Utilities that would be subject to tax were kept in dark the longest

A recent public opinion poll in Portland shows support for the concept of taxing carbon-based fuels to reduce pollution, conserve energy and fund street improvements, according to Mayor Charlie Hales’ office.

“We will now begin having discussions with the other commissioners about it, along with discussions about other ways to raise revenues to fund city needs,” says Josh Alpert, a policy adviser to Hales.

The poll was commissioned by the Oregon Environmental Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization that supports carbon taxes. Alpert saw the poll results but was not given a copy. He expects a summary to be released within a week or two.

Hales began considering a city carbon tax only a few months after taking office. Discussions about the poll involved a wide range of people, including city and Multnomah County employees, environmentalists and political consultant Mark Wiener.

Alpert says he has known Wiener for years and sought his advice on the questions in case the results suggested Portlanders might support such a ballot measure. Wiener has worked for many members of the City Council. He also worked for Upstream Public Health, a nonprofit advocacy organization, on the plan to fluoridate the city’s water supply that ultimately was rejected by the voters.

Officials with three utilities that would be subject to the tax were not involved. In fact, according to emails obtained by the Portland Tribune, Hales did not tell anyone at NW Natural, Pacificorp and PGE about the poll until it was just about ready to be conducted.

On Aug. 14, Alpert emailed pollster Dave Metz with last-minute changes to some of the questions. “Other than that, we’re a go!!!! He is calling NW Natural and Pacificorp today, so Dave, let us know the soonest you can get this out the door!” Alpert wrote about his boss.

Alpert says Hales told PGE about the poll the week before. According to Alpert, the utilities were not consulted earlier to prevent word leaking out and influencing the results.

A carbon tax is a surcharge on gasoline, coal, natural gas, home heating oil and other fossil fuels based on the greenhouse gases they emit. The final version of the poll obtained by the Portland Tribune does not use the word “tax.” Instead, it uses the word “fee.” An email by OEC Executive Director Andrea Durbin says previous polls indicate voters are more supportive of fees than taxes.

The poll asks whether voters would support a ballot measure something like this: “Shall the city increase fees up to 3 percent on utility revenue and establish a four-and-a-half cent-per gallon motor vehicle fee to reduce pollution, conserve energy, improve streets.”

A fiscal analysis prepared by the city says such “fees” would raise around $27 million a year.

The emails were obtained though Hales’ office via a public records request. They show the wording of the question was carefully crafted by those aware of the pending poll. For example, in an Aug. 14 email, Durbin asked Alpert to change the wording of the question from “to fund air, energy, street improvements” to “to reduce air pollution, conserve energy and improve streets.”

“I like it better myself,” Durbin wrote.

According to the emails, City Hall discussions about the poll began with a request from U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat, for comment on a carbon tax bill he introduced in Congress this year. Martha Pellegrino, director of the Office of Government Relations, emailed Gail Shibley, Hales’ chief of staff, about the request on April 9.

In the email, Pellegrino said her office had been working closely with several city agencies to prepare a response. They included the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the Bureau of Water, the Bureau of Environmental Services, the Bureau of Transportation, and the Office of Management and Finance. At the time, Hales was in charge of all of the bureaus.

A draft response attached to the email proposes a carbon tax of at least $20 per ton that increases at least 5 percent a year for eight years. Money raised through the tax should be refunded to low-income individuals through a tax credit, dedicated to programs to improve energy efficiency and research clean energy technologies, and allocated to infrastructure improvements to prepare for the physical impacts of climate change, the draft response says.

According to Alpert, by early summer, Hales had asked his staff for ideas for raising new revenue to improve streets, sidewalks and bike paths. Alpert proposed a local carbon tax and was authorized to work with others to refine the idea and measure voter support for it.

Alpert originally explored whether the city could obtain a grant from a nonprofit environmental organization or foundation to fund such a poll. But in May, he ran into Durbin during one of the visiting Dalai Lama’s events in Portland and learned the OEC had commissioned one for later in the summer. Durbin agreed the city could help write the questions.

Alpert then began convening a regular series of meetings in City Hall and sharing the progress with a growing number of people. They ultimately numbered dozens of people, including: Durbin; Wiener; Noah Siegel, Commissioner Steve Novick’s chief of staff; Angus Duncan, president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission; Eric de Place, policy director of the Sightline Institute, an environmental advocacy organization; and state Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland, who pushed for a statewide carbon tax during the 2013 Oregon Legislature.

The group exchanged feedback on the questions until Aug. 14. Final changes included dropping Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen’s name from a series of questions to determine who voters might trust on the issue. By then news had broken of Cogen’s affair with a county employee.

The survey was conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates of Oakland, Calif.

Hales spokesman Dana Haynes says no measure will be placed on the ballot until 2014, at the earliest.

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