The Portland Community Chamber of Commerce is rallying its members against a series of referendum proposals backed by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America that would raise the minimum wage, make changes to building codes and labor laws, and enact a form of rent control, among other things.

The chamber took aim at the ballot questions Wednesday during its monthly Eggs & Issues forum, which was conducted on the videoconferencing platform Zoom because of the pandemic.

It was a one-sided presentation, however, because People First Portland, the group behind five of the six questions on Portland’s ballot, was not invited to participate. People First Portland is a coalition of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America and their allies.

“We have a responsibility to educate our members and the public about the facts, and given that we had only one hour to cover three very complicated ballot questions, it did not lend itself to a debate format,” Chamber CEO Quincy Hentzel said in an email after the event. “It is unfortunate that People First Portland waited until the last possible moment, during a pandemic, to drop in five extremely complicated ballot questions without public input. That said, People First Portland is certainly welcome to put on its own program at its own expense.”

Kate Sykes, a volunteer and a spokeswoman for People First Portland, said the proposals have broad support and put people first.

“The Chamber doesn’t want to engage with us because we are the legitimate source of democratic power: the people; and because they know that their agenda is wildly unpopular,” Sykes said in an email. “We have built a broad coalition, and thousands of people are now a part of this campaign.”

Proponents say the proposals going before Portland voters are needed to address climate change, increase affordable housing, protect wages and prevent renters from being priced out of the city. But opponents, including nonprofit affordable housing developers, say the proposals are poorly conceived and will, in fact, freeze construction of nearly all housing types except luxury developments, and lead to a deterioration in the quality of the existing housing stock, which is among the oldest in the nation.

The chamber forum comes days after four political action committees disclosed their campaign spending, which shows that opponents have a significant fundraising and spending advantage over proponents.

Through Sept. 30, the People First Portland PAC had raised over $23,000 in support of its campaign to pass Questions A-E on the ballot:

• Question A would increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and require time and a half pay during any emergency declared by the city or state.

• Question B would add enforcement provisions to the city’s existing ban on the use of facial surveillance technology by city officials.

• Question C, called a Green New Deal for Portland, would change the city’s green building codes, add labor rules for city-funded projects and require more affordable housing units in certain developments.

• Question D would enact a form of rent control, triple the amount of time a landlord needs to end an at-will tenancy from 30 days to 90 days, and establish a new rent board that would have the power to fine landlords, determine additional rent increases for apartment renovations and mediate landlord-tenant disputes.

• Question E would eliminate the 400 or so non-owner occupied short-term rentals in the city and increase the registration fee for other short-term rentals from $100 for the first unit to $1,000 per unit.

• Question F – the only question not proposed by the DSA – would eliminate the existing cap on medical and recreational marijuana shops and reduce the dispersal requirements from 250 feet to 100 feet.

About two-thirds of People First Portland’s support, $15,000, has come from unions, while the bulk of individual donations came from people donating under $50. The campaign had a little more than $9,700 remaining for the final month of the campaign.

That support is dwarfed by the support for three opposing PACs, which combined have received more than $365,000 in cash, in-kind contributions and loans.

More than half of that total has been raised by Building a Better Portland, which opposes Questions C, D and E.  They have received $$262,885 in cash and in-kind support, including two polls costing about $39,000 each by the Chicago-based National Realtors Association. Of the PAC’s 97 cash donors, 39 businesses and individuals contributed $1,000 or more, including six businesses or organizations giving $10,000. The Maine Association of Realtors made a $25,000 donation. And the PAC has over $81,100 remaining.

We Can’t Do $22, the PAC opposing Question A, has been primarily funded by the chamber, which has provided nearly 88 percent of the $28,450 in total contributions. The chamber donated $15,000 in cash and provided a $10,000 loan. The PAC has nearly $27,000 remaining.

And finally, the Portland Homeowners and Tenants Association, which was founded by the San Francisco-based Airbnb corporation, has not raised any cash. But that hasn’t stopped them from spending heavily. The PAC, which opposes Question E, lists over $67,400 in unpaid debts and obligations for polling, a focus group, digital ads and direct mail. The group has received over $6,100 in in-kind contributions from Airbnb.

There is no organized opposition to the facial surveillance or the marijuana referendums.

The full language for each of the six proposed ordinance changes may be read on the city’s website.

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