Portland voters resoundingly defeated a proposed multi-billion dollar payroll tax to pay for transportation projects

The two areas slated for the biggest benefits voted against the measure:  The Southwest Corridor and East Portland both opposed the measure

A generous electorate didn’t want to spend billions on transportation

A few months back, we laid out the case against a $5 billion transportation bond measure proposed by Portland’s regional government, Metro. In the November election, voters rejected the measure by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin.

It’s difficult to argue that the measure failed because of widespread anti-tax sentiment:  Voters in the Portland and Multnomah County, in the center of the region, approved every single money measure on the ballot, except for Metro’s transportation tax.  Portland voters approved a $400 million parks levy (64 percent yes), a $1.2 billion school bond (75 percent yes), a $400 million library bond (60 percent yes). They voted to impose a new high earner tax to fund tuition-free preschool education.  These votes come on top of other measures they approved strongly in the May primary election, including multi-billion dollar regional tax to fund homeless services and extension of a 10 cent a gallon Portland city gas tax—which passed with an 77 to 23 percent margin of victory.

Opponents of the measure, chiefly the area’s business community, mounted a  $2 million campaign that mostly emphasized a series of anti-tax messages. But many in the community shared our concerns that the measure did nothing to reduce greenhouse gases. More generally, it appears that the public wasn’t convinced of the benefits of this proposed spending package, which would have been the most expensive single such effort in the region’s history. You’d think that $5 billion worth of projects, chosen after a year-long involvement process, would produce strong support, especially among the likely beneficiaries of these projects. But the evidence suggests that the measure failed to generate much support in two sets of neighborhoods that were singled out for major expenditures, in Southwest Portland and in East Portland.

The pattern of support and opposition in Multnomah County

While there hasn’t been any post-election polling to lay out the reasons for the measure’s crushing defeat, there are some clear clues in the geography of election returns. In particular, election returns for Multnomah County, which are available at the precinct level show, the distinct geography of support for and opposition to the Metro measure.  (Precinct data for Clackamas and Washington counties weren’t available as of publication date).

This map shows the overall pattern of votes in Multnomah County, with areas supporting the measure shaded green, those opposed shaded yellow, and those extremely opposed (fewer than 35% “yes” votes), shaded red.

Support came from a green core. Within the county, the precincts which voted in favor of the measure are in the city’s close-in urban neighborhoods, including downtown, and adjacent neighborhoods in Southeast, Northeast and parts of North Portland.  Outside these areas, voters were opposed. The support for the measure came from a handful of precincts on Portland’s westside, in and near downtown, and a swath of close-in urban neighborhoods in North, Northeast and Southeast Portland. These neighborhoods tend to have the highest levels of transit ridership and bike commuting in the region, as well as being politically liberal. The pattern of voting in favor of the measure closely resembles the split between incumbent Mayor Ted Wheeler (who was re-elected) and his challenger, Sarah Iannarone; Iannarone, the progressive, did best in the same precincts that voted for the measure.

Source: Multnomah County Elections.

The map of the left shows the electoral split for the Metro Bond, with the light colors representing yes votes and the darker colors “No” votes.  The map of the right shows the plurality winner of the Portland Mayor’s race, with moderate incumbent Ted Wheeler in light blue, and progressive challenger Sarah Iannarone in dark gray.  The Metro measure did best in those precincts most favorable to Iannarone.  More liberal-leaning neighborhoods supported the measure, but it wasn’t enough to produce a majority even in Multnomah County.

Neighborhoods that stood to get projects voted against the measure

In theory, at least two geographic constituencies should have been big beneficiaries of the measure.  The biggest single project in the package, the SouthWest Light Rail, earmarked for nearly $1 billion of Metro money, would have built a new light rail line with stations in neighborhoods in Southwest Portland.  But apparently this area didn’t care:  All of the Multnomah County precincts through which the project would have run voted against the measure.

Another constituency that was supposed to benefit from the measure were residents of East Portland. Metro stressed that the measure was designed to improve equity, by investing in transit, safety and pedestrian improvements, especially in low income neighborhoods like those along 82nd Avenue in East Portland.  This area, formerly part of unincorporated East Multnomah County, has some of the region’s weakest transportation infrastructure, with many unpaved streets and relatively few sidewalks. In recent decades, income levels in this area have slipped relative to the region, and advocates of the measure made a particularly strong point that spending in East Portland would address serious equity concerns. But the election returns show that there was no outpouring of support from these neighborhoods. East Portland is generally regarded as the area East of 82nd Avenue.  The map below zooms in on Portland’s East side, and shows a clear dividing line at 82nd Avenue (the red line on the map). Only 2 precincts East of 82nd Avenue voted in favor of the measure; nearly all were opposed. Many of the precincts in the area were strongly opposed, with fewer than 35 percent “Yes” votes. Claims that this measure would advance equity and improve safety generated no support in the very communities would ostensibly benefit from the measure.

No support in the suburbs, either

The Metro electorate includes voters in three counties, Multnomah (which includes nearly all of Portland) and two suburban counties:  Clackamas and Washington.  The measure lost in Multnomah County by a 54/46 margin, and was defeated by an even larger margin in each of the two counties. Neither of these counties has yet released precinct-level returns through the Secretary of State’s website, so we haven’t analyzed their geography here.


Limits of the “Christmas Tree” approach

From the outset, the Metro measure was fashioned as a kind of giant Christmas tree, with a raft of projects each designed to appeal to a specific constituency: a billion dollars for Tri-Met’s next light rail line, a freeway interchange for the Port of Portland’s airport, new highways in suburban Clackamas County, a big contribution to Multnomah County’s plan to replace the Burnside Bridge, sidewalk and safety projects to appeal to pedestrian advocates, and transit fare subsidies for students.  Seemingly everyone participating in Metro’s process got a little something and endorsed the package. Metro’s effort’s seemed dominated by an at times cynical political perspective. Early on, they fielded misleading push-polls falsely claiming that measures to reduce traffic congestion would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It was all well and good to come up with a list of projects, but Metro’s political calculus doomed this effort when it came to deciding how to pay for it. Supposedly because a gas tax didn’t poll well, Metro’s leader’s tried to stick it to “someone else” —the someone else being the region’s larger employers. The actual funding, a selective payroll tax, was decided only at the last minute, and with little public debate, and Metro chose to exclude itself another other local governments from paying the tax. In theory, a measure that only taxed big businesses and exexempted politically popular small businesses, and which was pitched as a tax that someone else would pay, should poll well. But in the end, it generated considerable ire with the business community, which opposed it, and the “no” campaign’s messages clearly resonated with the voters.

In our view, it was unwise from a policy standpoint to choose a method of paying for this package with little or no relation to transportation. The payroll tax amounted to the equivalent of a 30 cent a gallon subsidy to gasoline purchases, compared to the more conventional way of paying for road improvements through the fuel taxes. Ironically, as the 77 percent “yes” vote for extending the City of Portland’s 10 cent per gallon just six months ago demonstrates, voters and the business community had little problem, when asked,  in paying for transportation in a direct and visible way. Moreover, Portland passed a gas tax with a margin of more than 100,000 votes, a block that would have dramatically bolstered chances for regional success even if suburbs were intransigent.

For whatever reason, 2020 was a year when Portland area voters were willing to vote for big tax increases for a wide ranges for services, from dealing with homelessness, to parks, to libraries, to schools and pre-school education. The failure of the Metro measure in this environment shows considerable miscalculation, both in terms of what the measure proposed to fund, and how it proposed to pay for it.