In Our View: Oregonians: Shop Here!

Sales tax exemption is preserved; 5 local legislators made the right decision

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The last thing Clark County business owners need -- as they try to claw their way out of this lingering economic crisis -- is another tax on their customers. Yet that is precisely what would’ve happened if the Legislature had removed the nonresident sales-tax exemption that -- in our community’s case -- allows Oregonians to shop here without paying sales tax.Local residents have five state representatives to thank for helping preserve that exemption. Voting against House Bill 2791 late Thursday night were Republicans Ann Rivers, Paul Harris and Ed Orcutt; and Democrats Tim Probst and Sharon Wylie. The bill received 51 supporting votes with 47 opposed, but a two-thirds supermajority approval was required, so the measure failed.

Supporters, including state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said the revenue generated by the new tax would be used to help fund all-day kindergarten. But as we stated in earlier editorials, no one knows for sure how much revenue would’ve been generated (or even if it would be a net gain), because there is no way of knowing for sure how much business from Oregonians would be lost because of the new tax they would have to pay.

Credit Moeller with seizing a politically popular cause and running hard with it. We don’t doubt his claim that the “sales-tax exemption is one of the top complaints I hear from my constituents.” We hear those same complaints; they’re prevalent in letters to the editor. But as Kelly Parker, president of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, explains, “Sales tax exemption is not the problem, and removing it is not the solution … The sales tax exemption is a sales tool for local businesses.”

Yes, Moeller certainly gave this crusade his best effort, as reflected in the 51-47 favorable vote. But he submitted a red herring of sorts when he presented this argument: “Clark County is one of the top seven counties -- of all the 75 counties in Oregon (36) and Washington (39) -- for the amount of money our residents here send to Oregon for that state’s income taxes. … It’s grossly unfair that Oregonians wedge an undue tax edge in Washington.”

First, it might be unfair, but it’s never going to change. The Mariners will win the World Series before cash-strapped Oregon legislators exempt Washingtonians (nonparticipants in Oregon elections, remember) from paying those state income taxes.

Second, as Parker notes, “I would suggest to be ‘fair’ we need to get ‘real’ and expand his conversation to include the lost tax revenues from Vancouver shoppers who go to Oregon and do not pay sales tax, thus denying the state important revenues. Most would agree, it’s not a politically popular discussion.”

And that’s where both Moeller and Parker are correct. Many local residents are quickly angered when they hear the ubiquitous “Washington resident?” inquiry at local stores. But regardless how much political capital was gained by Moeller on this issue, bashing the exemption that encourages Oregonians to shop here is a waste of time. The more applicable message -- the one that makes more sense during an economic slump -- is proclaimed by local merchants: “Bring ’em on!”