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Poll Asks Portland Voters About a City Carbon Tax

Mayor Charlie Hales' office confirms it's mulling a carbon-emissions tax on utilities and gasoline.

The City of Portland is taking the public's temperature on a carbon tax.

WW has learned a privately funded phone survey, backed by Mayor Charlie Hales' office and the Oregon Environmental Council, was placed in the field Thursday night. It asks potential voters if they would support a city tax on "producers of carbon pollution."

The survey says the city is mulling a combination utility and gas tax. The city would tax 3 percent of utility revenues and 4.5 cents on each gallon of gas.

The tax, which the survey suggests could become a ballot initiative in 2014, would make Portland the second U.S. city to tax carbon emissionsafter Boulder, Col., in 2007—and the first to levy a carbon tax on gasoline.

Officials in Hales' office confirmed they are considering a carbon tax after WW made a public records request this morning for the survey. (Download the full phone survey here.)

"We face large climate challenges," says Hales' policy adviser Josh Alpert. "And to the extent that we're going out for new revenue, this is an opportunity to use our tax system to both create revenue and address climate change. This is one tool that should be considered."

The city could be racing the state of Oregon to enact such a tax. The Oregon Legislature passed a bill calling for more study of a carbon tax earlier this year.

The tax could raise $27 million for city coffers each year. The survey says the money would go to improving city sidewalks, reducing air pollution, and expanding energy-efficiency programs.

Hales has been under pressure to find new money for constructing sidewalks and crosswalks in East Portland since a 5-year-old girl was killed crossing Southeast 136th Avenue in February.

Alpert says the carbon tax on gas would be dedicated to road projects.

The tax would be the first carbon tax in the nation scaled to the carbon emissions of electricity customers. (Boulder's tax is flat.) It is likely to be bitterly opposed by large utilities like Portland General Electric.

"While this is a new concept at the local level," Alpert says, "countries have been doing this all over the world for years. And Portland, with its reputation as an innovative city, should certainly be at the forefront in this country."

WW has contacted the Oregon Environmental Council and PGE for comment. 

UPDATE, 1 pm: Oregon Environmental Council executive director Andrea Durbin confirms she's worked with both city and state officials on exploring carbon taxes.

"We're not quite sure who's going to get there first," Durbin says. "It's an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and take responsibility for our changing climate. We need to get out in front of it."

More as this story develops.