Members of the Democratic Socialists of America Portland branch filed into the Portland City Council chambers on Thursday, May 10 to protest Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year and pitch the DSA’s own “Tax the Rich” plan it claims will add $114 million to the city’s annual revenue.
Before the budget hearing, DSA members joined Opal Environmental Justice and Youth Environmental Justice Alliance outside City Hall to rally in support of TriMet’s Youth Pass, a free bus pass used by more than 12,000 Portland high school students. The Youth Pass is cut from the city’s upcoming budget in Wheeler’s proposal.
“Mayor Wheeler’s budget proposal uses Portlanders’ real needs as a bargaining chip with business interests and grossly misrepresents Portland’s priorities,” said DSA member Keith Guthrie during the council meeting. “We demand a budget that prioritizes the needs of the people to create a city where people get all their needs met.”
According to The Oregonian, Wheeler plans to focus this year’s budget on increased police staffing and a greater contribution to the Joint Office of Homeless Services, an agency operated by both the city and Multnomah County. To do this, Wheeler proposes increasing Portland’s business tax from 2.2 to 2.6 percent to add what he claims will be $15 million of additional revenue.
DSA members said they appreciate Wheeler’s plan to increase business taxes, but said the plan does not go far enough. The DSA proposes a two percent income tax on individuals making more than $250,000 per year and up to eight percent on those making $1 million or more. According to Portland State’s Young DSA Chair Abigail Lopez-Gay, this would add $114 million per year to the city’s budget to fund additional houseless, mental health and education services, including the TriMet Youth Pass.
Wheeler proposes cutting the Youth Pass from the upcoming budget. Currently the city pays for a third of the $2.9 million bill and Wheeler promised to cut the city’s contribution last year to focus on houseless issues and police staffing to reduce 911 response times. Wheeler spokesperson Michael Cox told The Oregonian programs like Youth Pass are “popular, but not central to the City’s mission.”
Portland Public Schools will foot the last third of the bill, but a PPS spokesperson told The Oregonian the district might get 70 percent of the extra $967,000 refunded from the state. The Parkrose and David Douglas school districts in East Portland received the Youth Pass for the first time this school year.
Regardless, some activists at the council meeting questioned Wheeler’s support of the Youth Pass altogether. Nia, a sophomore at Parkrose High School in East Portland and member of YEJA, told Wheeler “Your support of the Youth Pass is urgent to the youth of the City of Portland.”
“If this program is not funded I’ll be forced again to figure out how to pay to ride the bus,” Nia added. “We should not have to continually talk about why this program should be funded. We urge you to provide transitional funding and support for Youth Pass. Mr. Wheeler, you were at the launch of Youth Pass in 2015. What happened to your support since then? Is the youths’ success not a priority to you? Please, show us that this program is essential.”
Several public commenters asked Wheeler for a transition year before PPS takes over the last third of the bill. In response, Wheeler said, “I provided a transition year. That was last year. And I was very clear that the city would work with Trimet and the school districts to find ongoing funding for the Youth Pass. It has not happened.”
“I don’t know if it’s because people didn’t think I was serious or if they didn’t feel that it was an urgent need,” he continued. “The Youth Pass will be funded because we have to allow kids a safe ride out to school.”
To hisses in the crowd, Wheeler added, “I’m counting on the school districts to step up and fund it because they are legally required under state law to do it.”
According to Willamette Week, DSA’s proposal does not currently have support from any council members. However, at the end of the council meeting, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly encouraged DSA members to continue talking to her about their plan.
DSA volunteers are currently working on gathering enough signatures to get the Portland Clean Energy Fund—a gross receipts tax on corporations making over $500,000 in annual sales—on the November ballot. The measure resembles last year’s failed Measure 97, but excludes grocery and medicine sales. Eudaly gave her support of the PCEF earlier this month.
Still, some Portlanders hope increased taxes on people who earn more money don’t end there.
“I think we need to do better job at looking at how we are funding our cities and…having a little more of an awareness of the impact of the lower economic tiers in our city,” said Nicole Aulbach, a community member protesting outside City Hall. “[We need to recognize] they are a healthy part of our city and they need to be supported.”