SALEM — A partner in a Bend law firm with ties to the Republican Party is point man for proposed constitutional amendments on taxes and the Public Employees Retirement System.
Both measures were unveiled Wednesday by John Davis, a former Republican House member from suburban Portland and a Portland-based partner of Lynch Conger McLane, which has its main office in Bend. Other partners include current House Republican leader Mike McLane and former Republican state House member Jason Conger.
Measure 31 would amend the constitution to require all bills dealing with revenue to have a three-fifths supermajority. It is backed by a new group called Priority Oregon. Measure 32 would make changes to the way benefits are handled in PERS. It is backed by a new group called Keep Our Promises Coalition. Davis declined to name specific businesses or individuals backing either effort. Though some of the initial emails sent out about the initiatives came from Davis’ account at Lynch Conger McLane, he said neither the firm nor its other partners were directly involved in the campaigns.
Opponents of both measures made the lack of transparency an immediate issue.
“It’s hard to know exactly who is behind these filings because groups like Priority Oregon are so secretive,” said Katherine Driessen of Our Oregon, a progressive political group. “But, these proposals seem to come from the fringe wing of the business community, and they repeat a familiar refrain: Big business will never pay their fair share in taxes and will instead find a convenient scapegoat whenever they are asked to do so.”
Davis said there will be plenty of time for voters to judge the backers, but now was not the time.
“You have to take the long view,” Davis said.
Those who support the measures will begin appearing next month on the Secretary of State’s website as campaign contributions come in. The full scope of who is involved may not take shape until the over 100,000 signatures needed for each measure are certified.
“That is when the campaign really begins in earnest,” Davis said. “Then you go gangbusters. There is a lot of support, significant steam, … behind this. These are individuals and groups prepared to take these measures the distance.”
Measure 31 would harden the definition of what legislation requires a three-fifths “supermajority” in order to raise taxes. In the epic “suits and scrubs” debate last July, House Democrats argued that a 2013 tax code revision had been used by wealthy business owners (suits) and doctors (scrubs) to gain a tax cut meant for large corporations that employed many workers. A nonpartisan legislative study showed two-thirds of the benefit of the revision went to individuals who made more than $500,000. McLane, who is a partner of Measure 31 spokesman Davis, bitterly fought the bill. Democrats narrowly triumphed in the House, but the effort died in the Senate without a floor vote. Under the initiative, the three-fifths majority would apply not just to taxes, but fees. So increases in driver learning permits, professional licenses and any other user fee would require a three-fifths majority.
Measure 32 would require state and local governments to tie any new spending to increases in population or inflation. K-12 school districts would be exempt. The effect of the proposed constitutional amendment would be to force governments to stop adding programs and services or find cuts to offset the cost of the new initiatives.
Tax revenue beyond this blueprint would go to PERS. The cap would stay on until the projected unfunded liabilities fell from the current $24.5 billion to $1 billion.
Both measures were registered with the Secretary of State on Tuesday, as well as campaign committees that can raise and spend money. Neither committee had any activity at the outset. The treasurer of both committees is Lori Piercy of Rainier, a favorite of Republican candidates and pro-business initiative drives.
Under state law, contributors do not have to be listed with the Secretary of State until 30 days after they give money. Some committees have voluntarily listed contributions as they come in. Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, has reported contributions on or near the day they are received. Davis said the committees would both likely use the time allotted before the names were made public.
The first step for both measures will be to obtain 1,000 signatures to have the Secretary of State begin the often long and litigious path of creating a ballot title and getting petitions to canvassers. For constitutional amendments, each initiative requires 107,000 signatures be submitted by the deadline in July 2018. Because of possible invalid signatures, most veteran initiative campaign managers say an additional 30 to 40 percent of the minimum is needed for backers to be comfortable they have the numbers to get on the ballot.
The supermajority has been part of the Oregon Constitution since 1996. It requires a three-fifths vote in the House and Senate to pass a bill that would raise taxes. Democrats are currently one vote short of a supermajority in both the House and Senate. What constitutes a tax has set off a partisan semantic battle, most recently near the end of the 2017 session. House Speaker Tina Kotek advanced legislation that would have adjusted who received tax breaks.
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