Oregon Another Step Closer to a Gross Receipts Tax Funding Public Education

April 30, 2019

Last night, Oregon’s Joint Committee on Student Success passed House Bill 3427, which raises about $2 billion over the next biennium to improve the state’s public school system. The improvements will be funded via a gross receipts tax, entitled the Corporate Activity Tax, levied on businesses with commercial activity over $1 million. Included in the bill is a reduction in Oregon’s individual income tax rates for those making less than $125,000 by 0.25 percentage points for each tax bracket.  

The bill will require a three-fifths supermajority approval in the legislature to be enacted as per Oregon’s constitution, as the bill includes a new revenue-raising mechanism for the state. If the bill fails to earn a three-fifths supermajority in the legislature, voters must consider the proposal via a ballot initiative.

After discussions with businesses in the state, the Committee increased the deduction options for firms from 25 percent to 35 percent of labor compensation or business input costs. To ensure that the tax raises the $2 billion target for the biennium, the Committee raised the tax rate from 0.49 percent to 0.57 percent. Lawmakers excluded dairy farms and agricultural co-operatives from the tax base in addition to the exemption on the wholesale or retail sale of groceries.

In final form, the Corporate Activity Tax deduction for the cost of business inputs will only include cost of goods sold (COGS), omitting the unsold inventory that was originally deductible. This narrows the deduction and increases the potential for tax pyramiding.

In addition to the economic costs and harm to low-income Oregonians that will be created by the gross receipts tax, there is a risk that a future state legislature may consider a reduction or elimination of the deduction for business inputs or labor compensation to raise more revenue. In City of Seattle v. Department of Revenue (2015), the Oregon Supreme Court determined that repealing a tax expenditure is not considered a bill for revenue-raising by the legislature, which requires the three-fifths supermajority to enact. Instead, changes to tax expenditures such as the Corporate Activity Tax deduction may be passed on a simple majority vote once the bill becomes law.

The Committee decided not to include public sector pension reform in the debate over the gross receipts tax and public education improvements. This puts Oregon at risk of offsetting the new revenue due to cost increases from the public sector pension system. As Hillary Borrud and Mike Rogoway of The Oregonian framed it, “Unless lawmakers find some way to insulate schools from the state’s pension crisis, soaring pension obligations will gobble up a quarter of the tax money once it does arrive—and more than half of it within a decade.” This would provide the motivation for the legislature to eliminate the Corporate Activity Tax deduction with a simple majority vote, leaving Oregon with a gross receipts tax with a relatively high tax rate.

The gross receipts tax is being considered amid other tax proposals in Oregon, including a proposed carbon tax and paid family and medical leave. Brighter Oregon, a coalition group of Oregon consumers, taxpayers, and businesses, estimates that the legislature is considering about $5.6 billion in new taxes for the upcoming biennium. This broader context makes it important for the legislature to carefully consider the cost of imposing a gross receipts tax at this time, especially if policymakers are tempted to eliminate the deductions for business costs or labor compensation in an effort to raise revenue in the future.

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