Willamette Week's 2018 endorsements for Oregon ballot measures
City of Portland Measure 26-201: Business tax for clean energy projectsThis takes the prize for the measure with the best intentions but the worst execution among any we've seen this year.
We understand the powerful appeal of Portland's Clean Energy Initiative. Backers say it would help low-income Portlanders and communities of color save money on their utility bills by making their homes more energy efficient. As an added bonus, a chunk of the money raised would go to job training for the same historically underserved communities.
The rationale undergirding this idea: Utility costs and the impacts of climate change both disproportionately affect low-income and minority Portlanders.
The source of the proposed funding will also appeal to many voters. The initiative would slap a new tax on big corporations such as WalMart, Comcast and Wells Fargo. Such national giants are easy targets. They make lots of money, pay low rates of state income tax and just got a windfall from President Donald Trump's tax plan.
Half to three-quarters of the money raised would be spent on energy efficiency and projects that reduce carbon emissions. The rest would go toward job training for low-income and minority workers. Proponents, who include more than 150 nonprofits representing a wide range of environmental, community and labor groups, paint a picture of low-income Portlanders installing solar panels, new insulation and better windows on their homes, creating jobs and helping to meet the city's ambitious carbon reduction targets.
Sounds good, right? Well, there are a few problems both in who'd actually pay the tax and how the money would be spent.
First, although proponents deny it, the tax would fall hardest on the very people it's supposed to help: the poor. The initiative imposes a tax on gross receipts—that means sales. In an analysis of the measure last year, the city's Revenue Division asserted "some businesses will partially or wholly pass the [tax] on to consumers in the form of a price increase."
Second, the measure does not require that investment of the tax dollars in energy efficiency actually go to the homes of low-income Portlanders. Measure guidelines say that "at least half of the grants in this category should specifically benefit low-income people and people of color." Why not all of it? Why allow half to go to people who are neither low-income or people of color? And in legal terms, the word "should" is not the same as "must." In fact, it's such a weak guideline that all the money could be spent entirely for the benefit of middle-class whites.
Nobody agrees on how much money the tax might raise. Estimates range from $35 million to $79 million a year. That's a big variance. And unlike many special-purpose taxes approved by voters—such as the Portland Children's Levy or funding for the Oregon Historical Society, both of which must be reapproved regularly by voters—there is no sunset clause for the Clean Energy Fund. Even the Multnomah County Library employed temporary funding for 36 years before becoming a permanent taxing district in 2012.
So we have a tax that would come out of the pockets of people it claims to help, with no guarantees the money would go to them, or any way to shut the spigot off if the experiment fails.
And, as the left-leaning group Tax Fairness Oregon points out, Portland is already far ahead of most cities in terms of weatherization, which, in any case, is not the most pressing challenge Portlanders face. "This measure appears to put the climate far above the education of our children, where we rank bottom in the country, housing our citizens, or preparation for a seismic event," the group said in a Voters' Pamphlet statement. "Let's put our limited resources towards our biggest problems."
Measure 26-199: Metro housing bond
Measure 26-200: Limits campaign contributions in city races
Measure 102: Combines public and private housing dollars
Measure 103: Bans grocery taxes
Measure 104: Requires a three-fifths vote to raise fees or eliminate tax breaks
Measure 105: Repeals Oregon's sanctuary law
Measure 106: Bans state funding for abortions