Last week, a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy revealed that Oregon sportswear giant Nike had paid no federal corporate taxes for the past three years, due to a slew of deductions, write-offs and President Donald Trump’s tax overhaul.
That raised a question: How much does Nike pay Oregon in state taxes?
We don’t know because it’s not public record.
“Without corporate tax transparency, we have no idea,” says Daniel Hauser, a policy analyst at the Oregon Center for Public Policy. “[Nike] could be paying a significant share of their profits in taxes in Oregon. They could also be paying the bare minimum. We just have no way of knowing.”
Nike did not respond to WW’s request that it volunteer how much it paid in state taxes last year. That’s not surprising: Nike has worked to block changes to Oregon law that would require the company to disclose its tax returns.
In 2018, petitioners proposed a ballot initiative that would have required corporations to disclose their state tax filings. But it never went before Oregon voters, in part because Nike offered in 2019 to help create a $1 billion corporate tax beloved by the same unions supporting the transparency proposal. “Nike put some money and name and political influence towards killing other ballot measures,” Hauser says.
Some corporations took a tax hit from that grand bargain. Did Nike? No one can say for sure.
But WW asked three local experts—two tax watchdogs and an accountant—for a Tax Day analysis of Nike’s bill. Though they bring up different points, all agree about one thing: Nike is likely paying fairly little for a company that garnered $2.9 billion in profits last year.
Jody Wiser, Tax Fairness Oregon
Wiser says it’s likely Nike pays a minimum corporate tax in Oregon. (That tax does not exist federally.) For businesses that have a state taxable income of more than $100 million, the minimum corporate tax is $100,000. If they have income less than that, the tax is less.
Wiser says Oregon offers almost all the same deductions and write-offs the feds do, which is largely how Nike kept its money for the past three years while filing federal taxes. The one exception: the research and development tax credit, which the feds offer but the state does not.
“And I’m sure that they use that a great deal because, after all, they have to research how to make the next best shoe,” Wiser says.
Richard Solomon, CPA for small businesses in Portland
Solomon says Nike benefits from one wrinkle in Oregon tax code: the single-factor system.
Under that structure, corporations calculate their tax burden based on one factor—the amount of product sold in the state—instead of three factors: labor, property, and product sold in the state.
In 2012, Intel and Nike negotiated a deal with then-Gov. John Kitzhaber to cement a particular tax structure for the two companies for 30 years, guaranteeing that their tax structure would remain the same even if the state altered its tax code.
“They sell four pairs of tennis shoes in Oregon and 4 billion in the rest of the world, so you don’t end up paying any Oregon tax,” Solomon says. “It’s a drop in the ocean.”
Matt Gardner, Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy
Gardner co-authored the ITEP study cited last week by President Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). He tells WW that Nike paid about a 3% effective state income tax rate across all the states in 2020.
The breakdown of that percentage among states is impossible to know, Gardner says, especially considering not every state has the same single-factor corporate tax structure that Oregon has: “We cannot say how much of [Nike’s] income, or that tax, is attributable to Oregon.”
He says that’s a fairly average state tax for big corporations, but still quite meager.
“It’s not heinous,” Gardner says. “It’s pretty much the average, but it’s half of what you would hope for.”