A voter places her absentee ballot in the ballot box, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Portland will vote in 2020 on a slate of referendum questions that could bring unprecedented progressive change from raising the minimum wage to capping rent hikes in an effort riling the business community.

Five of the six questions deal with wages, rental and building policies and banning the use of facial surveillance by police or other city officials. They are being proposed by People First Portland, a campaign led by the Southern Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. The other proposal would remove a cap on marijuana businesses.

It may be the Maine campaign most colored to date by the coronavirus pandemic, which landed hard on Portland. The different sides of these referendum questions are fighting under that backdrop as activists look to settle long-term fights in the city over wages and housing policy. If any of the questions succeed, they must remain in effect for five years unless another referendum is passed, according to Portland ordinances.

Surrounding Cumberland County has seen 42 percent of virus cases and roughly half of Maine’s deaths from a pandemic that has fallen hardest on minority populations more likely to work frontline jobs. At the same time, empty storefronts are increasingly common features in the service industry-dominated city that functions as Maine’s economic engine.

Business groups are pushing hardest against Question A, which would raise the hourly minimum wage from $12 to $15 over three years with a time-and-a-half payment kicking in during emergencies such as a pandemic or storm. Representatives from the theater, hospitality and small business communities held a press conference last Thursday to oppose it.

“Businesses have not yet recovered,” Curtis Picard, the CEO of the Retail Association of Maine, said at a separate local chamber of commerce event last Wednesday that took aim at the minimum wage, rent control and green new deal questions. “We have a long road ahead and this question will only make that road more difficult.”

Proponents have argued that taken together, the first five questions will improve wages, help increase affordable housing, protect renters from escalating prices and make for environmentally friendly building codes.

Former Mayor Ethan Strimling, a progressive ousted by Kate Snyder in the 2019 election, said he’s heard all the opposing arguments from businesspeople before. He said the bumped-up wage during emergencies still is barely adequate for “somebody risking their life for us.”

Kate Sykes, a city council candidate volunteering for People First Portland, said the business community’s focus on the $22.50 hourly wage during emergencies is a scare tactic. Initially it would be $18 this year and rise to $22.50 in 2024.

“People working for tipped wages make a lot less so the wage during emergencies is going to be a lot less than that,” she said. “They chose the biggest number to scare the most people.”

Question B is the facial surveillance ban, while Question C proposes a “Green New Deal” that would require projects receiving $50,000 or more in public funds be built using up-to date environmental standards with solar-ready or living roofs while increasing pay and training standards for workers.

Questions D and E would overhaul the rental market, respectively, by capping most annual rent increases to the rate of inflation and restrict all mainland short-term rentals to only those that are owner-occupied while increasing fees to register them. Question F is the marijuana cap, sponsored by advocates of that industry.

There is some doubt about the questions’ chances of passage, since the liberal Portland has turned down some similar measures in the past. In November 2017, Portland voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure that would have made it the first community in Maine to introduce rent control.

Two years earlier, the city rejected a measure to phase in a local minimum wage of $15 per hour after a smaller increase authorized by city councilors, though Maine voters in 2016 increased the statewide minimum wage to $12 per hour by January 2020.

The six ballot questions are only summarized on the Portland ballot because they would have required about seven, two-sided pages to fully print out. The full text is on the city’s website and will be mailed to absentee ballot voters and made available to those who vote in person.

Ethan Boxer-Macomber, the owner of Anew Development, a green and affordable housing company based in Portland, said Question C would add cost and layers of bureaucracy to the building permit system. But he also worries that the din of national politics could distract voters on local issues.

“These ballot measures are written in such a misleading way that I fear they are going to appeal to Portland voters, who tend to be more progressive,” he said. “Right now voters are intensely distracted by national politics, by the global pandemic, by trying to keep their kids in school, and my fear is they’re not going to find time to research what they’re voting on.”

But Em Burnett, a volunteer with People First Portland, talked up Question E to Maine Public, saying increases in short-term rentals through services such as Airbnb are hurting the city’s long-term housing market.

“What is really important to center here is that people are getting kicked out of their homes,” they said. “This is a really, really tough situation — trying to live in Portland, trying to stay in Portland.”

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