Low-income communities would benefit from job training and other projects funded by Portland Clean Energy Fund

COURTESY PACIFIC POWER  - A commercial-scale solar array in Lakeview, Oregon, built for Pacific Power. Backers of a proposed gross receipts tax on large companies hope to make solar available to low-income Portlanders. Activists are ready to commence signature-gathering for the Portland Clean Energy Fund. This would be a citywide initiative that would tax large corporations to fund rooftop solar panels, home weatherization, job training and other projects that support low-income communities and the fight to reduce climate change.

When environmentalists have teamed in the past with union groups, they formed a potent coalition often called a blue-green alliance. Now Portland is about to witness the power of a new twist on that: a green, brown and black alliance. Supporters have carefully built a coalition including the city's leading environmental groups and those representing people of color.

The campaign got the go-ahead to begin signature-gathering last week when Multnomah Circuit Judge Benjamin Souede ruled the measure is constitutional — fending off a proposed challenge by business groups — and then approving a revised ballot title, the wording that will appear before voters and is needed before petitions can be circulated.

"We are good to go, and the measure is constitutional, and we are ready to hit the streets on signature collection," said Damon Motz-Storey, spokesman for the campaign.

The ballot initiative would levy a 1 percent surcharge based on the sales of retail and service companies with more than $1 billion in national sales and $500,000 in Portland sales. Backers estimate the surcharge will raise about $30 million a year. Sales of food, medicines and health care would be exempted.

One campaign activist estimated the measure would affect approximately 122 companies.

The proposed gross receipts tax is reminiscent of the 2016 statewide proposal known as Ballot Measure 97, which was defeated by a deluge of money spent by corporations and small businesses.

Backers are confident this measure will fare better because Portland has a more liberal electorate than the state as a whole. They note that Measure 97 was supported by a majority of Portland voters.

One campaign source said the Portland Clean Energy Fund initiative starts with the support of more than 80 percent of voters, based on an early poll.

The coalition needs to gather nearly 35,000 valid initiative petition signatures by July 6 to qualify for the city's November ballot, Motz-Storey said. Veteran political consultant Paige Richardson is managing the campaign on a volunteer basis, he said.

The steering committee for the campaign includes leaders of 10 prominent groups: 350.PDX, the NAACP, the Asian Pacific Network of Oregon (APANO,) Oregon Sierra Club, Coalition of Communities of Color, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), Portland Audubon Society, Columbia Riverkeeper and Verde.

The sponsoring groups have volunteers waiting to proceed with petition clipboards, and a professional signature-gathering firm also will be hired, Motz-Storey said.

But the powerful Portland Business Alliance, among other private sector groups, is sharply opposed to the measure and could mount a formidable opposition campaign.

Political consultant Rick Thomas said the opposition campaign is still coalescing, but he expects it will include a broad mix of industries, not just retailers.

Thomas questioned whether voters will want to enact what amounts to a second tax to pay for clean energy projects, noting there already is a 7 percent surcharge on Portlanders' electric and gas bills that goes to Energy Trust of Oregon to pay for similar projects. "Are people prepared to pay twice for something like this? I don't know that they are," Thomas said.

Supporters argue that existing programs aren't accessible to low-income people and communities of color, especially those living in East Portland.

"It's not for solar panels in Laurelhurst," said one campaign insider who asked not to be named.

Business groups aren't the only ones coming out against the measure.

Tax Fairness Oregon, a small grass-roots group that is often critical of tax proposals and works to improve statewide education funding, issued a sharply critical statement on the Portland measure.

"We believe that this proposal is flawed," the group concluded in a position paper, while lauding the goals of the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

The group, led by Jody Wiser, questioned if the city measure would pre-empt future attempts to raise business taxes statewide, and whether it will make it harder to pursue statewide climate change policies.

Jo Ann Hardesty, a Portland City Council candidate who worked on the Oregon Clean Energy Fund as a leader of the Portland NAACP, said the new business tax increase proposed by Mayor Ted Wheeler, with the support of the Portland Business Alliance, could complicate the campaign. "Do you think there will be an appetite for two increases in the business tax?" she said.

Hardesty criticized Wheeler for "chopping out our legs from under us" by introducing his proposal just as the judge was set to issue his ruling on the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

Campaign supporters say their measure is vital at a time when the Donald Trump administration is reversing federal efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and illustrates the needs for progressive cities like Portland to step up their efforts.

This initiative will continue Portland's leadership in addressing climate change, Motz-Storey said.

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