The Portland City Council, having awakened to find that the city's streets are falling apart, has scheduled an advisory vote for May to solicit the public's opinion on how to best tax homeowners to pay for repairing the streets. The council will then adopt the winning proposal and move on to determine how to tax nonresidential property. Options include an income tax, a property tax, a gasoline tax, and others yet to be named.
The particular history is that in 1988 when the City Council first realized that Portland's streets were deteriorating, the council considered allocating 28% of the utility franchise fees that it receives to street maintenance and repair. At the time, the city needed $38 million to catch up on street repairs. The council set 28% as a target, but never achieved that target; in the first 8 years the council sent 12% of the utility fees ($29 million) to the transportation department for street repairs, instead of the 28% ($67 million) that the target called for. The amount of money that the council chose not to send would have caught the city completely up on street repairs and the city would not now be facing a cost of $200 million or more to catch up.
I like the idea of the council asking the voters for their thoughts, except that the council is asking one question too few. Instead of merely asking how the voters prefer to be taxed -- rather like the choice that Utah used to offer to condemned criminals, asking whether they would prefer to be shot or hanged -- the council should also ask the voters whether they agree or disagree with the choices of twenty years of city councils to divert money from street repair to other projects -- that is, whether the voters agree or disagree with the council's view that it's more important for the city to subsidize the Portland Public Schools and the Regional Arts Coordinating Council than to maintain the streets.