A Crowded Portland Ballot Is Now Likely to Include a Homeless Services Tax. How Could That Happen So Fast?

Local officials now want to construct a measure and present it to voters in 13 weeks.

HOME STRETCH: Perlia Bell (center) works for JOIN, a nonprofit that helps people on the streets of Portland find services. On a winter evening last year, she handed out blankets and socks to people sleeping beneath the Burnside Bridge. (justin katigbak)

Portland-area voters could open their ballots in three months to find a surprise: a request for $250 million to $300 million a year in taxpayer funding for services to get homeless people off the streets.

WW reported Jan. 27 that the regional government Metro may place such a measure on the May 19 ballot. That marks a stark change since last month, when the Metro Council insisted to advocates it would take as long as two years to grind a measure through the bureaucracy.

Instead, local officials now want to construct a measure and present it to voters in 13 weeks.

"Boy, the people behind putting a coalition together have really succeeded to jump an issue to the front of the line," says lobbyist Len Bergstein. "I think it's a good result. I think it's surprisingly impressive for the [homeless advocacy] coalition."

That plan will require some quick answers to several pressing questions.

What has to happen to get this on the May ballot?
The Metro Council would have to refer the measure. That would eliminate the need for advocates to gather voter signatures. But before sending measure language to the Multnomah County Elections Division by the end of February, Metro must define who would be served by which programs, and determine how to hold providers and counties responsible for the programs' results. (Those are to be determined.)

What would the measure fund?
The objective would be to end chronic homelessness—defined as anyone homeless for a year or more who has a disability, a mental illness or an addiction—while trying to prevent people at risk of becoming homeless from becoming so. But it's not clear yet what programs will get funding.

How would the measure raise $300 million?
Metro has yet to commit to a sum or a particular tax. Advocates who champion the measure have polling results that suggest a tax on high-income earners and a business license tax are the most popular proposals. The coalition of groups backing the measure hasn't yet decided which taxing mechanism it favors. Katrina Holland, chair of the HereTogether advisory committee, says the coalition and Metro may go to the Legislature next month to raise the cap on the amount Metro can tax high-income earners.

Why the rush?
A coalition of advocacy groups, ranging from the Portland Business Alliance to nonprofits doing groundwork serving homeless people, has pushed for Metro to refer the measure to the ballot this year.

Metro already has a plan to refer a $3 billion transportation measure to the ballot in November. Referring the homeless services measure to the May ballot could mean regional voters won't view them as directly competing with each other.
Metro leaders now seem to accept what polling has long suggested: Homeless services are a priority for regional voters, and for business leaders who will be needed to fund the campaign for the transportation measure in November.

Metro all but denies any change in its outlook on homelessness. "The Metro Council has been clear that this is a crisis that needs attention as soon as possible," says Metro Council spokesman Nick Christensen. Metro Councilor Christine Lewis says the group's willingness to refer the measure—and create a new responsibility for Metro no matter what—swayed her thinking. "I prefer to set the table myself," she says.

Why is the backroom politicking so intense?
Part of it has to do with the political ambitions of the elected officials involved.
Metro Council President Lynn Peterson is widely expected to consider a run for governor in two years. And she's staking her reputation on transportation. That means passing a regional transportation measure. Christian Sinderman, Peterson's campaign consultant, claims she doesn't have gubernatorial ambitions, or "not that she has ever spoken to me about."

It's less clear whether her rival for the job will be Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, the elected official most closely working on the homeless services measure. But a victory on homeless services could redound to Kafoury or even Mayor Ted Wheeler, who last fall said the measure needed to take precedence over transportation unless Peterson, too, started championing it.

"We have a lot of work to do in the next month," says Kafoury. "I welcome Metro's involvement; we were thinking we were going to have to do a citizen initiative."

Will the measure actually appear on the May ballot?
That remains unclear.

The coalition putting together a possible citizens' initiative says it's not stopping its preparations to gather signatures for a November ballot measure, in case the Metro effort falls apart.

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