Writings and observations

Transparency bill secrecy

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I’m a member of a small group of citizen activists in Washington County named the “Taxpayer Return on Investment Coalition”. We spent hours over the past 18 months drafting a bill we named the “Taxpayer Return on Investment Act” (TRIA).

The premise is pretty straight forward and a simplistic version is this: If any private business applies for and accepts tax credits, special tax reductions, government grants, or subsidized loans, it would be deemed an investment by the taxpayers (Isn’t that what businesses always tell us their tax breaks are?). The would have to promise that the taxpayer provided incentives would pay for themselves through job creation and more taxes collected form the increased economic activity. Again, that’s the rational for most business tax breaks. The State would audit the results (paid for by the businesses through a small fee based on the percent of the benefits received), and if the business didn’t substantially meet their goals, the business would have to refund the grants or incentives or they could lose their special tax exemptions.

And we included transparency provisions. All of the information on the deals, taxes forgone, credits, SIP and enterprise zone benefits, jobs promised, audits, from any governemtn agency, whether a Port District the State, or a County, would all be on the State of Oregon government transparency website. So citizens could access the information. If someone wanted to know how many various tax dollars ABC Inc. received over the past three years from all sources, they could do a search and bingo! Or if someone wanted to know how many tax dollars the Hillsboro Enterprise zone cost the State, they could search by that parameter as well. Did you know that Daimler Chrysler received tax breaks, loans, and property from six different agancies? And that to find out the total they received one would have to ask for information from each individual agency? And that it promised different numbers of jobs to different agencies and no one knows if they promised the same jobs twice?

Under TRIA, There would be no secret special deals. Complete transparency on where tax breaks were going. And what the people received. No more simple statements such as: “Tax cuts create jobs”, or “Lower taxes and businesses will grow”. We would have data. And with that data, it could be that we’d find that some tax inventive programs worked better than others. And some were just a waste of money. Maybe we could expand those that work, and terminate those that didn’t. If people wanted to have government act more like a business, this is exactly what the TRIA did.

So what happened to TRIA? Nothing. We found no sponsors in Salem. And today the only “transparency” bill that’s still alive is barely on life support. The TRIA coalition reluctantly abandoned TRIA this session to help Rep. Ann Lininger’s pass HB 2077. That bill would require the 100 largest corporations doing business in Oregon to reveal how much they pay in taxes. The TRIA coalation hoped that HB2077 would be something for us to build on.

And as HB2077 went through committee, there was amazingly little opposition. However all the business lobbyists made sure to attend every hearing, they offered no testimony. It seemed that the bill could make it through. Then a fellow TRIA member Prof. Russ Dondero posted a story on his blog.

Russ ran into a CEO of a large business group on the golf course recently. Here’s the gist of their encounter:

His comment to me which I’m paraphrasing was “Russ what are you up to, still trying to hold business accountable?” My answer was “yes” but our transparency bill HB 2077 is stuck in the House Revenue committee. As he walked away from me headed to his tee box he said “that bill would destroy Oregon’s economy.” ….

… this brief 30 second “conversation” on a golf course sums up what one needs to know about Oregon politics these days. Basically, when you mess around with “corporate Oregon” don’t expect them to roll over the play dead. OK I never expected that to happen. But in the many hearings on various transparency bills which ask for disclosure of Oregon taxes corporations pay and how they use billions in state subsidies, the “corporate” suits aka lobbyists while in the room have been silent in the hearings.

But my fellow golfer now business leader let it out of the bag – the hired gun lobbyists and their legislator supporters are watching us and have no plans to let Oregonians know what state income (i.e. excise) taxes the likes of Nike, Intel et al pay nor do they intend to allow for an accounting of how they are using our SIP, enterprise zone and urban renewal subsidies.

And there you have it. Taxpayers trying to hold politicians and big business accountable for the special tax provisions, exemptions, grants, loans and giveaways of public property to big business (Small businesses simply don’t qualify for these programs). But you can’t have an open and transparent debate when the special interests have no interest in debating in public. Even when the issue is transparency.

Maybe especially when the issue is transparency.

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