In the news

The Register-Guard
Saul Hubbard

SALEM — In a bid to give the public more information about the recipients of tax credits the state hands out, the Oregon House unanimously approved a bill Tuesday to put information online.

Oregon distributes hundreds of millions of dollars every two-year session in tax credits designed to stimulate the state’s economy. Under House Bill 2825, certain information about those tax credits would be published on a state website for public scrutiny.

“Spending on tax breaks should be treated the same as spending on programs,” said Rep. Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, one of the bill’s sponsors. “By putting this information online, as is currently the case with other areas of the budget, we move one step closer to that goal.”

Specifically, the bill calls for the names and addresses of all recipients of these tax credits to be published online. How much each recipient receives to offset their Oregon tax liability also would be available.

The database would explain why a person or business qualified for a tax credit and would compare promised results to actual results delivered by the individual or business, thanks to the credit they received.

“Taxpayers should be able to see where their money is going and whether the benefits promised by these projects are becoming reality,” said Rep. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, the bill’s other sponsor.

All the information that the bill seeks to publish online is already part of the public record and can be obtained with some digging or public records requests. But that process is hard to navigate for Oregonians without an understanding of how the state public records system works, Barnhart said.

HB 2825 received public support from some businesses, trade unions and consumer advocate groups in the lead-up to the vote.

“This proposal will prevent fraud and waste of our public resources and ensure that Oregonians get the greatest return on our investment possible with these job-creation programs,” said Jon Bartholomew, a lobbyist for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, in a statement released after the bill’s passage.

Because the bill doesn’t seek to make any new and potentially sensitive personal or business information public, the organizations that administer two of the state’s high-profile and much-scrutinized tax credits say they don’t have concerns about it.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” said Kathy Shinn, a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy, which distributes the Ore­gon Business Energy Tax Credit or BETC.

The BETC is made available to businesses who invest in energy conservation, recycling, renewable energy resources and less-polluting transportation fuels.

Vince Porter, executive director of the Oregon Film and Video Office, which administers tax subsidies for in-state film and television productions, said he understands the need for public transparency when it comes to tax breaks.

“That’s what people want,” he said.

Porter added that he didn’t think the added transparency would be a major deterrent for Ore­gonians seeking to obtain film production tax credits.

Due to the budgetary crunch the state is facing, Barnhart testified Tuesday that the crafters of HB 2825 had to carefully draw up the bill so it wouldn’t cost the state any money.

That means that, if the bill becomes law, the raw tax credit data posted online may be difficult to navigate at first. But Barnhart said he would like to see future investment by the state to explain the data.

“We’re in the process of this opening of government,” Barnhart said. “(It) is going to be a little bit awkward, a little bit difficult. But getting this information out, even in the rough form that this bill requires it to be done, is a significant step forward.”

HB 2825 now heads to the Senate.

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