected kicker rebate, which would take the form of credits on 2015 tax year returns, is $349 million. For legislators — and the governor — that represents a sizable hole in the state budget.

State economists took the occasion to remind Oregonians we have one of the most volatile tax systems because of a heavy reliance on personal and corporate income taxes, which ebb and flow along with economic downturns and upturns. The economists also noted that states such as Washington that rely heavily on sales taxes face the challenge of an eroding tax base as populations age and they buy fewer big-ticket items.

These are just a few of the challenges raining down on Brown. She also must try to satisfy demands for more K-12 public education spending, continue health care transformation efforts that include an extension of a hospital provider tax and address a push from higher education for more financial support.

When Brown served in the legislature, including as Senate majority leader, she focused much of her personal energy on civil rights, mental health and juvenile justice issues. As secretary of state, Brown pushed for Oregon's initiative and referendum system reforms, performance audits and more accessible voter registration.

Because Brown has been thrown into an already boiling pot, she is unlikely to recommend a hugely different menu of priorities than her predecessor. What will be most noticeable is a difference in style. As majority leader, Brown was available to meet and listen to advocates. She looked for compromise. She dispensed realistic political advice. That's unlikely to change, even though she has changed offices.

State Taxes, Volatility and the Kicker

As tax revenues in Oregon once again reach the level to trigger corporate and personal kickers, we’re likely to see lawmakers talking about tax reform.

As tax revenues in Oregon once again reach the level to trigger corporate and personal kickers, we’re likely to see lawmakers talking about tax reform.

Oregon's tax revenue system is slightly more volatile than the all-state average, but less than some critics think based on a new study by Pew Research. One volatile element not included in the Pew assessment is the personal income tax kicker, a unique and quirky procedure that rebates to taxpayers money that exceeds projected revenues by two percent or more.

According to Pew, Oregon's state tax regime volatility rating is 6.4 percent, compared to an all-state average of 5 percent. The most volatile state tax regimes are ones heavily dependent on severance or extraction taxes. Alaska has the most volatile state tax system at 34 percent.

Oregon depends heavily on personal and corporate income tax revenues, which rise and fall in concert with broader economic trends. When times are good, Oregon's income tax system generates a growing pot of money.

If times are too good, Oregon's personal income tax kicker is triggered, requiring a chunk of incremental revenue to go back to taxpayers.

Triggering the personal and corporate income tax kickers could happen again this year, forcing state lawmakers to contend with a hole in their budgets. In the latest quarterly economic forecast, state economists said the corporate kicker is almost certain to be triggered and we are very close to triggering the personal kicker.

The corporate kicker is in the $50 million range and poses less of a problem because that revenue is now dedicated to schools instead of business bottom lines. The personal income tax kicker, if triggered, would likely be in the $300 to $500 million range, enough to pinch the state budget, but not anything like the $1 billion bite in the 2005-2007 biennium, which at the time represented 10 percent of Oregon's General Fund. 

Reducing volatility has been a long-time goal of governors and legislators. It is the source of most drives for "tax reform." Arguments generally come down to finding a "balanced" state tax system, which usually means one that derives revenue from both income and sales. The argument for less volatility is that it makes it easier for state budget writers to do their jobs. 

Sales tax advocates point to Washington, which has a sales tax but not personal income tax, as an example of a more stable tax system. The Pew research shows Washington's tax system volatility is 4.6 percent. 

South Dakota, which relies on a sales tax, has the least volatile tax regime at 3.6 percent, Pew says. The next lowest state in the ranking at 2.9 percent is Kentucky, which has both personal income and sales taxes.