A groundbreaking measure that would ultimately fund preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old in Multnomah County is following an unusual path to the ballot.
Earlier this month, the county commission referred to voters a Preschool for All measure, which would raise $133 million next year by imposing a 1.5% marginal tax on taxable income above $200,000 for households, as well as an additional 1.5% on households making $400,000 a year.
It's part of a slate of tax measures appearing on the November ballot, including measures to fund libraries, parks, schools and transportation. But the preschool measure will have taken the most tortuous path to voters.
Here's what's different about it:
1. The DSA took charge. The Democratic Socialists of America's Portland chapter hasn't ever put a measure on the ballot before, but it helped win the backing of a wide range of groups, including labor, and helped gather enough signatures during the pandemic to put preschool funding before voters.
Campaigns with more money and experience—such as the one behind a statewide redistricting measure—struggled to gather signatures this year. But the DSA-backed effort got more than the 22,000 required—in part by gathering signatures at Portland protests, offering signature-gathering tables at set locations, and just asking registered voters to print the petition themselves with their signature and send it back.
"A lot of people did," says Suzanne Cohen, a past president of the Portland Association of Teachers and a chief petitioner for the measure. "It surprised me."
2. A county commissioner forged a compromise. County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson had been working for years on her own measure to fund preschool. Vega Pederson and the DSA held talks earlier this year to combine forces. Those went nowhere until the DSA-backed Universal Preschool Now measure made the ballot.
Earlier this month, when the county referred its measure to voters, Vega Pederson moved to adopt some of the provisions of the other measure, including increasing salaries for assistant teachers, to win the group's backing.
3. The competing measures will trigger some sleight-of-hand. To create a single measure on the ballot, the county commission has to adopt and repeal the DSA-backed measure by Sept. 3, which elections lawyer Dan Meek says is an unheard-of but legal maneuver.
One reason for it: The DSA measure is significantly different in that it would impose a higher tax on high-income households and individuals—a 3.9% tax above $190,000 for households. That higher rate might have more difficulty passing.
At least one county commissioner, Sharon Meieran, says passing and then immediately repealing the other measure is bad policy.
"I believe that this would directly contravene the spirit of our initiative petition system," Meieran says. "Further, it could set a dangerous precedent—that legislative bodies would be willing to simply dismiss initiative petitions that have been signed onto by thousands of people, leaving them without recourse in our democratic process."
But Vega Pederson also says there is no legal problem with the approach. "Our county attorney has made clear that there is no legal issue with enacting and amending the initiative for our board," says Pederson. "With our strong and broad coalition and widespread community enthusiasm for universal preschool, we are confident this will pass in November."