Well-financed opponents of two legislatively passed tax hikes turned in more than twice as many signatures as required last week to refer the increases to the January ballot.
The success of the group known as Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes, which gathered signatures to overturn permanent increases in the income tax on wealthy Oregonians and in both the minimum and income taxes on corporations, was no surprise for two reasons.
First, many Oregonians hate taxes and think the Legislature is crying wolf when it says overturning the tax increases would create a $733 million budget hole for schools and other public services.
Second, two of Salem's top lobbying firms, Public Affairs Counsel and Conkling, Fiskum McCormick, have spent nearly $1 million gathering signatures and getting the anti-tax message out with claims such as this on the anti-tax group's website: "If these taxes pass, Oregon lawmakers will continue to spend and spend and spend."
That claim may be true. But it's also certainly true that both firms slamming the spendthrift Legislature spent the 2009 session lobbying hard for more government spending on a select number of their clients. And ironically, the two firms will be helping those clients to fill budget holes if they succeed in killing the tax increases.
The 2009 Legislature passed a $300 million-a-year transportation bill, for example, that will benefit CFM's client Associated General Contractors with highway work. CFM client Providence Health Services will get more money and fewer uninsured patients thanks to a new $1 billion hospital and insurer tax; JELD-WEN, the window and door manufacturer CFM represents, will benefit from a $10 million weatherization bill that passed; and CFM helped Renewable Northwest Project protect hundreds of millions in wind energy subsidies.
Lobbyist Mark Nelson, who runs Public Affairs Counsel, is most closely associated with business clients. But he also represents the Oregon Housing Alliance, which benefited from a new $40 million fee levied by the Legislature against newly recorded property documents. And he represents college professors and Head Start providers that could get less state money if he wins the tax battle.
Defend Oregon spokesman Scott Moore, whose group opposes the ballot referral, says if CFM and Public Affairs Counsel kill the tax increases, it "could be devastating to the organizations and agencies that depend on state funds just to provide basic services and education."
But Pat McCormick, whose firm has so far earned $47,000 from Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes, according to state filings, says his firm has no conflict of interest. He says some taxes, such as the one for transportation, build wealth in contrast to permanent tax hikes that he says only benefit public employees.
Nelson, whose firm has earned $124,000 from the campaign, wasn't available for comment.
Here's a chart showing some of the firm's clients, how much money the firms got for lobbying, their clients' legislative interest.