Don’t Utilities Already Do the Things the Portland Clean Energy Measure Proposes to Do?

Companies that could be taxed include behemoths like Walmart and Comcast, but also less obvious stores, like REI.

Fernhill Park splash area (Benjamin Brink, Portland Parks & Recreation)

Most certainly.

Measure 26-201 would place a 1 percent surcharge on the business license tax paid by Portland retailers with sales of more than $500,000 in the city and more than $1 billion nationwide. Companies that could be taxed include behemoths like Walmart and Comcast, but also less obvious stores, like REI.

The measure was developed by a coalition of racial-justice and environmental advocacy groups. Backers expect it to generate about $30 million a year, and they plan to hand that money to non-profits that invest in clean, efficient energy features—like solar panels and insulation—for needy Portlanders.

At least two local nonprofits already do similar work. One of them, Energy Trust of Oregon, is funded by a 3 percent surcharge that utility companies place on your power bill. Another nonprofit, Enhabit, grew out of a City Hall program called Clean Energy Works Portland. Both provide green energy to low-income Portlanders—just like this measure would.

Whether that duplication is a problem depends on whom you ask. Opponents of Measure 26-201 say this is just a cash grab from their businesses that serves no distinct purpose.

"Portland businesses and households already pay for programs addressing climate change as part of their utility bills," says Bess Wills, who co-owns the car dealership Gresham Ford. "Portlanders shouldn't have to pay twice."

The measure's backers don't dispute that similar programs exist. Instead, they argue they don't do enough—or reach the neediest people.

"Those programs require that you own your home," says Khanh Pham, manager of immigrant organizing at Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, which supports the measure. "If you're a renter, you're locked out. Your landlord doesn't have an incentive to weatherize your apartment, because you're the one paying the utility bills."

The measure's backers point to studies showing the most common reason people take out payday loans is to pay their utility bills—and those bills would be lowered with greater energy efficiency that low-income Portlanders can't afford.

"Portland is known for having all these green amenities," Pham tells WW, "but the reality is, a huge swath of Portland doesn't have access to those amenities. Not many people have the kinds of upfront capital you need to invest in rooftop solar."

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