25 Jan

Portland street fee goes down many dead ends

Now that the Portland street tax has been sent back to the garage, like a bus that breaks down even after all the passengers have gotten off, it’s possible to try to trace its uncompleted route. Somehow, over the course of a year, things have gotten way off the tracks.

A discouraging situation for a city so heavily based on rail.

A worse situation for a city trying to pass a road test.

Last spring, Mayor Charlie Hales and transportation commissioner Steve Novick commenced an effort to bring in additional revenue to fix the city’s streets, which might generously be described as “unimproved.” It would be worth additional investment to have fewer potholes that could swallow a transmission – or a semi-trailer – and some more sidewalks so fewer kids have to dodge SUVs on the way to third grade.

And arguing that we’d be better off if different decisions had been made in 1994 is actually less helpful than you might think.

So Hales and Novick proposed a street fee – not a tax, a fee. This may have been the first wrong turn. A fee is a payment for doing something; if you don’t want to pay a camp site fee or an elk license fee, you can avoid it by not camping or hunting elk, which are not difficult choices to make. If you’re paying a fee for living in Portland, It sounds more like a tax.

The first street fee proposal was complicated, as was the second one. A device for calculating payment on one of them is still up on line, a historical memento like an application form to run a livery stable.

Neither could find a third vote on the five-member council, especially since Hales and Novick were determined not to send the fee/tax to the voters – although its direct path to the ballot was clearly marked out in fluoride.

Toward the end of last year came another proposal, and Novick explained that if people didn’t like that one, he had a Plan B: a progressive income tax to appear on the November 2016 ballot. Novick explained cheerfully, “If the voters are really mad at us, we’re both up for reelection in 2016 and they can throw us out,” although the mayor was less audibly enthusiastic about that prospect.

At least one of the proposals would kinda, sorta sunset after six years. This at least provided a certain classic resonance: A street fee named Expire.

The residence fee/tax would be accompanied by a fee/tax on businesses. On a local web site, fee opponent Robert McCullough, getting some of the city’s data by threatening a lawsuit, claimed that it showed the city’s largest employer to be All’s Well that Ends Well, performing colon hydrotherapy in Northeast Portland, with 32,000 employees instead of the three the shop reported.

The city said that wasn’t its real data base, and everything would work out in the end – which is also the motto of the shop.

But before things got to that point, the city had another idea: Portland’s first advisory ballot, to be voted on next May, offering voters a range of funding options. That idea resolved one problem: Advice is generally free, and widely available.

But it also seemed unlikely to produce an enthusiastic voter endorsement of any fee/tax. Reportedly ,Gov. John Kitzhaber and House Speaker Tina Kotek didn’t want it on the ballot at a time when they hoped the Legislature would produce an increase in the gas tax. After some telephone pressure, undermining the advisory vote’s chances of getting three votes on the council, the city has now shelved everything until after the legislative session.

What the city will do after that is now anybody’s guess, although it has now gathered extensive information on approaches that probably won’t work.

“I can’t think of another exercise in the last six years where all the current flaws in how the building operates are on display,” says city Commissioner Nick Fish, who has supported the council putting any revenue measure on the ballot.

Saying the process has illustrated City Hall shortcomings in transparency, collegiality and collaboration, Fish concludes, “This has not been our finest hour.”

Or, considering how long it has taken to go nowhere, the city’s finest year.

When the city does next take up transportation funding, this summer of later, it might be useful to seek the support of the voters, and more than three members of the council.

A core transportation principle is that it’s good to have lots of people on board.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 1/25/15,

25 Jan

Obama lays down State of the Union, and a marker

For much of Barack Obama’s first term, when one of his proposals was dismissed by Republicans, he would make another one.
Republicans wouldn’t like that one, either.

This process is known as “negotiating with yourself,” and somehow, you never win.

Tuesday night, in the State of the Union, Obama took a different approach. Calling for an upper-income tax increase to pay for child care and college tuition benefits, he knew he was proposing ideas that the Republican Congress would consider, basically, never. But he laid down a marker, which is better than just laying down.

Everybody in Washington, D.C., is a big fan of tax reform, but nobody means the same thing by it. Most Republicans would rather reduce upper-income tax rates, insist the strategy would bring in more revenue, and when it doesn’t, cut government services for everyone else.

By setting out his own goals, President Obama couldn’t set the agenda for a Republican House and Senate, but he could set the terms of the debate. He could remind the country that our problem isn’t that the top one percent are too heavily taxed, but that the gap between them and everyone else is getting impossibly vast.

President Obama was negotiating the future of the country. That’s better than negotiating with yourself.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 1/24/15