State voters will get the final say on a couple of issues that occupied legislators this session — and it also seems likely that they'll be called upon to pass judgment on one of the session's big-deal items.
Voters will get to decide whether to increase the state's tobacco tax to help plug a budget shortfall in the Oregon Health Plan, the state's version of Medicaid. Money raised from the proposed tax increase also would be used to discourage young people from starting tobacco use. Voters also will decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow campaign finance limits.
But the main event likely will be a vote on a gross receipts tax on certain Oregon businesses, a tax that's estimated to raise roughly $1 billion a year, with all the proceeds earmarked for K-12 schools and early childhood education.
In general, these referendums appear on the next general election ballot — which, in this case, would be November 2020. That's when voters will see the tobacco tax and campaign-finance issues on the ballot.
But the vote on the business tax will be held earlier. Under the terms of a rescheduling bill, Senate Bill 116, the election on the tax will be held in January 2020, assuming opponents gather enough signatures to place it on the ballot. The bill passed on a party-line vote, with Republicans, who opposed the tax measure, pushing for the later election. Their thinking presumably is that the November 2020 election, with a presidential race at the top of the ballot, will generate a much higher turnout than a special election in January — and, in this case, a higher turnout might result in more votes against the tax. By contrast, the reasoning goes, a special election in January with just one issue would draw a smaller turnout, and mostly attract people with strong opinions on that single issue, possibly giving an edge in this case to supporters of the tax.
Nevertheless, there is a compelling reason to push for this particular election in January.
If voters reject the tax, that would blow a big hole in the state's budget. Legislators, who are scheduled to meet in a short session starting in February 2020, would have the opportunity to go to work almost immediately to make necessary adjustments. Otherwise, those adjustments would have to wait until after the November 2020 vote. (Legislators did do a little bit of preparatory work in this regard before the session ended on Sunday; they passed a bill to kill the entire tax law, including education spending mandates and a modest cut in the personal income tax, if voters reject the business tax.)
The earlier vote makes sense for businesses as well: If voters uphold the tax, businesses would be liable for any taxes incurred prior to the vote. If the tax is approved in January, businesses would be liable for a few weeks of retroactive taxes; if the vote moves to November, businesses potentially could be on the hook for nearly a year's worth.
What doesn't make sense is a legislative effort that will make it more difficult for citizens to qualify an initiative for the ballot.
Senate Bill 761, which passed the Legislature on Sunday, bars initiative supporters from handing out copies of electronic signature sheets to Oregonians to sign and submit. Instead, as The Oregonian newspaper has explained, voters will have to print their own forms or personally ask someone to print one for them. And each signature sheet must include the complete text of the proposed measure — and considering how these initiatives can be lengthy affairs, this can add considerable difficulty to the process of gathering signatures.
Legislators talked about how the bill would increase "quality control" in the signature-gathering process, but offered no evidence of abuse. The goal of the bill, pure and simple, is to make it more difficult to place initiatives on the ballot.
There was speculation that the bill sought to hinder efforts to refer the business tax to voters. But by the time the bill goes into effect, chances seem good that tax opponents already will have gathered sufficient signatures to force the January 2020 election. And then it will be up to the voters. (mm)