Editorial: Public should see reports on companies that get tax breaks


Published Mar 15, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

You may never have heard of Oregon’s Strategic Investment Program, which exempts some companies from some property taxes in exchange for jobs in the area. Even if you have heard of the program, you’re unlikely to know what companies, exactly, are participating and whether they’ve done what they promised.

It’s that lack of information that sent the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group to the attorney general’s office last month. This week the attorney general ordered Business Oregon to release annual employment reports filed by businesses taking part in SIP. Business Oregon is a state agency overseen by the Oregon Business Development Commission.

SIP isn’t aimed at helping mom-and-pop companies expand a bit. Rather, it works to help so-called traded sector companies, which sell products or services “into markets for which national or international competition exists” — think Intel. Almost by definition they’re big: To qualify for SIP they must be planning to invest at least $25 million (rural areas) or $100 million (urban areas) in Oregon. In exchange, they pay no property taxes on investments above those amounts but pay a much smaller community service fee equal to 25 percent of their tax savings instead. The agreements last 15 years.

Participating companies are encouraged to hire locally, and each year they must file a report with the state setting out such information as the number of employees they have at an SIP site, the average income and benefits of those employees and the most common occupations and wages paid at the site.

Then the information disappears, or at least it has done so in the past.

Unless Business Oregon appeals, it won’t be secret in the future. That’s good news. It’s good news because knowing what Oregon is getting in return for its lost property taxes allows lawmakers and ordinary citizens alike to judge whether the program is working as intended.

We don’t buy the argument that information about wages and the like is proprietary, as Business Oregon claimed, and the attorney general’s office didn’t buy it either. Instead, as Mary Williams, deputy attorney general, said in her letter requiring the release of information, Oregon has made a sizeable investment in SIP and the public has a “correspondingly sizeable interest” in knowing if that investment has paid off.