By Lauren Dake
SALEM — When Facebook was confronted with the possibility of an unexpected tax hike, the company knew it needed friends in the state capital.
Before the February legislative session started, Facebook executives sent their public policy manager from Washington, D.C., to Salem to walk the Capitol halls, speaking with lawmakers.
They hired a local lobbyist. And they doled out money to a handful of lawmakers.
It’s just the start of the social network giant’s participation in Oregon politics, and it paid off.
The bill the lawmakers backed ensures the company’s data center in Prineville will not be subjected to central assessment or taxed on intangible assets, such as the company’s brand, at least while protected under a rural enterprise zone agreement. The measure sailed through both chambers, receiving unanimous approval.
The company was lured to Oregon, in part, by the tax break connected to Prineville’s enterprise zone. But last year, the Oregon Department of Revenue informed officials the facility could be assessed centrally, possibly leading to a hefty tax bill.
For a company worth billions, the campaign contribution tab leading up to the February session was minuscule: $10,000. But as Facebook continues to expand in the state, it’s an amount that is likely to increase.
“Facebook contributes to legislators throughout the country who support technology and innovation,” the company said in a statement. “We have a large physical presence in Oregon, and as a result we’ve worked to build strong relationships in the state.”
Only two Democrats currently make the list, Co-Speaker of the House Arnie Roblan, of Coos Bay, and House Democratic Leader Tina Kotek, of Portland.
Roblan received $1,500, and Kotek $1,000. (Their GOP counterparts, Co-Speaker Bruce Hanna, of Roseburg, and House Republican Leader Kevin Cameron, of Salem, also received contributions — $1,500 for Hanna and $1,000 for Cameron.)
“(Facebook) did their homework. They worked with people, they wrote the bill well, and as a result there was not a lot of controversy with the legislation in February,” said Kotek, the Democratic leader. “It shows how you should work a bill before you come into session and shows the importance of annual sessions.”
Local lawmakers Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, who pushed the legislation, benefited to the tune of $1,000, as did Sen. Chris Telfer, R-Bend, and Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls.
McLane said he pushed the legislation first and received the $1,000 later.
“I never talked to Facebook about any donations,” he said. “That showed up, and I was grateful for the contribution. At that point, I had already drafted the bill.”
In Oregon, there is no limit on campaign contributions. The money helps lawmakers fuel their campaigns, pay for advertisements and help offset travel costs.
McLane said $1,000 is a nice bump, but to put it in perspective, since the end of the last legislative session and the start of the February session, he had raised about $32,500.
“The (donation) didn’t change anything,” McLane said. “I did what I did to keep Oregon in the game with data centers ... to keep construction ongoing in Prineville, and that’s the most important thing.”
Facebook officials also donated to two Republican lawmakers who held key committee assignments. Rep. Katie Eyre, of Hillsboro, and Rep. Matt Wand, of Troutdale, each received $1,000. The two lawmakers sit on the House Revenue Committee.
Other companies interested in the issue of central assessment donated along similar lines. For example, Comcast gave $10,000 this year, and Yahoo donated $7,500 in 2011.
For Facebook, there was a lot riding on the short session.
“(It) was critical for Facebook and other data center operators with properties located in local enterprise zones in Oregon to have the clarity and certainty they need to do business here,” Facebook officials said in a statement.