FORGET EVERYTHING you think you know about Portland's controversial, never-ending quest for road money.
Since April, Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales have been pushing a "transportation user fee" that would send $50 million in vitamins every year into the city's anemic streetscape.
Almost no one loves the proposal. Even its most ardent champions (Novick and Hales, for instance) can barely stomach the plan because it's regressive—levying the same to-be-determined flat fee from most residents regardless of their incomes. But Novick and Hales have also said, again and again in recent months, it's the Portland Bureau of Transportation's (BPOT) best shot at a steady stream of needed cash. They've waved around the results of a $28,000 survey, which they said shows Portlanders simply won't support an income tax increase, sales tax, or other proposals.
The problem: It turns out that's not true.
On Thursday, July 17, with a nascent recall campaign against him marshaling its forces, Novick released the results of a new $16,500 survey funded from his office budget. The pollsters at local firm Davis, Hibbitts, and Midghall (DHM) now say Portlanders like an income tax bump better than they ever liked the street fee—so long as it's limited to those among us who are best paid.
A surprising 60 percent of those polled late last month support a city-imposed income tax increase on wealthy Portlanders: 1 percent for those making more than $125,000 in taxable income; 2 percent for people making more than $250,000; and 3 percent for those who earn more than $500,000.
That increase alone could raise more than $50 million, the city says. But the percentages would likely be halved, in practice—with the rest of the street money still coming from Portland businesses.
A broader income tax proposal, which would tack on a .25 percent increase for those making less than $100,000, received just 50 percent support. Proposals to raise taxes on businesses and institute a .25 percent sales tax were less popular.
By comparison, DHM found in April that 52 percent of residents supported an $8 monthly fee.
"I wish we had asked the questions this way a couple of months ago," Novick told the Mercury after releasing the new findings. "I was surprised at the results we got earlier. It was partly the questions and the way we asked them."
In fact, the Mercury raised that issue with Novick repeatedly after the initial survey, which placed enormous emphasis on explaining the street fee concept to participants, then tacked on other options at the end. The commissioner, DHM, and other experts all told us that emphasis probably did muddy the waters, but that the findings were sound.
John Horvick, DHM's vice president and director of research, said in May he doubted a tax increase would see more than 50 percent support regardless of the survey's sequencing.
So what happened?
On Tuesday, July 22, Horvick conceded he was probably wrong in May. But he also offered a caution about these latest results. Reliable surveys, he said, explain three things to participants: a suggested mechanism for collecting new fees, what those fees will pay for, and what consumers would pay. The survey this spring covered all three points, he says, but the latest poll didn't—at least not as explicitly.
An income tax bump is "harder to describe" than a flat fee, Horvick says, and participants might not automatically puzzle through the financial hit posed by a tax increase. "That's part of thinking about what these results mean."
City hall staffers, meanwhile, tell the Mercury public opinion over transportation funding has shifted in the face of extensive media coverage.
"Our kind of broad perspective is [that] conversation and sentiment have changed in that time since our first poll," says Bryan Hockaday, a policy adviser for Novick.
"Nobody was covering this issue back when we were polling earlier," says Dana Haynes, a spokesman for Hales. "We expect the polling to change as the issue becomes more well known."
Horvick says there's simply no data to indicate how coverage has swayed public opinion.
Whatever the reasons, the new numbers suggest Novick and Hales might have spent the past three months staking their political capital on the wrong proposal—one that's similar to two failed attempts at finding transportation money. The public outcry that's emerged over the street fee discussion has spurred a citizen-led recall effort against both officials and bellicosity by Portland business interests.
At this point, it's unlikely either group will be satisfied if Hales and Novick begin beating the drum for an income tax increase—something both have so far avoided, deferring to ongoing deliberations by a troika of workgroups studying the issue. Recall proponents say the mayor and commissioner have gone too far and need to be reined in, and the apparently popular income tax proposal doesn't touch on what fees the two commissioners still hope to collect from businesses.
"I hope you don't think that the rancor took anybody by surprise," says Haynes. "Everybody knew this would be grossly unpopular."