Two Multnomah preschool measures hope to join forces

Multnomah County

County code, election law may complicate hoped-for merging of efforts, meaning two measures may appear on ballot

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson listens to community members at a Preschool For All meeting in May of this year. (MultCo Photo: Motoya Nakamura)

This story has been updated from its original version.

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Earlier this year more than 32,000 Multnomah County residents signed petitions to put a universal preschool measure on the November ballot.

But whether the measure they vote on is the same one they intended to support remains to be seen.

Supporters of two competing preschool measures headed for Multnomah County voters’ ballots in November reportedly hope to join forces in time for the county’s elected board to vote Thursday, Aug. 6, on a unified measure.

The question now is whether it’s too late to combine measures.

For two years, competing preschool discussions have been under way to tax county voters to increase preschool access, both driven by research indicating that universal preschool saves money and reduces disparities in educational achievement later on.

One effort is called Preschool for All, a county task force spearheaded by Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson aimed at helping only parents whose incomes were below a certain level. Meanwhile, a more aggressively left-leaning effort called Universal Preschool Now, co-led by Will Layng, a longtime organizer with the group Portland Jobs with Justice, sought to provide free preschool for everyone while guaranteeing providers a wage well over Oregon’s legal minimum.

The two sides apparently have been privately discussing how to merge their efforts for some time. Representatives of both groups declined to provide any comment on the details or respond to concerns about their plans, other than pointing to an optimistic joint statement issued on Friday, July 31, saying they think they’ve found a way to unite.

“it’s time to build a universal and lasting, high-quality, tuition-free preschool system in Multnomah County that prioritizes families with the least access today and ensures that children can learn and grow, families have options that work for their children and preschool teachers and assistant teachers are paid a living wage,” said the joint statement. “We continue to talk about finding a united path forward, and those conversations are very productive. We hope to have news to share widely soon.”

But while the two efforts would like to join forces, there’s a problem: One has already qualified for the ballot.

Universal Preschool Now turned in 32,356 signatures earlier this month, of which 81 percent were certified, which was above the necessary figure to qualify for the ballot.

Under Multnomah County’s laws known as county code, the elected board of commissioners has only two options, according to Eric Sample of the county elections office: “They can either adopt it or refer it to the ballot.”

Therein lies the rub. If the board on Thursday adopts the more left-leaning measure into county code, then the county-led measure would be sidelined, as the board would find it difficult to then send the second measure sought by the Vega Pederson task force to the ballot.

If the board, however, refers it and then, as planned, forwards the measure led by Vega Pederson to the ballot, then voters will have two measures to choose from — with an uncertain result.

Normally, county board agendas are posted by Friday afternoon. On Friday, July 31, however, nothing had been posted as of 8:45 p.m.

While neither side will confirm it, political circles have been buzzing that Vega Pederson has accepted most of the principles of the UPN group. As the joint statement suggests, both sides are reportedly open to putting one compromise measure on the ballot.

But the only way legally to ensure only one measure goes to voters would be for the board to adopt or enact the measure that’s already certified for the ballot, and then either repeal it or suspend it until voters decide in November on the compromise version.

That technically may be possible for the board to do and would eliminate the uncertainty around what voters decide. But whether such a move would be legal and fulfills the intent of Oregon election law is another question.

Portland lawyer Dan Meek, a longtime champion of initiative law and voter rights, doesn’t think so. Told that a modified measure could replace the one people signed to support, he said that even if the petitioners behind Universal Preschool Now supported such a move, the board vote would be ripe for challenge given the clear intent of county code.

“I think if somebody took it to court, they’d win,” Meek said.

The option with less legal risk may be to put two measures on the ballot, but have the two groups throw their support behind only one of them.

Then, all both sides could do is hope voters agree.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Dan Meek that was based on a misunderstanding. It has been removed.

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