As voters consider whether to support the Metro Council's proposed $4 billion transportation measure on next month's ballot, one of the region's largest employers has told the regional government it believes it is exempt from paying the tax, which will charge companies, including nonprofits, up to 0.75% of payroll.
Metro wants to build a new MAX line from Portland to Tigard and make transportation investments in 17 safety corridors in its tricounty service area. The tax Metro designed applies to companies that employ more than 25 workers. Just before referring it to voters in July, Metro decided to exempt local governments, such as the city of Portland and Multnomah County, which each employ thousands of people.
WW has learned that Oregon Health & Science University, which pays the TriMet payroll tax upon which Metro modeled its proposed tax, has told Metro it does not believe it should have to pay the transportation tax.
That would exempt the region's third-largest employer, after Intel and Providence Health & Services. According to the Portland Business Journal, OHSU employed more than 17,500 workers last year.
OHSU has an unusual legal structure. In 1995, the Legislature deemed it a "public corporation," which allows the university to raise money on its own, set its own annual budget, and generally act more like a private institution than it did when under state control. It still gets some money from the Legislature—about $65 million a year—and its board of directors is appointed by the governor.
According to a 2018 review published by the university, the shift in governance has largely been a success. It has also sharply reduced the share of OHSU's budget that comes from taxpayers—from about 12% in 1995 down to about 2% today.
But does it qualify as state or local government? That remains to be determined.
OHSU's employees (and its patients) are obviously users of the region's transportation system. But OHSU spokeswoman Tamara Hargens-Bradley says that when the university saw Metro was exempting local governments, it asked for that exemption, too.
"After the Metro Council referral vote, Michael Harrison, OHSU's director for local government relations, called President [Lynn] Peterson and Andy Shaw of Metro and explained that because OHSU is a public entity that is part of state government, we feel the Metro Council's decision exempts OHSU," Hargens-Bradley told WW in an email. "We plan to follow up on these conversations in more detail should the measure pass."
As for Metro's take: Shaw responded to detailed questions about his agency's communications with OHSU with a blanket statement.
"If Measure 26-218 passes, the proposed transportation projects and programs would be funded by a proposed tax on certain employers, beginning in 2022," Shaw said.
"The proposed tax would exempt all employers with 25 or fewer employees, as well as state and local governments, including cities, counties and special districts. Metro staff have been asked by OHSU representatives whether the proposed tax would apply to them; we have provided them with these same facts.
"If the measure passes, the Metro Council will take further action to establish collection processes, code language and rules to implement the proposed tax."