Oregon Cities

With a record tax kicker on the horizon, an Oregon lawmaker sees a chance to bolster wildfire efforts

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In a letter to state leaders sent on Monday, Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, proposed that Oregon dedicate about 30% of the upcoming kicker to wildfire reduction and response programs.

The proposal follows the passage of SB 762 in 2021, which provided more than $220 million to help the state improve wildfire preparedness. Such funding has decreased in recent years.

State Sen. Jeff Golden is proposing using a third of the forthcoming tax kicker to set aside long-term funding for wildfire reduction and response. Golden represents a district hit hard in 2020 by the Almeda Fire that destroyed several homes like those at the Royal Oaks Mobile Manor in Medford shown in this file photo.

State Sen. Jeff Golden is proposing using a third of the forthcoming tax kicker to set aside long-term funding for wildfire reduction and response. Golden represents a district hit hard in 2020 by the Almeda Fire that destroyed several homes like those at the Royal Oaks Mobile Manor in Medford shown in this file photo.

April Ehrlich/JPR / AP

For the 2021-23 biennium, the Department of Administrative Services Office of Economic Analysis has confirmed a kicker of more than $5.61 billion, the largest ever. The kicker is the state’s tax rebate for citizens that kicks in when there’s a revenue surplus above 2%. Last biennium’s kicker was much smaller, at about $1.89 billion. Taxpayers will claim the kicker as a refundable credit on their 2023 tax return filed in 2024.

Golden proposed depositing about $1.7 billion of the surplus in an ongoing trust fund, administered by the Oregon treasury, and invested. The interest and dividends on that investment would be allocated to wildfire programs.

The other 70% of the kicker would be returned to taxpayers as normal.

“I think this is simple. We have a life and death threat in Southern Oregon and increasingly across the state of Oregon in wildfire,” Golden said in an interview. “The General Fund cannot support adequate wildfire programs to protect our communities. And no one else is suggesting a source of funding that can protect our communities going forward.”

The letter was sent to Minority Leader Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, members of the Senate Republican Caucus, members of the Senate Democratic Caucus and Gov. Tina Kotek.

“I’m writing to make a last-minute appeal for you and your colleagues to consider revising it in a very specific way, and for what I believe to be a crucially important reason,” Golden wrote.

State Sen. Jeff Golden confers with Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton and Southwest Portland, in this March 20, 2023, file photo. Golden wants to use a portion of the state's kicker for one-time investment of $1.7 billion that could yield millions per year for protective wildfire programs.

State Sen. Jeff Golden confers with Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton and Southwest Portland, in this March 20, 2023, file photo. Golden wants to use a portion of the state’s kicker for one-time investment of $1.7 billion that could yield millions per year for protective wildfire programs.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

In a statement, Knopp said, “Senator Golden is yet again using wildfire to attempt to take the kicker. The people of Oregon voted to protect their kicker tax refund from politicians, and this is another clear example of why. I trust Oregonians to spend and invest over-collected taxes more than I do the legislature.”

Other senators, Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Portland, and Kotek did not respond to requests for comment.

In his letter, Golden explains that a 6% return from this one-time investment of $1.7 billion would yield $102 million per year for protective wildfire programs. He said the details of this investment are open to negotiation.

“I don’t want to over-promise. I think it’d be foolish to say, just do this, and we’ll never worry about wildfire again. I’m not that powerful,” Golden said. “But in terms of a reliable source of the funding we need, this would be a huge step forward.”

Golden said he proposed the same thing last session, but the idea did not make it past the Revenue Committee.

Monday’s request follows the passage of SB 762 in 2021, which provided more than $220 million to help the state improve wildfire preparedness. Its key strategies included creating fire-adapted communities, developing safe and effective response and increasing the resiliency of Oregon’s landscapes.

Yet Golden said more recently, the 2023-2025 budget appropriated less than $100 million toward wildfire preparedness and response.

He has also spearheaded the creation of the state’s new wildfire risk map, which is intended to educate homeowners about their exposure to wildfire risk, determine where fire mitigation resources should be prioritized and identify where future state rules on home hardening and defensible space will apply.

He said he has not received a response to his letter.

Time is of the essence, as the Department of Revenue is in the process of printing and distributing FY 2023 Oregon income tax forms, which will have a provision for the kicker.

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