The kicker is a constitutionally mandated rebate for individual and corporate Oregon taxpayers that is triggered when a biennial tax revenue surplus exceeds the biennial revenue forecast by more than two percent. The kicker law was approved by voters in 1980 but was not made part of the constitution until 1999. Proponents of the kicker law cheer that is has kicked back revenues to taxpayers eight times since its inception. Opponents to the kicker say that boom-time revenues should be saved to alleviate bust-time deficits.
Oregonians are tired of our roller-coaster budgeting that results from our inability to save when revenues are up and the imperative to cut deeply when revenues decline. The hard truth is that we will never get ahead during good times—and we’ll continue to fall further behind during bad times—if we fail to enact responsible, balanced kicker reform. We will never end this yo-yo budgeting and begin true fiscal stability without a strong, constitutionally protected reserve fund.
I have long advocated for the state to establish a rainy day fund to better protect critical services for Oregonians. In 2007, the legislature joined me in creating a rainy day fund. Without these reserve funds, cuts to schools, human services and public safety would have been far more severe in this recession.
During the 2009 legislative session and 2010 special session, I wanted the legislature to take the next step in responsible fiscal planning and refer to the voters a constitutionally protected emergency reserve fund financed, in part, by the kicker. Unfortunately, there wasn’t the political will to refer this critical measure to the public for the upcoming general election. I believe that the choice to push this debate to a future legislative session is a missed opportunity and a disservice to the people of Oregon.
This last boom-bust economic period reminds the public how critical it is that we have a strong emergency budget reserve that protects services when Oregonians need them most and values their investments as taxpayers during more prosperous times.
We must put politics aside and take the necessary steps of forcing the state to save during good times by reforming the kicker. These two actions are the only way we can achieve fiscal stability for future generations of Oregonians.
Unfortunately, the Oregon legislature, unrestrained, spends every last cent it can extract from Oregon citizens and businesses.
Legislative budgets are not made on the basis of what is necessary but are simply the last budget with new programs, “roll-ups” and fudge factors added in. This method over the last ten years produced budgets, which increased at three times the rate of inflation. Even corrected for population growth, the increases have been breathtaking.
It could be worse but for two sensible provisions in the Oregon constitution which protect us at least somewhat from the politicians. The first is that the budget must be balanced. That precludes legislators from piling us into debt. The other protection, which was more recently adopted, is the kicker law. The kicker was first adopted by voters as a statute in 1980 and later put into the constitution.
The kicker requires that once the legislature adopts a budget, any money collected from income taxes beyond what is needed for that budget is returned to taxpayers. It’s a sensible protection and one of the few disciplines we have to mitigate against the spend-everything philosophy of the government class.
Compared to the amount of total spending by the state, the amount of money returned to taxpayers in kicker checks is really peanuts, except to the taxpayers. The larger benefit, however, is that the money refunded is not included in the base for the next budget. Had those kickers been included in successive budgets, current spending would be higher by $2.57 billion on the personal side and $527 million on the corporate side. In other words, the budget the legislature just struggled to fund would have been $3.1 billion bigger. Without this modest slowing of spending—still multiples of inflation—we would have had to raise taxes, not by $727 million, but by $3.8 billion.