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August 31st, 2005 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

BITING THE HAND THAT FEEDS THEM

Business bigwigs say Portlanders should vote before the city funds political campaigns. What about the public cash they get?

     
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IMAGE: TYSON SMITH
The pitch from powerhouse interests pushing for a May vote on publicly financed city elections boils down to a simple argument: Residents deserve a say in spending taxpayer dollars.

"We've allowed some of our priorities in terms of spending to get out of whack," says Mark Long, managing partner of the law firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt and one of the campaign's lead petitioners. "We've had elections over special taxes and spending decisions before, so it seems appropriate before we start something that's outside the city's existing responsibilities."

Do Long and others have a point about the program starting this Thursday with an estimated price tag of $1 million per election cycle? Perhaps.

The concept approved this year by the City Council (with a public vote built in for 2010) is definitely experimental-and could unravel as soon as less-than-scrupulous candidates pay their rent or buy an illicit Big Mac with public dough. And of course, some citizens would love to have a vote on every public expenditure.

But a cynic just might say those concerns for how public dollars are spent seem a little...selective. While the petition campaign itself doesn't have the Portland Business Alliance's official endorsement, the powerful lobby adopted a formal position opposing public financing in May. And so far, every identified member of the petition campaign's brain trust is linked to the PBA, including Alliance chairman Scott Andrews and its chair-elect, Qwest Oregon president Judy Peppler.

A quick look at the petition campaign's roster, the Business Alliance's board and the PBA itself reveals a different attitude when tax money and government benefits flow to someone else-namely, them. A select list:

THE PBA PLAYER

Qwest (home of PBA's chair-elect).

THE PLACE AT THE TROUGH

Last August, the city and the state teamed up to give Qwest $600,000 in exchange for the company's pledge not to close a Portland call center. (That amount would fund four City Council primary campaigns.)

THE PBA PLAYER

Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt (Schwabe managing partner Long is a lead petitioner in the anti-financing campaign; another Schwabe lawyer sits on PBA's board).

THE PLACE AT THE TROUGH

Through a program that turns loans into grants if certain terms are met, Schwabe was approved for a $296,000 loan from the Portland Development Commission (the city's urban-renewal arm) to pay for upgrades at its downtown headquarters.

THE PBA PLAYER

Pioneer Place Mall (represented on the Alliance board).

THE PLACE AT THE TROUGH

The retail palace exists thanks to the city's use of eminent domain to acquire its downtown location. The city sold the land to the mall's developers at a steep discount, funded demolition to clear the site and built an adjacent garage.

THE PBA PLAYER

Freightliner (represented on the Alliance board).

THE PLACE AT THE TROUGH

Freightliner got a $6.8 million tax break on its North Portland headquarters in 1998.

THE PBA PLAYER

Intel (represented on the Alliance board).

THE PLACE AT THE TROUGH

The computer-chip manufacturer enjoys "special" tax status in Washington County-to the tune of almost $580 million in property-tax savings over 15 years.

THE PBA PLAYER

Meier & Frank (represented on the Alliance board).

THE PLACE AT THE TROUGH

A $13.9 million PDC loan and tax credits will finance the revitalization of M&F's moribund downtown store.

THE PBA PLAYER

The Portland Business Alliance itself.

THE PLACE AT THE TROUGH

The group may be a federation of private businesses, but it is deeply involved in public spending. The Alliance administers a special tax to fund downtown security, maintenance and marketing efforts. In 2002, the PDC shelled out $200,000 to help the Alliance fund an assessment of downtown's retail environment.

Who's to say these magnates don't deserve every penny? It wouldn't be fair for politicians to have it all. But a word to anyone considering diving into city politics to get rich off public money-there might be an easier way.

 
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