When you vote on a referendum there are only two boxes on your ballot: “yes” or “no.”

But not every public policy question can be answered that way.

Portland voters are facing a slate of five questions that have been put forward by a new organization called People First Portland and would deeply affect everyone who lives, works, visits or does business in the city. If passed, they can’t be changed for five years without another referendum.

All five questions include ideas that the city should consider. But none of them are “yes or no” questions.

Since those are only two boxes on our ballot, our recommendation on questions A through E is to vote “no.”

• Question A: Raising the city’s minimum wage from $12.15 per hour to $15 over three years is a reasonable idea, but the referendum doesn’t stop there.

It would boost the minimum wage to time-and-a-half whenever the city or state declares a state of emergency. Without warning or the ability to plan, the minimum wage would jump from $15 an hour to $22.50 or $33.75 for overtime.

Some employers may have the cash on hand to pay that much, but many others will not and be forced to shut their doors or cut hours. This could end up hurting the people it intends to help.

• Question B: In August, the City Council banned the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement. Question B adds an individual right to sue to anyone who believes that they have been surveilled in violation of the city ban.

Since Portland police don’t have this technology and they have been given a clear direction from the council not to acquire it, this is unnecessary.

Portland residents would be better protected if there were a bill to ban facial recognition on a statewide level, and that makes the Legislature the right place to take up this issue.

• Question C: This initiative is presented as a local version of the Green New Deal, a proposed massive federal investment in clean-energy infrastructure that acts as a jobs program for the workers who would be dislocated in the transition away from fossil fuel.

The local version tries to make a much less logical marriage between green building codes and affordable housing. There is good reason to believe that Question C would interfere with both goals.

Local officials say it would disrupt regional work that is already being done. Affordable-housing developers say they would be driven out of the city by higher costs.

Voters would need to wade through six pages of dense statutory language to understand all the changes that are proposed here. An up-or-down vote is no way to set such complicated policies.

• Question D: If it passes, rent increases would be limited to the rate of inflation in most cases, unless a volunteer board permits a higher hike.

At best, this would help only some renters – those who already have apartments that they can afford. It does not help people who have been priced out or about to be priced out of the market. And it doesn’t help people who would like to move to Portland but can’t afford to.

And that’s the best-case scenario. The experience elsewhere suggests there would be other negative consequences.

In other cities, rent control has resulted in higher overall housing costs and created an incentive for condo conversions and other methods of taking rental units off the market.

Targeted rental assistance and increasing the supply of affordable housing are better ways of addressing the affordability problem.

• Question E: The city of Portland has been regulating short-term rentals, such as those listed on the online platform Airbnb, since 2017.

After a series of public meetings, the City Council approved regulations that balanced the impact these units have on the city’s housing supply against the interests of the rental hosts, who in many cases are also city residents who depend on the income they get from these transactions.

If it passes, Question E would throw out the results of that process and replace it with new ordinance language that would outlaw most short-term rentals on the mainland and increase the registration fee by tenfold – from $100 to $1,000.

If Portland had refused to regulate short-term rentals entirely, a referendum like this might make sense. But since there is already an ordinance in place, there are better ways to perfect it.

As with Questions A, B, C and D, that way is through a deliberative public process that involves the whole city and not just one group of people.

There are good ideas in each of these proposals, but they are too complicated to be decided by referendum. If the only choices are “yes” and “no,” Portland voters should say “no.”


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