No lawmaker has fought harder for increased school funding than state Rep. Peter Buckley (D-Ashland).
As co-chairman of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, Buckley is the House Democrats’ budget writer. And in February he pushed to boost Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposed $5.7 billion 2011-13 schools budget, telling Oregon Public Broadcasting that the governor’s figure was $250 million short.
“We’ve gotta find a way to get [the K-12 budget number] up,” Buckley said on OPB radio Feb. 4.
Buckley’s strong support for education funding makes a bill he sponsored this session, House Bill 3626, so perplexing we’re naming him this week’s Rogue.
Here’s why: Buckley wants to give small farmers, who already get generous tax treatment, an even sweeter deal—at the cost of schools and other programs that depend on property taxes.
Currently, small farmers operating on land that is zoned for non-agricultural purposes can qualify for a hefty property tax break, reducing their tax burden to almost nothing. For example, let’s say a Portlander wanted to raise chickens in a vacant inner-city lot. To get a property tax deduction under the current guidelines, the chicken farmer would have to raise his fowl and meet a minimum farm-income threshold of $650 for three years before qualifying for the break.
Buckley wants to accelerate that tax break, so all the would-be chicken farmer would have to do is file a plan with county officials, saying he intended to raise chickens. “Allowing faster designation of the tax deferral will have an impact,” Buckley says. “But the ability for these farmers to produce and sell locally will, in my view, provide significantly greater revenue in the long run.”
Assessors from Polk and Clackamas counties last week testified against Buckley’s bill.
“The Legislature has already made it attractive and easy to qualify for this program,” testified Clackamas County Assessor Bob Vroman, who called the $650 minimum a low hurdle.
Another opponent, Jody Wiser of the watchdog group Tax Fairness Oregon, noted that farmers (who can qualify for the break if they raise bees, greyhounds, ducks or any number of “crops” or more typical agricultural products) could also write off significant expenses, depriving the state of income taxes.
Wiser, who lives in Northwest Portland on land zoned residential that is covered with trillium, provided lawmakers with an example: She could qualify for the proposed tax break next year simply by buying an adjacent lot and letting the flowers run wild.
“I could harvest the trillium from my property and qualify for this [tax break],” Wiser told lawmakers. “We are starving our school system while allowing people to starve our property and income tax revenues.”