Commentary

Oregon’s resolve against self-serve fueling and sales taxes is slowly weakening, it seems

The move to allow people to fuel their own vehicles in Oregon has been a slow-motion change. Any sales tax is probably still far off.

February 17, 2022 5:30 am

Gas prices in Oregon have been steadily climbing day by day, Oregon AAA (Oregon Department of Transportation)

The old joke has it that at birth Oregonians are given the word: No sales tax and no self-serve at the pump.

One of those rules seems to be fading. Might the other, eventually, as well?

The long-standing general ban on self-service gas (with a few exceptions) provokes a lot of head-shaking among non-Oregonians (and non-New Jerseyans, they being our sibling state in this area).

Attitudes about it seem to be changing, however incrementally.

The no-self-pump law was passed in 1951; the law cites 17 rationales, probably anticipating the skepticism to come. Few of them seem to have had much to do with the real reasons the law was passed, which may have included the prospect of more service station jobs, hopes for insurance benefits and probably some pressure from seniors who liked the fueling assistance. (The environmental and safety arguments always did seem a little sketchy.)

About 9,800 people work at Oregon service stations, but there’s little clarity on how many can be attributed to the self-serve ban.

Attacks on the law have become persistent if sporadic. A legal case arguing the Oregon law was unconstitutional failed in 1989 (as had another brought against the New Jersey law). Attempts at the Oregon Legislature to change the law kept falling short, but Oregon’s population may have been split on the subject for a long time.

In 1982 Oregon service station owners, interested in operating the way their counterparts did almost everywhere else, proposed a ballot measure to end the ban; it got just 42.4 percent of the vote. Not all but most Oregonians didn’t want self-serve.

Time and generations seem to have changed this.

In a 2014 Public Policy Poll Oregonians were almost evenly divided on the subject, 44 percent backing a move to self-service and 46 percent in favor of keeping the ban. They weren’t so evenly divided between age groups, however. A clear majority – 53 percent to 33 percent – of those under age 45 favored ending the restriction on pumping your own.

That generational shift may have undergirded what’s happened in the Capitol in the last few years.

One year after that survey, the legislature eased pumping rules in the rural counties with fewer than 40,000 people, after people in more far-flung communities complained gas often was unavailable during off-hours. The rules were relaxed a little more in 2018 to extend the hours self-serve would be available.

When the covid pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, the rules were scaled back once again, partly to help with short staffs and partly to help with social distancing. Self-serve fueling expanded widely during that time.The rules tightened again later, but precedent was set.

That brings us to the current legislative session and House Bill 4151, from House Majority Leader Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene and Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis of Albany. It would allow service stations to offer self-serve as long as they also provide pumping service. A hearing on the bill was held on Feb. 8.

The case for self-serve is especially strong today, as gas stations along with many other businesses are short of workers. At least one legislator, Sen. Lew Frederick of Portland, expressed concern that pumping service might fade away once the self-serve option is allowed, and he’s probably right. That would be the logical business trend line.

That end point might be held off, however, if the requirement that service be provided on request stays in the law.

Frederick’s point also, however, underscored the shifting nature of the whole thing: Social and economic conditions change, and when they do, the law is often dragged along.

And, oh, the other Oregon standby: taxless sales.

A bill was proposed in the current session (House Bill 4079) to set a 3 percent sales tax on certain “luxury items.” The bill was swatted down, quickly.

That’s in line with Oregon history, where anything resembling a sales tax has been killed off (maybe most impressively in the 80’s) by the voters or the legislature. Not many years ago then-Sen. Mark Hass declared, “Oregon will never have a sales tax.”

There are some jags in the trend line, though. On a 2018 ballot measure 57.3 percent of voters supported the ability of local governments to tax grocery sales, which logically would be among the more difficult sells. It looks like an indicator of a new trend line.

Watch what has happened at the gas pump and you may see some clues about where the sales tax arise go down the road.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.

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