There are 12 Christmas trees in Oregon for every person, more than in any other state. That’s one way we are special. Another is our system of state and local public finances, where, by many measures, Oregon is an outlier. Generally, special also means better.
Nevertheless, Oregon’s system of state and local finance has one difference that isn’t particularly praiseworthy: the so-called kicker law, which requires the state to return actual revenues in excess of the annual budget forecast to taxpayers. No other state in the country has anything quite like it. Oregon’s kicker was justified as a means of keeping the legislature from rolling over revenue windfalls to future budgets, thereby unsustainably increasing state spending. This was and is a reasonable concern, but the kicker was and is an ill-conceived fix to this particular problem. Rather, it is fundamentally inimical to the very worthwhile goal of smoothing out state and local spending, which calls for setting revenue growth in excess of long-term trends aside for a rainy day.
Oregon’s Total Revenue and Total Expenditure
Oregon’s kicker law dates back to 1979. The voters overwhelmingly ratified the law in 1980, but the first actual kicker rebate didn't actually occur until 1985. During the 90s a surprisingly good economy generated kicker rebates nearly every biennium: 1995, 1997, 1999, and 2001. The only subsequent rebate occurred in 2007, a personal income tax rebate of $1 billion. That year the legislature diverted the business-tax kicker to the state’s rainy day fund and in 2012 Measure 85 assigned it to the public-school fund for keeps.
The dearth of personal-income-tax kicker rebates so far this century is not entirely due to a disappointing economy. That is the main reason, of course. But Oregon’s recovery has by most measures outstripped that of the nation as a whole, especially with respect to state revenue growth. Consequently, it appears that the state also highballed the official revenue forecast. In so doing, its actions were entirely consistent with the recommendations of the 2008-9 Legislative Task Force on Comprehensive Revenue Restructuring. The Task Force aimed at making Oregon's tax system more stable and adequate. It found that the secret to stability and adequacy lies in stabilizing spending growth at a sustainable rate and in using savings and short-term debt to smooth out revenue volatility. The Kulongoski administration put these findings into place via its so-called reset budget. Then, so long as the administration remains committed to the reset-budget’s long-term spending targets, funds are automatically generated for Oregon’s rainy-day fund and/or to pay down its debt (the measures also allowed for automatic borrowing if revenue fell short of the spending target).
This year it probably will not be possible to avoid a kicker rebate without legislative action. Despite the best efforts to avoid such an outcome, actual revenues look to be running ahead of the forecast. Not surprisingly kicker repeal is once again on the legislative agenda. (Of course, the legislature can always put off the distribution of a kicker rebate by an emergency vote, as it did in 1991 and 1993, without actually repealing the law.)
Moreover, some legislators are concerned with the current administration’s apparent inclination to discard the reset budget: reset principles are not highlighted in the 2015-17 budget proposal and the medium-term fiscal planning unit in the Department of Administrative Services that formulated the reset budget and put it into place has been dismantled. This is a potential threat to the state’s long-term fiscal stability and, perhaps, also underscores the ongoing need to enact the Task Force’s recommendations for improvements to Oregon’s fiscal system, including reform of Oregon's personal-income-tax kicker, into law.
Senator Ginny Burdick, Chair of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, is the key to these reforms. She served on the Task Force and has a longstanding commitment to both fiscal stability and kicker reform. Interestingly, California, Oregon’s neighbor to the South, recently voted Proposition 2 into law. Proposition 2 amends the California Constitution to require that the Governor make mid-term spending and revenue targets part of the state budget process, requires the state to set aside revenues each year – for 15 years – to pay down specified state liabilities, and substantially revises the rules governing the state’s rainy day fund. In other words, California’s legislature did pretty much what Oregon’s has, so far, not done with respect to kicker reform. They referred a measure aimed at making state and local spending sustainable to the citizenry. On November 4, 2014, 70 percent of Californians voted in its favor.
We need to go there too.