Department of Justice orders release of hidden tax subsidy data

By Celeste Meiffren of Portland, Oregon. Celeste is a Consumer and Taxpayer Advocate for OSPIRG.

Yesterday, the Oregon Department of Justice ordered a state agency to release data about the Strategic Investment Program, a tax subsidy estimated to cost Oregon taxpayers $322 million over the next two years, stating that there is a “strong public interest” in disclosing the information.

The order came after the agency, Business Oregon, denied a request by OSPIRG to disclose information about the Strategic Investment Program, in which corporations receive a property tax break in exchange for a promise to create jobs and make specific investments in local communities.

OSPIRG requested that Business Oregon disclose the recipients of these public dollars and what those recipients delivered in exchange for the money. We filed a petition to the Attorney General last month to appeal Business Oregon’s decision. Business Oregon now has seven days to either release the information or file suit to appeal the Attorney General’s decision.

Business Oregon and other state agencies have long justified suppression of this kind of data, arguing it is a ‘trade secret’ and is protected from disclosure under the public records law.

Yesterday’s public records order disagreed. The order states, “Regardless of whether that information may qualify as ‘trade secrets,’ we conclude that there is a strong public interest in its disclosure here… The incentives represent a sizeable public investment in that outcome, and the public has a correspondingly sizeable interest in ascertaining the extent to which its investment is paying off.”

We believe that when a private company takes public dollars, the public has a right to know whether the company is holding up their end of the deal and creating jobs. The Justice Department appears to agree and has made it very clear that this is public information. So it’s time for state agencies to pull back the curtain.

OSPIRG is calling on Governor John Kitzhaber to step up the transparency of all corporate tax subsidy programs, because the transparency problems in Oregon are not limited to the Strategic Investment Program. He should stand up for taxpayers by instructing his agencies to show the public whether companies that get any state or local tax incentives in exchange for jobs are doing just that.

Read the full Public Records Petition Order here.

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