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County code, election law may complicate effort to divert voter-backed measure from ballot

MULTCO PHOTO: MOTOYA NAKAMURA - Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson listens to community members at a Preschool For All meeting in May of this year.

This article has been updated from its original version, including details of the compromise measure from documents newly released.

Earlier this year, more than 32,000 Multnomah County residents signed petitions to put a universal preschool measure on the November ballot.

But the measure people actually get to vote on may look different, as that voter-backed measure may never appear on the ballot.

Supporters of two competing preschool measures headed for Multnomah County voters' ballots in November hope to join forces. The county's elected board is scheduled to vote Thursday, Aug. 6, on referring a unified measure to the ballot — one that's similar to the voter-backed one but less costly, and which will bear the name of a county task force headed by Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson Jessica Vega Pederson.

The compromise measure to be voted on by the county board, called Preschool for All, 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."

That's a bit different from the measure that already has qualified for the ballot, called Universal Preschool Now — a measure that the board must vote on to either refer to voters or adopt into code. The UPN measure imposes a 3.9% tax on incomes above $165,000 for individual filers and above $190,000 for joint filers.

The question now is whether removing the higher-tax, voter-backed measure from the ballot would stand up legally.

Parallel paths

How did things get to this point? Two competing measures have been proceeding on parallel tracks for two years, both driven by research indicating that universal preschool saves money and reduces disparities in educational achievement later on.

Preschool for All, a county task force spearheaded by Vega Pederson, aimed at providing free preschool for parents whose incomes were below a certain level.

Meanwhile, Universal Preschool Now, co-led by Will Layng, a longtime organizer with the group Portland Jobs with Justice, sought to provide free preschool for all Multnomah kids ages 3 or 4, while guaranteeing providers a wage well over Oregon's legal minimum.

In recent months, faced with the approval of the competing measure, Vega Pederson — who through a staffer declined to comment — has substantially altered her measure to largely mirror the voter-backed one, such as mandating that preschool teachers be paid on par with kindergarten teachers, and that their assistants be paid at least $19.91 an hour.

On Friday, July 31, the two groups issued a joint statement: "We continue to talk about finding a united path forward, and those conversations are very productive. We hope to have news to share widely soon."

Both sides declined to provide any comment on the details. But the next day, the compromise measure appeared on the agenda of the county board.

While the two efforts would like to join forces behind the lower-tax ballot measure, there's a problem: the higher-tax effort has already turned in enough signatures to qualify and appear on the ballot, as became official on July 22.

Once that happens, commissioners have only two options, according to Eric Sample of the county elections office: "They can either adopt it, or refer it to the ballot."

Therein lies the rub. To give voters only one measure to choose from, the board on Thursday could refer the Vega Pederson—led measure to the ballot. Then, in a subsequent meeting, to avoid referring the higher-tax measure, the board would have to adopt the measure into county code, then immediately suspend or repeal it.

That technically is possible. By restricting voter choice the board would eliminate political uncertainty and confusion. But whether such a move would be legal and fulfills the intent of Oregon election law is another question.

Portland lawyer Dan Meek, a longtime champion of initiative law and voter rights, doesn't think it would be legal. Told that a modified measure could replace the one people signed to support, he said that even if the petitioners behind Universal Preschool Now supported putting their measure on hold, the board vote would be ripe for challenge by anyone, given the clear intent of county code.

"I think if somebody took it to court, they'd win," Meek said.

The option with less legal risk for the county may be to put two measures on the ballot, but have the two groups throw their support behind only one of them.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article included a quote from Dan Meek that was based on a misunderstanding. It has been removed.

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