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City floats idea of new tax, using environmental benefits as a hook.

Proposed 'carbon tax' unlikely to make a dent in emissions.


The city of Portland is gauging voter support for a new tax.

The mayor’s office confirmed Friday that the city commissioned a poll to gauge voter support for a proposed ballot measure to authorize a citywide “carbon tax.”

Carbon taxes are viewed by environmentalists as the best available scheme to counter climate change, given lagging support for a cap and trade system for carbon credits.

Carbon taxes are surcharges on key fossil fuels that, when consumed, are the leading source of carbon dioxide emissions. Thus carbon taxes are designed to reduce use of the fossil fuels.

However, the city’s idea of a carbon tax appears more designed to raise revenue than change peoples’ behavior and get them to reduce use of carbon.

The prospective measure would levy a 3 percent tax on utilities and 4.5 percent tax on motor vehicle fuel. That could raise up to $27 million a year for public transportation, improving sidewalks, reducing air pollution and energy efficiency programs.

The polling questions were released by the city Friday to the Willamette Week newspaper under a public records request.

Pollsters from Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates are asking voters to respond to a prospective ballot title, which is the measure description that would appear first on the ballot. Similar polls are used to gauge support for statewide ballot measures.

Dana Haynes, spokesman for Mayor Charlie Hales, confirmed the city is exploring “options for new revenue,” and assessing voter support for a carbon tax.

The idea of a carbon tax is gaining favor in Oregon since Portland State University published a study in March analyzing a prospective statewide carbon tax.

The PSU study concluded that a state tax would also help diversify the state’s revenue base, perhaps providing more money for public schools and other services.

A measure to create a statewide carbon tax failed in the 2013 legislative session, but lawmakers continue to study the concept.

Hales apparently sees a carbon tax as a way to tap environmentalist sentiment and address the city’s shortfall in paying for paved sidewalks and other unmet needs.

It’s difficult to imagine that fewer people would drive cars with a new 4.5 percent tax on gasoline, or use significantly less electricity when the rates go up 3 percent. Such increases in both rates occur regularly due to market conditions.

The PSU study calculated that it would require a 27 cents-per-gallon increase in gasoline prices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 2 percent by 2015. A 55-cent increase would lower emissions by an estimated 12.5 percent, PSU economists concluded.