Multnomah County Voters Deliver a Historic Rebuke to a Tax Measure

County voters haven’t shown such uniform antipathy for any local proposal pitched to them via the ballot initiative system since 1993.

Last week’s voter rejection of Measure 26-238, a proposed capital gains tax to fund lawyers for tenants facing eviction, was the worst defeat suffered by a local ballot measure in Multnomah County in 30 years.

The latest returns from the May 16 election show voters rebuffed the measure 80.53% to 19.47%. That means more than 4 in 5 voters said no. The margin raised eyebrows among political observers: Could it be that Portlanders have finally had their fill of new taxes?

In fact, a WW review of election results shows Multnomah County voters haven’t shown such uniform antipathy for any local proposal pitched to them via the ballot initiative system since 1993, the earliest year for which the county keeps digital archives.

To be sure, the idea hatched by Portland State University researchers and the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America—to levy a 0.75% tax on the sale of stocks, bonds and real estate, and use the proceeds to pay for legal representation for tenants in eviction court—faced stiff headwinds.

Not least of these was an off-cycle electorate that skewed toward older homeowners, says John Horvick, a pollster for the Portland firm DHM Research. The measure was unseriously crafted, applying retroactively and to the sale of homes—although in both instances, backers said they hadn’t meant to reach into those pockets. Opponents, generously funded by real estate interests, scored public denouncements from trusted liberals, including Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).

“It had both few endorsers and really strong opposition,” Horvick says. “When you have an organization that you expect to be a supporter that is an opponent, those are deadly. It just had nothing going for it.”

But Horvick cautions against the narrative that Multnomah County voters have lost their appetite for taxes. (The same people who stomped the capital gains tax renewed the Portland Children’s Levy by 70.95% to 29.05%.) Instead, he suggests, the results augur a shift in attitudes toward homelessness.

Measure 26-238 was pitched as a way to prevent people behind on their rent from being kicked to the streets. But recent DHM surveys show most voters believe homelessness is primarily a result of addiction and mental illness rather than a housing shortage and steep rent.

“A lot of our voters think that personal responsibility is the reason why people end up in these situations,” Horvick says. “So it’s understandable that they wouldn’t be eager to open up their pocketbooks for that.” (Some economists disagree, citing expensive housing as the biggest factor.)

Colleen Carroll, a spokeswoman for the Eviction Representation fort All campaign, says backers will demand county officials fund an eviction-defense program with existing funds.

“We believe that voters rejected the proposed funding mechanism, but not the program,” Carroll says. “The need for a well-funded program that intervenes early in the process, provides legal aid without a cumbersome application process, and pairs representation with access to emergency rental assistance is still urgent.”

It may be an uphill battle. Elections records show Multnomah County voters have only shown this level of scorn for statewide measures that weren’t designed to appeal to them: In 2018, for example, 83.02% of county voters dismissed Measure 106, which would have banned public funding for abortions. No parallel exists for a local measure that was placed solely before county voters or those in a metro-area city.

Still, we collated the losses that came closest to Measure 26-238′s defeat. Among them are an attempted takeover of the Portland Water Bureau and an initiative to make the county sheriff an appointed position. One ray of hope for the DSA: Two of the largest defeats were handed to proposals to change Portland’s form of government, an idea that voters finally approved in 2022.

May 2023: Measure 26-238

What it would have done: Funded eviction defense with a 0.75% tax on capital gains.

What WW said: “We encourage voters to reject this sloppy, unnecessary measure and instead raise their voices to encourage the county to deploy existing funds to help more residents avoid eviction.”

Yes: 19.32%

No: 80.68%

November 2016: Measure 26-183

What it would have done: Made the Multnomah County sheriff appointed rather than elected.

What WW said: “Public disapproval provides a level of accountability in an elected office that simply does not exist for appointed agency heads and bureau directors.”

Yes: 25.04%

No: 74.96%

May 2014: Measure 26-156

What it would have done: Created an independent water district, removing oversight from City Hall.

What WW said: “Portlanders rightly cherish their uniquely pure drinking water. Handing it over to such an uncertain form of government is cutting off our hose to spite our face.”

Yes: 26.56%

No: 73.44%

May 2007: Measure 26-91

What it would have done: Restructured City Hall into a strong-mayor form of government.

What WW said: “This measure is a dog that can barely whimper, let alone hunt.”

Yes: 23.75%

No: 76.25%

May 2002: Measure 26-30

What it would have done: Restructured City Hall into a strong-mayor form of government with an expanded City Council.

What WW said: “This measure is like trying to give your old dog some nasty-tasting medicine by wrapping it in a pork rind. Problem is, the medicine in this case is questionable, and the rind is rancid.”

Yes: 24%

No: 76%

November 1995: Measure 26-32

What it would have done: Changed a Portland School District boundary so children in 14 households could attend Oak Creek Elementary School.

What WW said: “Never should have reached the Nov. 7 ballot.”

Yes: 28.23%

No: 71.77%

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