tax time small

Governments at every level protect confidential taxpayer information zealously. Because of a recent decision by the Multnomah County district attorney, however, the confidentiality of many Portland taxpayers is under threat. People who live and work in the city endure enough challenges, including crime, homelessness and high taxes, without having to worry about the confidentiality of their tax information as well. The Legislature can and should address this problem in 2024.

The confidentiality crisis began with a public records request filed by Oregon Public Broadcasting, which sought the names of all businesses that paid into the Portland Clean Energy Fund and the amount paid by each. The fund was created by a 2018 initiative that imposes a tax on businesses with total gross income of at least $1 billion per year and Portland gross income of $500,000 or more. Qualifying businesses pay a 1% tax on retail sales within the city.

The city denied the request as required by municipal code establishing confidentiality provisions like those in state and federal law. On appeal, however, the Multnomah County district attorney determined that state public records law trumps city code, and that in his opinion state public records law contains no exemption for local tax return information. The DA directed the city to disclose the information OPB requested, though tax amounts were not to be associated with the businesses paying them.

This confidentiality half-measure is still too little. Oregon still would be an outlier, as no other known municipality in the country exposes tax information to such scrutiny. Businesses would be even more leery than they already are of operating in Portland, where the local business tax burden increased by a staggering 32% between 2019 and 2022, according to Ernst & Young.

Moreover, as OBI’s Scott Bruun explained to Portland City Council Jan. 17, the Multnomah County DA’s rationale would apply to other now-confidential taxpayer information managed by the city of Portland. This includes the county business income tax, the county preschool-for-all income tax and the Metro homeless services tax. Portland City Council, by the way, voted unanimously on Jan. 17 to appeal the district attorney’s order.

The Legislature should spare taxpayers the expense of a court fight – and the city of Portland from further reputational harm – by amending state law to ensure appropriate taxpayer confidentiality.