WITH TED WHEELER'S candidacy for mayor all but announced, City Commissioner Steve Novick asked the state treasurer for a meeting several weeks back.
His motive was simple: Novick wanted a feel for the platform position Wheeler was planning around transportation. "I said, 'Please don't say anything that makes it harder to raise a gas tax,'" Novick says. "I wanted to make that pitch, if possible."
Novick, the city's transportation commissioner, didn't have to worry. Yes, transportation funding has been a centerpiece of Wheeler's new campaign—particularly what he says is Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales' sloppy grasping for more of it. But he's apparently all for a gas tax.
That makes Novick's job all the easier. With the City Club of Portland, Portland Business Alliance, and a newly announced mayoral challenger all voicing support, the commissioner's very seriously considering asking his colleagues to put a local gas tax on next May's ballot.
"It seems more feasible than it did two months ago," Novick says.
He's not just talking about campaign rhetoric or civic boosters, either. Polling reviewed by the Mercury suggests Portlanders support a gas tax more than the vast majority of the options Hales and Novick floated last year, before dropping the effort in January.
In July, local pollsters at DHM Research quizzed Oregonians on a number of issues, as they do about once a month. Among their questions: Whether voters would support a four-year, 10-cent increase to pay for "street repair and maintenance."
Statewide, support was tepid—about 49 percent. In Portland, it was far stronger. Around 58 percent of polled Portlanders said they'd support the gas tax, while 35 percent opposed it.
Those aren't numbers you necessarily want to build a campaign on. They're bound to shrink in the face of opposition, and they come from a low enough sample size that they're more a finger in the wind than anything else.
"I usually look for 60 percent support or higher," says John Horvick, DHM's vice president and political director. But he notes: "It's a number that, if you wanted to run with and invest in it, you might be able to hold support."
Still, that 58 percent, if it's real, represents some of the strongest support of any option Portland voters have seen recently. A flat fee that Novick and Hales first proposed last year had about 52 percent support, and they rolled with it anyway. The most popular option—an income tax on people earning $125,000 or more—was never actually proposed, though 60 percent of voters liked it.
And yet, this is the first time we're seriously talking about a gas tax. Novick says he assumed it would be unpopular last year, drawing a fight.
If anything's clear by now, though, it's that a fight is unavoidable if the city's going to get out of its road funding quagmire. Operatives like oil-industry lobbyist Paul Romain—who's made a specialty out of killing road-funding proposals in recent years—have shown they're ready.
The 10-cent option Novick's looking into would only get Portland about halfway there. But it can probably find the city council support to make the ballot, and it may be compelling enough to Portlanders that we see some progress on this issue, after more than a decade stuck in the mud.