Earlier this month, WW wrote about the ambitious Preschool for All program run by Multnomah County that’s funded by a tax on high-income earners that voters enthusiastically passed in November 2020.
WW found that while the program succeeded in providing free preschool to some families that had before been struggling to pay out of pocket at private preschools, the program underspent its first-year budget by half and failed to spend on the two things it needed to increase in order to reach universal access by 2030: the number of preschool teachers and the amount of physical preschool space.
The tax rate is set to increase by 0.8% in 2026. Already, disgruntlement from Portland-area taxpayers about that increase is making its way to Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, one of the measure’s architects.
This summer, as WW previously reported, a group of downtown stakeholders asked Vega Pederson to consider canceling the 0.8% tax increase. Vega Pederson gently but firmly said no; the unanticipated revenue, she said, would go into program reserves. Then, just last week, The Oregonian reported that one of the proposals being considered by Gov. Tina Kotek’s task force to fix Portland’s ills is to cancel the 0.8% Preschool for All tax increase.
Vega Pederson remains silent.
“Chair Jessica Vega Pederson declines to comment on this matter,” said spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti in response to a recent inquiry whether the chair would halt the tax increase.
According to the ballot measure, the chair must convene a “technical team” to report back to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners by 2026 with “a recommendation on the rate required to ensure the program is fully funded.” That team could recommend to the county board that the 0.8% increase is unnecessary. It could also recommend that an increase is necessary.
Critics of the imminent Preschool for All tax increase point to higher-than-expected revenue raised by the tax in its first two years. It brought in $187 million its first year and $199 million its second year, largely due to higher-than-expected capital revenues. (That’s $68 million more than was projected in the first year.) The county estimates the tax will bring in $152 million in the current tax year due to the stock market faltering in 2022. County officials say that building up money reserves in the first few years is critical for the roughly 10-year period in which the program will cost more to administer than the annual tax will raise. Eventually, the tax revenue and program costs are expected to roughly match.
The November investigation by WW into the Preschool for All program revealed that the county spent only $30 million in its first year—half of what it had budgeted. More importantly, the program in its first two years funded 1,200 preschool seats across the county. Only 507 of those seats were entirely new, meaning they didn’t exist prior to the tax creating them.
Still, county officials and Vega Pederson maintain that they are on track to meet their goal of providing 12,000 publicly funded preschool seats by 2030.
“The stubborn things are stubborn for a reason. To expect us to solve this problem in the first two years, that’s not a very realistic statement,” Vega Pederson told WW earlier this month. “We’re creating the program from scratch.”