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Pollution credit now just works in polluters favor

TWO VIEWS •Ê1967 tax incentive helped clear the air, but its purpose now may seem cloudy

How is it the Oregon Legislature is passing tax breaks for Enron Corp. before passing out an education budget?

Let's start at the beginning.

In 1967, the Oregon Legislature passed a tax incentive designed to help timber mills and other manufacturers comply with the newly passed federal Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. This incentive allowed businesses to lower their state tax bill to compensate for costs of the new equipment that these laws required.

During the 1990s, critics wondered whether taxpayers should continue paying for this ever-growing subsidy. After all, the new environmental regulations were a quarter-century old. Many questioned whether taxpayers should continue to pay businesses for simply doing what the law required.

In 2001, Gov. John Kitzhaber said the time had come to let this subsidy expire. But the leaders of the Legislature wanted to extend it. In the rare spirit of bipartisanship, the two sides agreed to a compromise that called for higher standards and a gradual phaseout of the credit by 2007.

I supported the compromise. That's why I so strongly oppose the new measure that some House members forced through last week, without debate Ñ a measure that would relax the environmental standards and extend this expensive tax break another 11 years, to 2014.

The fact that this bill passed the House before the Legislature has addressed education funding is a slap in the face to every person in Oregon.

Taxpayers should be alarmed for another, even more compelling reason, however. We all know that Enron managed to escape Oregon taxes last year, paying only the minimum of $10. What many people don't know is that Enron received a tax break of $1.1 million because of the Pollution Control Tax Credit.

Even worse, Enron has applied for $18 million in similar tax credits next year for work associated with the decommissioning of the Trojan nuclear plant. Eighteen million!

In addition to padding the bottom line for huge multinationals like Enron, the Pollution Control Tax Credit enables individuals to take a credit for buying wood chippers. Wood chippers? Yes. More than 500 state certificates last year went to people who bought wood chippers, because chipping wood creates less pollution than burning wood to dispose of it.

That may be true, but in most instances the law already prohibits open burning. Whether this is a valid application of the tax break misses the point: Does anyone really believe that buying a wood chipper creates new jobs in Oregon? Does anyone believe we should cut school days while subsidizing wood chippers?

Oregon needs to be smart in crafting strategies for the new century. We need to build our economy on real products and services that pull their weight in the world's markets Ñ not on wood chippers and disgraced corporations like Enron.

Let's do what Oregonians do best: Let's recycle this 30-year-old law and turn it into something that actually helps us move forward.

Mark Hass is a Democratic state representative from Raleigh Hills. He formerly worked as a reporter for KATU (2) from 1984-99 and lives in Southwest Portland.