Cellular Phone Customers Are the Latest Portlanders to See an Unexpected Fee From the Clean Energy Fund

A cellphone bill provides the latest evidence that Portland consumers—rather than companies—will pay the tax.

When Portland resident Pamela Markowitz received her August cellphone bill, there was a charge she hadn't noticed before: 64 cents for the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

The fund was approved by voters in November 2018 as a tax on retail stores that have more than $1 billion in sales nationally and $500,000 within the city. Supporters of the measure argued big corporations could afford to pay a 1 percent surcharge on their business license tax to provide improved energy efficiency and other environmental fixes in underserved communities.

Markowitz's bill provides the latest evidence that Portland consumers—rather than companies—will pay the tax. WinCo added a line to customers' grocery receipts earlier this year. And the city itself responded to the tax by hiking its garbage rates by 20 cents a month for the average household.
Markowitz wrote to City Revenue director Thomas Lannon on Aug. 21:

"If I'm being charged by my cellphone company, my garbage company, my cable company, and Lord knows how many other tentacles of corporate America, that means this ballot measure is costing me a fortune, and its recipients are receiving a fortune. Can you please tell me how I obtain a list of all the businesses that are taxing me? I am gobsmacked with anger that this ballot measure is allowed to have such a broad reach. When this measure was proposed, its supporters guaranteed the cost wouldn't be passed to voters. Really?"

Audit supervisor Matthew Thorup replied:

"Unfortunately, we do not have a list of businesses who may be recovering the recently passed Clean Energy Surcharge from their customers by itemizing it on a bill or receipt. Itemizing the surcharge onto a bill or receipt does not shift the burden of paying the tax onto the customers. The Clean Energy Surcharge is a tax on the business. This is just a mechanism a business can use instead of raising their prices."

It's clear some large companies are not, in fact, bearing the burden of the tax. City officials say it's against policy to release a list of taxed companies. But the city doesn't know for sure which companies might pass along the tax to their customers—because it still hasn't finished setting the rules. Construction, insurance and garbage-hauling companies are pushing to be exempted from the tax.

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