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By Janie Har September 25, 2012

Did the City of Portland make charging a real estate transfer tax a top priority this year?

The chief backers of Ballot Measure 79 submitted a voters’ pamphlet statement this summer brimming with reasons to enshrine a ban on real estate transfer taxes in the Oregon Constitution. The tax is already prohibited in Oregon, with the exception of Washington County, but advocates want to make sure the state doesn’t implement a tax or allow local governments to impose one.

The reasons put forth by the Oregon Association of Realtors basically boil down to this: Home prices are down, property taxes are high enough, and you don’t want another tax that would make it harder to buy or sell a home.   

The group also plants a bug of fear in tax haters with this: "Politicians have considered the idea of charging or allowing multiple layers of transfer taxes each and every legislative session for the last decade, and in fact one of the state’s largest governments made charging this tax one of their top priorities just this year." (our emphasis)

Obviously, we wanted to know which large government made charging this tax a priority. Who was it and what happened? (Was it the tax-happy city of Portland?) We contacted the Realtors’ association and received a response from Jon Coney, spokesman for the Yes on 79 campaign, previously known as Protect Oregon Homes.

It turns out the campaign was indeed talking about the city of Portland. As evidence that this large government body had "made charging this tax" a top priority this year, Coney shared a draft of the 2012 Legislative Agenda for the city of Portland. An agenda!

We got a copy of the final agenda. One of seven items on it was to "strongly oppose any legislation that would preempt the City’s authority and support legislation that proposes to lift preemptions."

Preemption, for those who don’t know, is when a superior government body regulates in a given area and pretty much trumps a lesser government’s ability to do the same. The state trumps cities, and the feds trump states.

Cities and counties generally dislike preemption, because it usually ties their ability to raise revenue, also known as taxes and fees. Two particularly vexing subject areas -- taxing cigarettes and alcohol, and levying real estate transfer fees -- are indeed specified as examples in the city’s 2012 legislative agenda. That’s all accurate.

But we asked Coney how supporting flexibility to be able to maybe one day pass a real estate transfer tax -- along with higher alcohol and cigarette taxes, if you follow the group’s reasoning -- is the same as making the imposition of such a tax a top priority this year? He said he didn’t want to get into a fight over semantics, but one leads to the other.

"It’s pretty clear for us, in 2012, putting this on their legislative agenda clearly is a strong signal that they want to pursue this taxing mechanism," Coney said.

Are the two acts one and the same? He said, "It is our position that asking that the (prohibition) be lifted is essentially leading to the institution of the real estate tax."

So this is the evidence the campaign provides for making the claim that the city of Portland made charging this tax a top priority this year: A legislative agenda in which the tax is given as an example among several examples on one issue out of seven. And by the way, legislation wasn’t even drafted. And the Realtors know this.

Maybe we missed talk of a real estate transfer tax somewhere? At a city council meeting at some point? Nope, the campaign can provide no other evidence. They can, however, point to previous legislative attempts, which got nowhere.

"I don’t remember it being raised," said Nick Fish, the city commissioner in charge of housing. "It’s been on a laundry list of preemptions we object to on principle. Other than this campaign brought by Realtors, I don’t even remember a conversation about the real property tax in the last year or two."

We asked Martha Pellegrino, lead lobbyist for the city of Portland, if the city would go ahead with a transfer tax if the prohibition were lifted. The answer is no, she said: "Just because the state repeals a preemption of local authority does not mean that the City, or any other local government, would automatically act."

We’re certain some of you don’t care what Pellegrino or Fish -- or any other government official says -- they will or won’t do. And it’s absolutely accurate to say that Portland officials could levy a tax on every transfer of property as soon as the pesky state prohibition is gone.

But the only evidence the campaign provides is a legislative agenda for a short legislative session in which no legislation was drafted. How does that translate into making "charging this tax one of their top priorities just this year?" It doesn’t. And that makes the statement both inaccurate and ridiculous.

We rate the claim Pants on Fire.

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Did the City of Portland make charging a real estate transfer tax a top priority this year?

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