Oregon lawmakers, at least some of them, came up with a nifty new trick this legislative session, one that may or may not pass constitutional muster. They’ve approved at least one bill, Senate Bill 28, which raises taxes without having to earn the three-fifths majority in both houses the state constitution requires, and they’ve been working on another.
They can do so, they believe, because of a state Supreme Court ruling in 2015, City of Seattle v. Oregon Department of Revenue, which the Legislature’s lawyers say allows them to tweak existing tax laws without that supermajority or without requiring the bill to begin life in the House.
On June 19, SB 28, which would change the way taxes on some businesses are calculated, was approved by the state House of Representatives, though by a less than three-fifths margin. It had passed the Senate with a simple majority. It awaits Gov. Kate Brown’s signature.
Then, on June 21, members of the House Committee on Revenue took the first step toward repeating the process. House Bill 2060-A was passed out of the House Committee on Revenue on a party-line vote, with a single Republican excused. Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, was among those who voted against the measure, which would make it more difficult for some Oregonians to take advantage of laws governing partnerships, limited liability corporations and S-corporations. And again, Democrats said they would approve the measure without a supermajority.
In both cases, while the bills in question do not come up with a “new” tax, they do enlarge the pool of businesses and individuals who will be subject to an existing one. Combined, the two measures could be expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars that would help fill the $1.4 billion hole in the state’s 2017-19 budget.
While the Legislature must balance the budget, tippy-toeing across the constitution is not the way to go about it.
Rather, Democrats and Republicans must work together to bring spending under control, including spending on the state’s Public Employee Retirement System. They must work together, too, to come up with tax proposals that don’t leave nearly half of the Legislature holding its nose and voting “no.” Anything less than that violates the spirit of the state constitution and could end up in court.