Our Opinion: Clean energy fund must help neediest
Aside from the prospect of all-out nuclear war, climate change poses the most serious crisis ever for Earth and its inhabitants.
While the federal government reverses past gains in the fight against climate change, Portland voters have a chance to lead the way by creating the Portland Clean Energy Fund, showing what can be done at a local level.
Despite some reservations, the Portland Tribune recommends voters support the fund, Measure 26-201 on the November ballot.
The citizens' initiative would raise more than $30 million a year, directing the money to nonprofits carrying out programs that cut carbon emissions. Those programs must in large part target people of color and low-income people, both for improvement projects and job training to carry out such projects. Even opponents in the business community say those are laudable goals.
We endorse this measure with an important proviso — that citizens expect and empower their elected leaders on the Portland City Council to fix any problems stemming from this citizen-written legislation, now and in coming years.
Fortunately, the coalition of environmental organizations and groups representing people of color submitted this as an ordinance, not a city charter amendment. That gives the City Council power to improve it as needed.
Funds would come from a 1 percent gross receipts tax on a select number of retail and service corporations that have both $1 billion in national sales and $500,000 in Portland sales, excluding sales of food, medicines and energy. That's a much smaller tax than contemplated in Ballot Measure 97 in 2016, which was 2.5 percent for corporations with at least $25 million in national sales.
Critics still say it would be unfair, and we agree, as there isn't a "nexus," a compelling reason why these corporations should bear the burden when their activities may or may not be the biggest source of the problem.
But there is no denying that Oregon has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the nation, and the targeted companies recently got a whopping tax cut courtesy of President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.
Critics say this measure will raise prices for consumers, but we are skeptical. If that were the case, we would have seen falling prices after the GOP tax cut.
Of greater concern to us is that the money be spent wisely.
One can't understate the significance of the green/brown/black alliance that put this measure on the ballot. People of color and low-income citizens bear the biggest brunt of the impacts from pollution and climate change, and society needs their buy-in to see progress. We need all homes to waste less energy and use less fossil fuel.
The board charged with making spending recommendations to the City Council needs to be strategic and extremely careful, lest this program foster "pork barrel" spending.
Ironically, a major backer of this measure provides a good example of the need for careful oversight. The Portland NAACP recently made headlines over questionable past bookkeeping and tax filings that needed correction.
And we are concerned about the long-term benefits from weatherization and solar panels on rental properties where low-income people live. What happens when they move, and the landlord reaps the benefits?
It might be better to spend the money on low-income homeowners, including those in mobile home parks, which would stabilize homeownership rates among people of color, senior citizens and others of modest means.
Currently, all renters, and many homeowners, can't take advantage of solar panels — an essential element to replace fossil fuels. The Clean Energy Fund could prioritize community solar projects, large arrays of panels in a sunnier part of the state that enable tenants to subscribe and get credits against their utility bills.
Supporters say poor people often resort to exorbitant payday loans to pay utility bills. Let's find ways to lower carbon emissions and lower those bills, without the benefits mostly flowing to landlords. That would be wiser than doling out short-term handouts, such as voluntary subsidies offered by utilities.
We are particularly concerned by the mandate to do job training, and to provide jobs for, among others, the "chronically underemployed." We need to make sure such noble goals to help humanity don't dilute and overshadow the ability to facilitate smart reductions in fossil fuel usage.
Finally, some critics of the measure say the best way to achieve its goals is to overhaul the Energy Trust of Oregon, the Portland-based nonprofit that funnels state-mandated utility fees into conservation efforts. Low-income people pay a higher share of their income than middle-class and affluent homeowners for the utility surcharges yet reap few of the benefits.
We agree that the Energy Trust needs work. But the clock is ticking on climate change.
We can't wait for a perfect citizen initiative, when the federal government is AWOL and the Oregon Legislature is overwhelmed by special interests.
Fight citizens' despondency in the battle to save our planet. Support the Portland Clean Energy Fund.