Novick and Hales: Regressive taxation is "doing the hard thing." No soap, guys

Chris Lowe

Last Thursday, in introducing a hearing on a proposed Transportation Utility Fee (TUF) for Portland, Charlie Hales and Steve Novick gave a remarkable performance.

The substance of their proposal was remarkable because ugly: a utility fee structured in close to the most regressive way imaginable. Notably, the new proposal extends the vile principle established with the city Arts Tax -- not progressive, not even a flat rate, but a flat quantity, charged very nearly without regard to income, to households, some businesses, and apartment owners, who can be expected to use it to raise already skyrocketing rents still further.

Novick and Hales are right that there is a real need for new dedicated revenue to maintain and improve streets and sidewalks. They made a decent case for the need before fouling it up with a bad solution. There are better ways to do it.

Hales' and Novick's justification for this ugly proposal was more remarkable, because uglier still. Hales let Novick do the dirty work. Steve was brutally blunt about it: the mayor and commissioner had chosen this vicious form of taxation because they believed rich people and rich businesses would be able to organize better and fight harder against progressive means of raising needed revenue than poorer people could fight against their regressive proposal. (Start the video at about 23 minutes in.)

The final remarkable feature of Hales' and Novick's remarkable performance was that they patted themselves on the back for "doing the hard thing" in favoring the wealthy over the poor because the wealthy are more powerful and better organized, and for rushing a vote on the proposal rather than engaging in a full public debate that would let everyone get up to speed and think about the arguments, or turning it over to the people for a vote.

"The hard thing"? Really? Hales' and Novick's claim is literally and simply contradicted by their own justification that it would be easier to tax the poorer than to get a progressive income tax or raise business taxes.

Doing the hard thing would be leading a serious public debate to persuade the people both of the necessity of the revenues, and of the need to raise them the right way. Doing the hard thing would also be facing up to the need for a serious public debate lasting a substantial time, that respected the people rather than patronizing them.

Raising the revenues in a profoundly wrong regressive manner because of fear of the power of the wealthy would be doing the easy thing. It's also a failure to lead. Voting the TUF through without full public debate, and with clear intent to ignore any opposition, then waiting to see if the calculation about poorer people being weak pans out, is evading the hard work of convincing the public. And again, it is a socially and politically destructive failure to lead, that will further weaken public trust, justifiably, that's already badly frayed.

After the fiasco over drinking water fluoridation, in which a rushed, undemocratic process, driven by a weird combination of fear of the public and paternalism toward us, led to a crushing defeat, a defeat that was motivated significantly by popular anger at the way it was done, you'd think Council would have second thoughts about going down that path again. Apparently Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman do have such second thoughts, at least about process, wanting to refer the bad measure to a vote, though they are still AWOL on the unacceptable regressiveness of the TUF proposal itself or about putting forward better ideas to get the needed revenue.

We can only hope that Amanda Fritz joins them Wednesday in refusing to impose this harsh TUF based on wrong principles immediately. We should then hope that the three of them also rethink Saltzman's and Fish's idea of referring this bad proposal to the people. Instead, the whole Council should pull their socks up, organize the real public debate we really need, and put forward better ideas for raising the money needed for this important public purpose.

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