Mark Ellis
Portlandia finally says no
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By Mark Ellis
May 30, 2011

Portland's education lobby hit Multnomah County taxpayers with a double whammy in the latest installment of its long-running drama, "We need more money, again."

That money was to come from a property tax hit that would have levied a figure north of $300 annually against the average household. In pricier enclaves, the tax hike would have raised annual property taxes upwards of $1000 a year.

By the kind of margin that gives voter integrity advocates night fits, Portland said no, 51 to 49 percent.

First came the request, attached to a May 17 special election, for 548 million dollars to address the deteriorating condition of the county's school infrastructure. If approved, the bond would have enabled extensive refurbishments and upgrades, including a handful of complete teardowns and rebuilds. It was the largest local government bond proposal in state history.

Then came the public relations blitz. Canvassers fanned out over the neighborhoods, racking up thousands of volunteer hours with young children in tow. Glossy mailers messaged the usual mantra, "It's for the kids." The television campaign would have earned Barbara Boxer's stamp of approval.

One commercial showed a professional-looking hard-hat type, representative of the connected developers and contracting firms looking to get a piece of the action. In reassuring tones he promised strict oversight of the funds collected, a litany all too familiar to Portland's remarkably generous tax base, and all too often drowned out later in recriminations about woefully underestimated actual costs.

The intended TV coup de grace was a typical progressive appeal to emotion. A series of video vignettes featured schoolchildren in the schools pointing to leaking pipes and damaged doors. In one cute-as-hell spot a worried-looking lass mispronounced the word asbestos.

Over a million dollars was spent by the proponents of the measure. The opposition relied on grassroots activism and an on-air drumbeat provided by local conservative talkers Lars Larson and Victoria Taft.

Only eighteen months earlier, in another special election, Multnomah County had worked its confiscatory magic on the Beaver State, providing the electoral edge that green-lighted what many called a job-killing tax on corporations and high earners. The effects of that bitter election are still resonating like a bad vibe over Oregon's economic prospects.

And here were the teachers unions, this time joined by a phalanx of designers, engineers, pipe layers and sheetrock hangers, asking for money again. After a long election night in which the No votes dominated early and a late surge of Yes votes proved to be a computer vote-count glitch, struggling home and business owners could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

New schools would not be built, additions would not be made, and those leaky pipes and damaged doors would have to be repaired using the cash on hand, if at all.

The post mortem conducted by Portland big-government elites was predictable. They pointed to a 19 million operating levy that voters did approve, and vowed to repackage the block-busting property tax and submit it again.

Meanwhile, as Oregon's economy stumbles along, citizens are putting off home improvement projects, postponing all but essential maintenance, and staying in the houses they can afford. Those are the lucky ones.

Does the failed bond represent a tipping point? In this town, which up to now has rarely met a school tax it wouldn't approve, the answer will come sooner rather than later.

© Mark Ellis

 

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