Preschool measure process splits county board
On Thursday a majority of the Multnomah County board adopted a universal preschool measure that had already qualiified for the November ballot — in order to immediately repeal it, and thus improve the chances for success of a compromise spearheaded by Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.
The confusing push was backed by the Universal Preschool Now measure's coalition leaders after Vega Pederson had transformed a measure she'd been working on for two years to forge a compromise mirroring their signature-backed measure. The major difference? Minor tweaks that could make it more palatable to voters.
"We believe that putting a single measure before the voters will reduce voter confusion and strengthen the likelihood that voters approve the preschool measure," Vega Pederson said on Thursday.
The two longest-serving members of the board, however, claimed the move subverted the Oregon Constitution, which lets voters gather signatures to bypass elected officials and use initiatives to make their own laws.
"We need to get the outcome right. But we need to get the process right too," said Chair Deborah Kafoury, noting that the law only gives the board two options once a measure qualifies for the ballot: either adopt it, or refer it to the ballot.
"We're voting to adopt with no intention to implement," Kafoury said. "Instead, we're voting to adopt solely that it can be wiped off the books."
Commissioner Sharon Meieran expressed similar sentiments. "We are adopting the measure only with the express intent to immediately sweep it away," she said, adding that under state law the measure belongs to the tens of thousands of voters who signed petitions to put it on the ballot — not to the petitioners. "It isn't our responsibility to substitute what we want, or what we feel is a better measure for what has actually been submitted. What this board is doing today is taking over that process and substituting its will over that of the voters."
Two other board members, however, joined Vega Pederson, saying that while the process was "messy," they could live with it in light of the benefits universal preschool would bring to less privileged children.
"It is what it is," Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said in a discussion and preliminary vote on the matter on Thursday, Aug. 27.
Jayapal echoed that sentiment on Thursday, but also questioned whether the board's repeal of the signature-backed measure was at odds with the law's intent "of allowing people to bring legislation forward."
The Sept. 3 vote capped off a confusing series of votes since Aug. 6, and highlighted a stark division among the normally like-minded commissioners.
For two years two competing drives — one led by the Portland Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the other by County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson — had aimed for the ballot.
Both sought an income tax to increase the provision of free preschool for 3 and 4 year olds, reducing societal inequities by ensuring less affluent families have full access to free preschool — rather than effectively giving a head start to the privileged.
The Democratic Socialists-led measure — called "UPNow" for Universal Preschool Now took a more ambitious route of seeking a higher income tax rate and universal access to free preschool, while ensuring those working in the preschool system are paid a wage roughly comparable to kindergarten teachers.
UPNow proponents gathered and turned in 32,000 signatures to qualify their measure for the ballot, as was confirmed by the Multnomah County Office of Elections on July 22.
Vega Pederson then transformed her Preschool for All effort —which was initially less ambitious —to make it materially identical to the signature-backed version.
On Aug 6, the board approved referring to the ballot the compromise measure, which used more of a sliding scale for the income tax and is implemented gradually.
The compromise measure would impose a 1.5% increase on incomes above $125,000 for individual filers and above $200,000 for joint filers — a tax that would jump by .8% in 2026
On top of that, the measure would layer on another 1.5% tax on incomes above $250,000 for individual filers and above $400,000 for joint filers. Additionally, the proposed resolution notes, "the board may adjust the income tax rate to fully fund the program."
Vega Pederson said it initially will cost about $125 million per year and will grow to as much as $250 million per year when the program is fully implemented.
The Universal Preschool Now measure, meanwhile, imposes a 3.9% tax on incomes above $165,000 for individual filers and above $190,000 for joint filers. It would generate an estimated $260 million per year.
Critics said the board's decision to repeal the signature-backed measure is legall suspect and could be subject to reversal in court, later forcing the board to enact it. If the compromise measure is voted down at the ballot in November, that outcome would seemingly run counter to voters' wishes.
Vega Pederson, however, said nobody had contacted her office with concerns about the maneuver, while she and other commissioners heard overwhelming support.
The resulting program "really embraces the children who have the hardest time accessing preschool right now," she said, "and it's been developed in partnership with brown, black, indigenous and all people of color communities to really build that system."
Meieran and Kafoury said despite their concerns about the process, they support the goal of universal preschool.
"It shouldn't be a privilege," Kafoury said. "Every child, every family deserves to have access that's low in cost and high in quality. Each student, each family in our entire community stands to benefit."
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