August 27, 2020

Faced with two measures, Board split 3-2 on referring a single preschool plan to voters

The Board of County Commissioners passed the first reading of the Universal Preschool Now! initiative petition Thursday, Aug. 27, setting the stage for a second vote to adopt the ordinance on Thursday, Sept. 3. 

Universal Preschool Now! Proposed would impose a tax on high-income households to implement publicly-funded preschool in Multnomah County. At it’s next regular meeting, the Board can either refer the initiative to voters on the November 2020 ballot, or adopt it as an ordinance outright.

But leaders of the coalition asked the Board to use their legal authority to adopt and then immediately repeal the petition so that another preschool measure — Preschool for All, championed by Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson and a coalition of community-based organizations   — advances as the only early childhood education measure on the November ballot. 

On Aug. 6, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted to refer Preschool for All to voters in the Nov. 2020 election. During that meeting, leaders from both preschool efforts announced their intent to merge efforts into a single, unified ballot measure. But because Universal Preschool Now! had already successfully collected the requisite signatures for an initiative, under Oregon law, petitioners cannot remove the initiative from the ballot. 

The decision to merge left the Board of County Commissioners with two options: vote to adopt the proposed legislation and then repeal it at the behest of the petitioners, or send it to voters in November. Leaders from both coalitions have asked the Board to adopt and repeal the Universal Preschool Now! measure to prevent multiple preschool proposals from reaching the ballot. 

“Getting to a single measure will allow us to reduce the confusion among voters, enable a unified coalition to unite behind one measure, eliminate a tax measure from a crowded ballot, and puts forth a proposal that recognizes the legitimate and deep and thorough community engagement and both the Universal Preschool Now! and the Preschool for All processes,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said. “That’s why I am putting forth this motion today, and if it passes, plan to put forward a motion to repeal the measure upon passage on Sept. 3.”

Leaders from Universal Preschool Now! acknowledged the legal conundrum Thursday, but reiterated their desire to have their own initiative repealed. During testimony, members said they share the core values of the Preschool for All measure and that putting two preschool measures side by side would confuse voters and split the vote. 

“The UP Now! campaign was formed around shared values,” said Emily von W. Gilbert, one of the organizers behind Universal Preschool Now! Those core values include preschool for all children, fair wages for pre-school workers starting at $18 an hour and a measure funded by an equitable tax on the wealthy.

 “Our coalition’s vote to merge wasn’t very complicated. The core values are there. We can clearly see that a single measure will bring about absolutely the best chance of succeeding at the ballot in November.” 

John Betancourt, the other organizer behind Universal Preschool Now!, said most of the petition signatories were agreeing to a broad vision over specific policy details. As a result, he said, they likely would not oppose the Preschool For All initiative. 

“Because very few voters cared to delve into any of the details that would differ between the original Universal Preschool Now! measure and the Preschool For All measure that has now been referred for November, we are confident that the current Preschool For All measure matches the intent of the 32,000 petition signers,” Betancourt said. 

Adopting and repealing the measure is within the Board’s legal authority, but some commissioners have expressed concerns about the precedent it would set. Commissioner Sharon Meieran said—that although she supports the goals of  both measures —she was opposed to the process of enacting and repealing an initiative that qualified for the ballot.

“Using the means of government to achieve its own ends are saying that the ends justify the means of how we get there. It’s not okay even if the ends are exemplary, as they are here,” Commissioner Meieran said. “By adopting and substituting our will as the Board for the will of the voters, that does subvert the initiative process, and, in fact, the democratic process, and I cannot agree to that.” 

Chair Deborah Kafoury echoed that sentiment. While she supported the intent of the measures, she said she would not support a legal mechanism that could be used by future commissioners to “undermine the will of the people.”

“A properly publicly funded preschool program in Multnomah County would be utterly transformative, and that’s why it’s so important that we get it right,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “The attempt to marry the Preschool For All measure, the result of more than two years of hard work, planning and engagement, with Universal Preschool Now!, is an admirable effort to find a middle road to both measures, but the procedural mechanics to make it the lone preschool measure on November’s ballot are fraught.“

Other commissioners expressed that, despite the complicated legal context, the Board would still be honoring the wishes of those who signed the Universal Preschool Now! petition by referring Preschool for All to voters.

Commissioners offered several reasons why it would be in the public interest to adopt and repeal the Universal Preschool Now! measure. Reasons included a single measure being the best thing the Board could do to advance equity; meeting the wishes of Universal Preschool Now!’s chief petitioners; and reflecting the will of the people. 

“I view this as this Board acting with the authority that we have, that we all know that we have, to legislate, and with the authority to legislate, also comes the responsibility to legislate, and to consider what we believe is the best path forward for our community,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann also voted in favor of a single measure, noting that the Board would be acting within its authority and that doing so would meet the wishes of both coalitions.  

“I think it’s incredibly important that we give Preschool For All a fair shot. The only way we can do that is by having one measure,” Commissioner Stegmann said. “I think that if we really want to address the multiple crises going on in our country with the pandemic and the civil rights movement that we are in is that we have to address the institutional racism that exists within our country and our county.”

With the Board voting 3-2 to adopt the Universal Preschool Now! measure Thursday, Commissioner Vega Pederson said she intends to introduce a motion on Sept. 3 for the Board to repeal it. That would clear the way for voters to decide on a single, unified measure in the Nov. 3 election.

“Today we have the opportunity to have a clear and direct path towards referring the single measure and having voters give us the clear message on what they want us to support,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said. “We heard again today a strong desire to unite behind a universal preschool measure, and we are doing so at the behest of the chief petitioners of the Universal Preschool Now! coalition and also at the behest of the Preschool For All coalition, which has three dozen community organizations, and countless individuals.”