Making good on a promise to scare up cash for federally mandated police reforms approved by the city this month, Mayor Sam Adams scored a unanimous vote from the Portland City Council this morning for an incremental tax hike on two Portland-area land-line phone providers.
Under Adams' plan, major telecoms Frontier and CenturyLink will now be subject to the same tax revenue formula as every other landline provider in town. The two had been paying taxes only on their basic voice plans, at 7 percent. But starting January 1, they'll pay 5 percent on all revenues—an increase that could bring Portland up to $5 million a year.
Police and mental health reforms negotiated with the US Department of Justice will cost $5.4 million annually. And while Adams wants the tax money to pay for those programs, next year's council, when it assembles its budget, won't be bound by that request.
"I will support this. It does bring [tax] equity," said Commissioner Dan Saltzman, a skeptic of the costs involved in reform. "This tax will be a modest tax."
(Saltzman then launched into a paean celebrating the reliability and voice quality in his own home landline—later getting Adams to quip about his "beautiful love letter" to a dying technology.)
Importantly, in saying "yes" to Adams (hi, Oregonian editorial board!), the council shrugged off a heavy-handed broadside by telecommunications lobbyists and anti-tax advocates that two different sources bluntly said had "backfired."
Telecom speakers showed up at a city hearing two weeks ago, complaining the tax would unfairly hit senior citizens. Since then, sources say, CenturyLink executives have been making the rounds in city hall—threatening to sue if the tax plan went forward.
City commissioner's offices starting Monday also were flooded with hundreds of emails and calls patched directly to their front desks from a robocall that apparently blanketed the region. Offices tell me they were so swamped by callers spewing Tea Party rhetoric that as many as three or four staffers were diverted to picking up the phone. Some of the callers weren't even from Portland, I've been told, chiming in from places Troutdale and Beaverton.
During the council vote, Nick Fish reported receiving a robocall late Tuesday, despite being an AT&T customer, and outed the Taxpayer Association of Oregon—one whose founders led the charge for anti-tax Measure 5—as responsible.
"I was chagrined I was targeted," Fish said.
Jason Williams of the TAX admitted his group put together the robocalls and emails but wouldn't confirm or deny whether Frontier or CenturyLink worked alongside the group or if the group was going it alone. He bristled at being asked that repeatedly and said his "grassroots organization" doesn't need to be told to bird-dog a tax plan.
"I'm just saying we're involved in this tax," he says. "We get involved in a lot of taxes."
Adams suggested whoever was behind the robocall might have to disclose what its spending to the city auditor's office as a lobbying expense.
"We're going to do everything that's necessary," Williams says. Though when asked if reporting the robocall expenses qualifies as "necessary," he also says, "That I don't know."
Update 3:10 PM: Deborah Scroggin, Portland's elections officer and overseer of the city's lobbyist disclosures, says only "direct" lobbying contacts falls under the city's lobbying rules—emails or calls directly between an organization and an elected official or staffer. That means a robocall to a citizen that leaves a city council office merely one button push away doesn't qualify.
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