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Message from voters: Environment AND economy need attention

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, Portland-area residents were concerned about runaway growth. Today, they are worried about their economic security slipping away.

Those two facts, as much as anything else, help explain why voters in the May election showed less enthusiasm for a Metro regional government levy that’s intended to take care of publicly owned natural areas.

When Metro first ventured into the business of preserving natural habitat in 1995, voters in all three metro-area counties supported the concept. That year, they passed the first of what has become a series of levies to either buy and preserve undeveloped land or maintain it once purchased.

In 1995, the margin of approval was 63 percent to 37 percent. Metro returned in 2006 with a second request, and got another strong endorsement — 59 percent to 41 percent.

However, in the May election this year, a levy intended for maintenance of those properties passed with a slimmer margin — 56 percent to 44 percent. More tellingly, that victory was ensured solely by a strong showing in Multnomah County. A slight majority of voters in Washington and Clackamas counties opposed the levy, in significant contrast to previous elections.

Now, some people are puzzled about the slip in support. It does appear that Metro, which always has attracted an ample number of critics, has become even more unpopular in Clackamas County. While it is tempting to leap to the conclusion that residents of Washington and Clackamas counties are turning against Metro, we suspect other forces also contributed to the most recent election results.

For one, the May election had a low turnout — which typically produces a more conservative mix of voters. Beyond that, local residents have far less anxiety in 2013 about uncontrolled development, and quite a bit more angst about their personal pocketbooks.

Here’s a statistic that gives context to the region’s shifting attitudes over the past 18 years: In 1995, when the first open space levy was approved, Oregon ranked No. 22 among the 50 states in per-capita personal income. In 2012, according to U.S. Department of Commerce statistics, this state ranked No. 33.

From 1995 through the mid-2000s, the major issue on the minds of a majority of Portland-area residents was preserving quality of life at a time when the population was expected to boom. Since then, local residents haven’t changed their values. After all, the levy still passed. They have, however, noticed that growth didn’t come as quickly as predicted — and they have seen their own financial pressures increase substantially.

If there is a message to Metro in all this, it is to put as much emphasis on economic advancement as it does on environmental enhancement.




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