In a forceful rebuke of the city’s political establishment, Portland voters approved five of six citizen referendum initiatives at the ballot box on Tuesday, increasing the minimum wage, imposing rent control and strengthening a ban on facial surveillance technology.

The only citizen referendum to fail was one that would have imposed more restrictions on short term rentals, which was rejected by 52 percent of voters. However, voters approved two proposals that they have previously rejected in recent years – a $15 an hour minimum wage and rent control.

Five of the proposals were placed on the ballot by People First Portland, a political action committee formed by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America. They were opposed by Mayor Kate Snyder, seven city councilors, local businesses and affordable housing developers.

The questions were placed on the ballot during a presidential election, which featured a historic turnout and drew more progressive voters to the polls. Final results were not reported until after 1 a.m. Wednesday because of a record number of absentee ballots.

Sixty percent of voters approved raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, from $12 an hour, over the next few years. Voters rejected a similar proposal in 2015.

This ordinance, unlike the 2015 version, also includes a provision that requires businesses to pay time and a half during a declared emergency. That will give Portland the highest minimum wage in the country next month – $18 an hour –  assuming city and state emergency declarations stemming from the coronavirus pandemic are still in effect.

And 57 percent of voters approved a slate of tenant protections that would limit rent increases to the rate of inflation, create a rental board to mediate disputes between renters and landlords, and triple the amount of time it takes a landlord to stop renting to a tenant without a lease.

The ballot measures had a slight lead among people who cast their ballots in-person on Tuesday, but the margin of victory only increased with early voting an absentee ballots were tallied early Wednesday morning.

Five of the referendum questions were placed on the ballot by People First Portland, a political action committee founded by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America, and the sixth was placed on the ballot by marijuana advocate David Boyer.

Groups opposing Questions A through E raised nearly 14 times more than proponents.

Three political action committees – Building a Better Portland, We Can’t Do $22 and the Portland Homeowners and Tenants Coalition – opposed Questions A through E on the city ballot. They had raised nearly $643,500 and had more than $67,000 remaining heading into the final week.

People First Portland had raised only $26,480, with $9,905 remaining, but their campaign to pass the questions got a boost from Progressive Portland, a local advocacy group, which spent nearly $20,290 on a voters guide expressing support for the referendums and candidates running for office.

Proponents said the slate of referendums was needed to prevent working people such as artists and service workers from being priced out of the city, correct the power imbalance between renters and landlords, and address climate change. Opponents criticized the proposals as being developed in secret, without a robust public process that considered all viewpoints, and so poorly worded that they could have the unintended consequences of freezing affordable housing production.

Several of the proposals, such as rent control and a $15-an-hour minimum wage, had been placed on previous citywide ballots and defeated at the polls, while others had been considered and dismissed by councilors.

• 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.

Nearly 54 percent of voters supported a referendum to eliminate a cap on retail marijuana stores, a 888 vote margin, according to unofficial results.

Nearly 65 percent of voters approved banning public officials from using facial recognition technology. The referendum includes enforcement measures previously rejected by the council, including allowing citizens to sue the city if an official illegal obtains information from facial recognition technology.

The so-called Green New Deal for Portland, which was opposed to affordable housing developers, was approved with 57 percent of the vote, 28,132 to 20,837.

Opponents were particularly concerned about Question C, which they described as a “Trojan Horse” of new labor, zoning and building rules. That question would require all city and city-funded projects over $50,000 to participate in a formal apprenticeship program. It would also require certain developments to include 25 percent of its units at a price affordable to middle-income residents, as opposed to the 10 percent requirement currently. It would also lower the income levels determining who would qualify for those units.

Opponents and proponents, meanwhile, argued about whether the ordinance would in fact increase energy efficiency and environmental sustainability requirements in new building projects.

Businesses, meanwhile, pushed hard against Question A, primarily because of the hazard pay requirement during declared emergencies. That requirement is unique in the U.S. and would give Portland the highest minimum wage in the country when triggered.

City officials estimated that the referendums would add $12 million a year to the city budget, while also eliminating more than 90 percent of the local vendors that currently bid on city projects.

The City Council cannot repeal or amend any of the ordinances for at least five years, unless it’s done through another citywide referendum.


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