Portland, Oregon, with Mount Hood in the background.
Portland, Oregon, with Mount Hood in the background. The Eliot Glacier on Mount Hood has been shrinking due to climate change. Steve Dipaola/Reuters

From Portland: A Tax to Fund Equity in Tackling Climate Change

The Portland, Oregon, Clean Energy Community Benefits Initiative on the ballot Tuesday is a model for other cities to address inequity and climate change.

The Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Initiative, also known as Portland Ballot Measure 26-201, will be put to voters on Tuesday. It’s a measure that is long overdue and politically astute. As a former mayor of Portland, I hope it not only passes but also serves as a model for cities to address inequity and climate change.

Communities of color are leading this campaign in Portland, Oregon, to make big businesses help pay for a just transition to clean energy, something that should be a top priority for our climate action efforts. In leading this campaign, these Portland community activists are helping lead the nation too.

“Clean energy jobs and projects to address the most impacted by climate change have the potential to create a climate prosperous economy, which is much better than just a survival economy,” said Desiree Williams-Rajee, equity and planning expert of Kapwa Consulting and co-chair of Verde, one of the groups that helped organize the initiative.

Under the initiative, giant retailers would face a relatively tiny tax. A 1 percent surcharge on revenue would be paid by about 130 companies, all of which have more than $1 billion in national revenue and $500,000 in local revenue.

That’s only fair. Many of these retail companies, with their heavily-packaged items and transportation-intensive global-supply chains, are disproportionately responsible for polluting our air and water. Their local-business-killing business models are part of the reason we have so much local income inequality in this country.

The resulting estimated $30 million generating from this tax would go to clean energy projects and clean energy job training. The money would be prioritized to help those who have been hit hardest by climate change and need better jobs—communities of color, people with disabilities, and people who are chronically unemployed.

The tax also has a side benefit. It would level the playing field between big national retailers and small locally-owned businesses. Small local businesses don’t have as many tax dodges and can’t generally afford to hire an army of lobbyists to do their bidding. And, now with the recent federal corporate tax cuts that have big retailers as big winners, they have the ability to do more to address climate change without it affecting them much. As a result, small local businesses often pay a higher percent of their revenues in taxes than big national corporations do.  

Supporters and opponents

The coalition behind the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Initiative started by the Portland NAACP, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, the Coalition of Communities of Color is now a broad-based group of supporters that includes labor, environmentalists, and local businesses.

Opposing the initiative is the so-called “Keep Portland Affordable PAC,” which includes financial backing by big, out-of-state corporations like Walmart, Amazon, Comcast, JC Penny, Home Depot, Kroger/Fred Meyer, and US Bank.

Given this, it’s hard to take the arguments from the “Keep Portland Affordable PAC” as sincere.

These corporations claim the clean energy initiative would make Portland less affordable because retailers would just pass the costs down to customers. But seriously? These companies have never made equity, affordability, clean energy, or social responsibility their top priorities—certainly not higher priorities than their own profits.

But now all the sudden—when they’re about to start to pay their fair share—they’ve become more worried about how a tax policy would impact the little gal and guy? It seems a lot more likely these corporate interests are just saying whatever they can to avoid the being held fiscally accountable for their carbon pollution, in Portland, and in other cities.

That, at least, is the conclusion I reached after reading a report from the City Club of Portland, where I used to be the executive director. The Club conducts independent, thorough, non-partisan, fact-based research that’s directed by member volunteers who declare to have no stake in the issue they’re looking at. The Club scrutinized the ballot measure, interviewed experts on both sides of the issue, dug through various studies.

Their finding: As long as there is ample retail competition in a local market, the “pass down the costs” argument is unsupported by the evidence. And, in most large cities, there is cutthroat retail competition.

In response, the anti-tax PAC paid for a report that said something different, but that research was produced by an economist who is the former chair of the local county committee of the Republican Party.

I’m more swayed by the arguments from the groups that have been advocating for people who are poor or homeless long before the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Initiative was on the ballot. Street Roots, for example, is the leading Oregon voice for those experiencing homelessness. Here’s what it had to say about endorsing the initiative:

“As we address climate change, we must be intentionally equitable. Without that intention, actions can result in more wealth accumulation for the wealthiest among us, exacerbating inequality. The Portland Clean Energy Fund [that the money from the initiative will fund] has been designed to support poor communities and communities of color, with both weatherization and efficiency projects that get funded, but also the people who are trained to do that work.”

I am beyond tired of hearing too many big corporations give lip service to climate change and equity. Corporate groups keep calling these issues “noble causes” and “issues of our time,” and some of them even make public commitments, donations to the cause, and launch internal sustainability efforts.

All that is great, until you also see that many of these same corporations simultaneously lobby through trade associations for tax breaks and regulatory breaks that allow them to avoid being held accountable or changing their ways. Making matters worse, an untold number of corporations make dark money contributions to PACs that fight tooth and nail against candidates and viable policies that would make a real difference.

We still have a little bit of time left to stop disastrous climate change. The US—the largest per capita carbon polluter in history—ought to take a leading role. But, as we know, President Trump and  Congress have walked away from upholding the Paris agreement.  

Cities, therefore, need to shrug off the influence of these retail behemoths. And local environmental groups and equity advocates need to force the issue when city leadership won’t do enough. That’s what’s happened here.

Portland’s communities of color and their allies are calling the bluff on what often amounts to corporate greenwashing and equity inaction, and they’ve forced the issue onto the ballot, by gathering 61,000 petition signatures to push a policy forward that would allow the city to move forward on climate action in a way that creates economic equity.

Portland has a long history of pioneering policies that spread across the country, and by funding equity and climate together, the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Initiative improves on that tradition.

There’s nothing else like it in the country, but hopefully that’s only temporary. I hope the initiative doesn’t just win, but wins big, and delivers a message that makes similar policies easier to pass.

Climate is an equity issue, equity is a climate issue, and when advocates for both team up, all of us are victorious.

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