Despite Economic Calamity, Portland Voters Will Still Face Two Tax Measures on May Ballot

The deadline for pulling them back was March 18. Proponents say the need for the dollars is greater than ever.

Job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic continued unabated this week, as the Oregon Employment Department again reported record new claims for unemployment benefits.

Nonetheless, local voters will be asked to open their wallets in a few weeks when ballots drop for the May primary. Portland ballots will contain two tax measures: for the renewal of a 10 cent-per-gallon gas tax for the city of Portland and a $250 million-a-year homeless services measure for the three counties served by the regional government Metro.

Since the novel coronavirus took hold of Oregon last month, some critics, such as the Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank, and the Taxpayers Association of Oregon, have urged local governments to cancel such measures.

But by the time it became clear the coronavirus was going to wreak massive damage to the economy—say, on March 23, when Gov. Kate Brown issued her "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order—the point was already moot. That's because the deadline to pull measures off the ballot was March 18.

Now that ballot is effectively written in stone—not that proponents of the measures would change things if they could.

The city's proposed gas tax renewal, Measure 26-209, is a replacement for a four-year measure voters passed in 2016. Like the earlier measure, the replacement will tack on 10 cents a gallon to gas sold in Portland and raise about $75 million over four years.

The money will go to street repair and safety improvements, augmenting the work of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Marshall Runkel, chief of staff to Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees PBOT, says city infrastructure requires continuous investment.

"While the virus has affected almost everything in the city, it hasn't affected the condition of our streets," Runkel says. "It's going to be more important than ever to keep the Fix Our Streets program going in the future. It supports local businesses that employ Portlanders to do needed safety and maintenance projects. And the measure is a renewal, not a new tax, so people won't pay any more than they are paying now."

Angela Martin, campaign director for HereTogether, expressed a similar sentiment for the Metro measure, 26-210, which would add a 1 percent personal income tax surcharge on people earning more than $125,000 (single filer) or $200,000 (joint filers) and a 1 percent tax increase on the profits of companies with more than $5 million in revenues.

"The need for supportive housing services was urgent several weeks ago, and is imperative today, as COVID-19's economic waves impact people who have long been just a paycheck away from homelessness," Martin said in a statement. "Now is not the time to abandon efforts to address those needs.

"It's important to remember this measure holds harmless businesses and individuals most impacted by COVID-19. Dollars would come from large businesses who continue to turn a profit, and individuals and households who continue to earn a high income—all while creating jobs in our local communities, and helping thousands of individuals experiencing homelessness."