Editor’s Note: Measure 97 and Phil Knight

The tax hike and Nike founder have more in common than you think.

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Wow. Just wow. 

Is there a more appropriate response to the news about Phil Knight handing over $500 million to the University of Oregon?  Factoring in his donation to the Knight Cancer Institute, the Nike founder has given a mind-boggling $1 billion to Oregon universities in recent years.

One billion dollars. That’s one third the amount that will be raised annually by Measure 97, the controversial corporate tax hike.

The billion-dollar revenue generators (Knight and M97) aren’t exactly peas in a pod. But they have more in common than you think.

Let’s take a closer look.

Knight is a businessman-turned-philanthropist. The hundreds of millions of dollars he has contributed to higher ed over the years validates private sector approaches to economic growth: Support local businesses, give them room (and tax breaks) to grow, and their leaders will return the favor by investing in the community, with jobs, buildings, programs and much, much more.

Billionaire benefactors, of course, get to distribute their money however they wish. The beneficiaries of Knight’s largesse are OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute and now the University of Oregon.

Not that a win for Oregon universities isn’t a win for all Oregonians. Eventually.

Okay, now let’s move to Measure 97, which in key ways is the identical opposite of Knight’s $500 million gift. 

Ballot measures are expressions of direct democracy. If the tax increase passes, the $3 billion will spring from the will of the people, not a lone rich guy. (Well, the will of the majority of people who vote, anyway.)

The beneficiaries of Measure 97 are citizens. Theoretically.

What else can we learn by juxtaposing Measure 97 and Phil Knight? That Oregon is still in many ways a company town: Niketown, to be precise.

Also, that key decision makers — legislators — are missing from the Oregon revenue policy picture.  

Representative democracy in Oregon is at a crossroads, as the state’s elected senators and representatives have failed to craft solutions to Oregon’s longstanding funding woes.

But nature abhors a vacuum. Apparently, we’ve found a way to fill the gap — via the billionaire and the ballot.