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Opinion » Editorial

The Realtors' Anti-Tax Power Play

Petition banning real estate transfer taxes.



We have nothing against realtors. Many of them are fine human beings and decent, upstanding citizens. As individuals, realtors are all right by us.

When they band together, though, they sometimes have all the charm of a pack of ravenous piranhas.

Current case in point: the Oregon Association of Realtors' campaign to write a ban on real estate transfer taxes into the state constitution.

A real estate transfer tax is a tax on real estate sales. Currently there's only one locality in Oregon that has such a tax: Washington County, which charges a fee of 0.1 percent - that's a puny one-tenth of one percent - on each property sale. On a $250,000 house, for example, the tax would be $250. The tax, paid by the sellers, brings in about $2.5 million a year for the county.

In 1989, after Eugene and Lake Oswego started contemplating their own transfer taxes, the state legislature enacted a law forbidding them. But that's not good enough for the realtors' association; it's still afraid the legislature might reverse itself someday - although nobody so far is proposing such a thing.

So the association is trying to persuade Oregon voters to make real estate transfer taxes unconstitutional. The realtors are dead serious about it: They've raised almost $800,000 for the campaign so far, and say they're confident of collecting enough signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot.

The association's argument in favor of the ban (and you could see this one coming) is that it would hurt home sales and threaten jobs in an already struggling economy. "Our research shows that homeowners don't like [transfer taxes]," an association lobbyist told reporters. "And renters who want to own homes someday don't either."

Of course, nobody likes taxes of any size or shape. But it strains credulity to claim that a fee of one-tenth of a percent is going to stop anybody from selling or buying a house. The real estate market isn't depressed because of taxes or fees or regulations; it's depressed because there are more houses out there than there are people with the desire and the money to buy them. And it'll stay depressed until that imbalance corrects itself.

Meanwhile, a constitutional ban on real estate transfer taxes could permanently deprive cities and counties of revenue they sorely need in these tough times. Worse, it would deprive localities of the right to set their own tax policies. And even worse, it would turn the constitution into an instrument for protecting a narrow special interest.

When even The Bulletin's editorial page - which never met a tax it didn't hate - comes out against an anti-tax proposal, you know it must be truly horrific. But that's just what happened a few days ago, when it urged readers: "Don't sign the petition. Don't vote for it if it winds up on the ballot."

We find ourselves in the extraordinary position of agreeing 100 percent with The Bulletin. If somebody approaches you to sign the petition for this initiative, give it THE BOOT without ceremony or delay.

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