Portland gas tax
It's been a long, strange road trip to reach this straightforward tax measure.
Portland City Hall's neglect of street repairs is infamous. For three decades, city officials let paving projects stack up until the backlog reached an estimated $1 billion. In 2013, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick launched a fireworks display's worth of flaming bad ideas for fixing streets by taxing Portlanders—often with proposals that would have landed on churches, poor people and small businesses.
Novick, to his credit, soldiered on—and now emerges with a sensible plan to tack on 10 cents of local tax to every gallon of (currently cheap) gasoline sold within city limits. The tax will raise $16 million a year, and expires in four years. That money will hardly solve Portland's repair backlog—or make much of a dent in the need for sidewalks and crosswalks in East Portland—but it's dedicated funding. Novick makes a persuasive case that federal earmarks will keep City Hall from redirecting current budgets away from transportation, so this actually puts new money on the streets.
Opposition to this measure comes from local gas station owners, who understandably fear losing customers to competitors outside city limits. They make two arguments worth addressing.
First, they warn that passing this tax will scuttle a statewide transportation bill, siphoning off all political will to fix Oregon's highways. This is an unpersuasive case: Democrats in Salem had two sessions to pass a transportation package, and failed. The idea that Portland should wait for Gov. Kate Brown to get her act together—or that this tax would ruin her delicate negotiations—is silly. (See conversation with Tina Kotek on page 21.)
More compelling is the gas lobby's frustration that Portland hasn't trimmed its own budget to send more money to roads. We don't buy the city's claim that it has tightened its belt as far as possible. There are meaningful cuts the city could make—starting with the bloated fire bureau, which gets saved from reforms by its powerful union.
But that isn't the question voters are being asked. Voting against this measure to protest city spending decisions would be cutting off our roads to spite our face. The question is simple: Is 10 cents a gallon added to gas sales a fair price for fixing potholes and adding sidewalks? The answer is yes.
Conversation: Tina Kotek
Opponents of a Portland gas tax warn the ballot measure could blow up negotiations for a state transportation package. We asked Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek.
WW: Do you support the gas tax on the May ballot for the city of Portland?
Tina Kotek: I do. Because even if [or] when we pass a package at the state level, the potholes and side roads in Portland are not going to get fixed by that.
Opponents of the gas tax say if Portland passes a tax gas, it will severely reduce the chances of a state transportation package.
I don’t agree with that. That is rhetoric coming from the gas station owners.
Oregon Historical Society levy
Kerry Tymchuk has a lot of explaining to do.
In 2011, Tymchuk took over as director of the Oregon Historical Society, which collects and displays Beaver State artifacts in a museum along Portland's South Park Blocks. Voters had just approved a life preserver for the OHS, which teetered on the brink of financial insolvency, by passing a $12 million property tax levy to keep the archives staffed. Tymchuk told The Oregonian he wouldn't return for a second bailout: "If we have to ask for it again, then we haven't done our job."
But five years later, Multnomah County commissioners have sent a renewal of the levy to voters. That puts Tymchuk in an awkward spot—he's campaigning for tax dollars he pledged he wouldn't seek.
To his credit, Tymchuk—a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.)—has faced the music, admitting to us he made a foolish pledge. More importantly, he's been the best director of the OHS since Tom Vaughn stepped down in 1990, after 35 years at the helm. He succeeded in stabilizing the society's finances, increasing its cash reserves from nothing to $6 million. In a refreshing departure, Tymchuk isn't crying poor: He says if voters don't approve this levy, he'll set out to raise private dollars.
Good management aside, why should a private nonprofit continue to siphon off tax dollars? Because it does public work. The OHS performs the kind of historical archiving that in other places—Washington and Idaho, for example—is a function of state government. It also offers free admission to all Multnomah County residents, including the 8,800 school kids who visit each year. It's the Smithsonian of Oregon, and just like in D.C., you don't have to buy a ticket.
If renewed, the levy will continue to cost homeowners 5 cents on every $1,000 of assessed property value. That's a pittance to pay for knowing your roots. Vote yes.