Portland businesses oppose PSU-specific tax proposal

The Portland Business Alliance fired their first shots in what looks to be a protracted struggle against recent efforts to introduce a payroll tax to support students at Portland State.

The PBA recently filed two petitions against an initiative generated by PSU President Wim Wiewel. Advocates from Yes for PSU submitted the initiative and ballot title to the city on Feb. 12; the measure would ask voters to support a .1 percent payroll tax on Portland Metro Area businesses to fund scholarships, faculty and advisors.

The PBA petitions question the legal mechanics of the initiative as filed. According to an email statement released by PBA President and Chief Executive Officer Sandra McDonough, the PBA challenged whether the wording and the objectives of the initiative met constitutional requirements. The state constitution currently requires that initiatives can cover only one subject.

“It’s worth noting that even the proponents of this initiative filed a ballot title challenge asking the court to reword the ballot title because they apparently did not agree with the Metro attorney’s draft,” McDonough said in the statement. “We were not surprised The [sic] wording of the ballot title is very important to all parties who will be involved in this measure.”

Yes for PSU Campaign Manager Peter Zuckerman dismissed the PBA petition, calling the legal action meritless.

“It’s a common stall tactic, but that is their main goal,” Zuckerman said. “Because businesses pay for this tax and not workers, they oppose it. It’s unfortunate because we are facing a college affordability and debt crisis right now.”

If enacted, the PSU measure would impose a tax on regional businesses of .1 percent of wages paid to employees working in the Portland Metro Area. The tax would support need-based scholarships, counseling and advisory positions, emergency tuition assistance and tax oversight.

The PBA claimed that the initiative challenge was commonplace, but it also signaled a deeper dispute with the proposals.

“What we disagree with is the payroll tax mechanism proposed in this ballot measure, and the notion that about half the state’s payroll would be taxed to benefit just one of the state’s many higher education institutions,” McDonough said in the statement. “It makes no sense to us that this Portland-metro-wide tax would be used to support a local student attending PSU, but not a local student attending Southern Oregon University, for example. How is that fair?”

McDonough said that PBA communicated with PSU administrators about their concerns and the nature of their challenge. She also claimed that business leaders wanted to support PSU and suggested meetings to discuss alternative solutions.

“Rather than waging a potentially costly fight that neither side wants to have, our preference is to sit down with PSU in a collaborative manner and come up with a strategy that can have broad community support,” McDonough said in the statement. “We continue to urge PSU to ask the ballot measure proponents to withdraw this initiative so that we can engage in a productive conversation and help find the right solution for the issues the university has raised.”

Zuckerman argued that businesses stand to gain from the initiative’s benefits, and asserted the need for students to mobilize against the rising costs of higher education.

“It’s in business’ interest to have an educated local workforce,” Zuckerman said. “It’s important for students to be able to afford to go to college…and not be crippled by debt. This is our moment to change that.”

It remains to be seen whether voters will decide that supporting PSU directly through taxation will start to solve those issues. But PBA acknowledged that the issues exist; their solutions to the problem of student costs also remain unclear.

“The Alliance has always supported a strong [PSU], and we agree that the issue of student affordability must be addressed,” McDonough said in the statement. “But we also recognize that the issue of student affordability affects students attending colleges and universities throughout Oregon, and it certainly is not unique to Portland State.”