In a series of hearings over the past week, the Legislature's Joint Special Committee on Coronavirus Response has considered ways to ease the financial hardship Oregonians and Oregon businesses will endure because of COVID-19 shutdowns.
One of the biggest items on the table is a possible delay of the signature achievement of the 2019 Legislature: the corporate activity tax, a $1 billion annual tax on large businesses to fund schools.
When the panel held its first meeting, it had in front of it a request from Oregon Business & Industry and more than 20 other business groups to delay the scheduled April implementation of the new tax. The first quarterly payments for the tax are due April 15.
"Recognizing the cash-flow crisis facing businesses across the state, delay implementation of the new Corporate Activities Tax, at least for the first quarter of 2020, so those funds can be diverted to meeting payroll and protecting jobs," Sandra McDonough, CEO of OBI, wrote to lawmakers and Gov. Kate Brown on March 17.
"Extend the delay through the second quarter if the coronavirus crisis continues."
The new tax, passed as part of what lawmakers dubbed the Student Success Act, charges companies with sales of more than $1 million a flat fee of $250 plus 0.57 percent of sales after certain deductions.
The idea was that Oregon's tax structure, which is heavily dependent on personal income taxes, would be more stable with what is in effect a sales tax on businesses.
Lawmakers pledged to allocate the money to K-12 education and expected the tax to generate more than $1 billion a year in new revenue starting in the 2021-23 budget cycle, even after reductions in personal income tax rates, which were part of the new law. Here are the projected revenues:
Earlier this week, Brown mirrored a move by the federal government to extend the filing date for personal income taxes to July 15. That was a logical, simple way to give taxpayers some relief because most people file their state and federal returns at the same time.
A decision on the CAT is more complex, however, because there is no corresponding federal tax deadline and the collapse of personal income tax and Oregon Lottery revenues means the state is going to need every dollar it can raise.
Danny Moran, a spokesman for House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland), says the Joint Special Committee on Coronavirus Response is still working on recommendations that will provide a framework for an imminent legislative special session to deal with impacts from the pandemic.
"The committee hasn't completed its work at this point," Moran says. "We'll plan to send out more information on the timing and details of an initial emergency relief package as soon as possible."
Kotek, Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), and Gov. Brown have been in talks on when and how to hold a special session, but details have not been finalized.
On Thursday morning, another business group, more than 40 business groups weighed in, urging a six-month delay or a reduction in the tax.
"Requiring CAT tax payments in April will be the absolute worst timing possible for struggling businesses during this crisis. Companies will be forced to pay this tax instead of paying employees, meaning potential layoffs across a broad spectrum of industries," the group wrote in a letter to lawmakers. "Members of both parties have expressed support for CAT relief in the upcoming special session. It's time for the Legislature to act."