About John Charles

President and CEO

Overtaxed and Underbuilt

By John A. Charles, Jr.

An Oregon Legislative committee is proposing a massive series of tax increases to pay for various transportation projects.

The proposal calls for higher taxes on vehicle registration, increased gas taxes, a new sales tax on motor vehicle purchases, a statewide employee tax to subsidize transit, and a new bicycle sales tax.

While there are many bad ideas on this list, perhaps the most offensive is the sales tax on vehicle purchases. It is being crafted so that most of the money would be diverted from highway maintenance into something called the “congestion relief and carbon reduction fund.”

Anything that includes “carbon reduction” in the title is guaranteed to be a boondoggle.

Before this proposal goes any further, legislators should consider a bill simply focusing on improving the road system. We all benefit from better roads.

In addition, they should try to charge people based on actual road use, not the mere ownership of vehicles. The gas tax is a good surrogate for this, so it would make sense to increase the gas tax rate while lowering vehicle registration fees. This would be fair to motorists, while still raising the funds needed for road improvements.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Testimony Before the Oregon State Land Board Regarding the Potential Sale of the Elliott State Forest

By John A. Charles. Jr.

The decision before you today is simply one of exercising your fiduciary duty. You have an offer on the table of $220.8 million in private funds. If you accept the offer, the money will be deposited in the CSF, where it will immediately begin earning income for schools.

Alternatively, the various public ownership options require: (1) persuading the legislature to approve the sale of $100 million in state bonds so that taxpayers can “buy” an asset they already own; and (2) paying debt service on the bonds. Those costs (presently unknown) will be paid in part by public school parents, teachers, and other CSF beneficiaries. Therefore, debt service has to be subtracted from earnings on the invested $100 million.

Additionally, a new HCP will need to be negotiated. Since DSL has failed to do this for over 15 years, this is a highly speculative “benefit.” It’s also possible that even with a new HCP, timber harvesting would result in continued losses to the CSF.

As the chart below indicates, over a 100-year horizon, the difference between the Lone Rock offer and the public ownership option is roughly $1.08 billion in earnings. There is no plausible scenario in which continued public ownership can make up that loss. As fiduciaries, this is not even a close call: you should take the offer in hand.

CSF Financial Projections for New Revenue Derived from the Elliott State Forest 

Lone Rock Offer vs. Continued Public Ownership

Cumulative CSF Payouts to Schools @4% of Annual Earnings

Assumes total annual return of 5.58% (CSF average for 2000-2015)

  Add timber harvest revenue Subtract cost of debt service payments Cumulative payout to schools – first 10 years Cumulative payout to schools – first 100 years
L. Rock – $220.7 M invested 6/1/17 N/A N/A $99,107,680 $1,956,775,945
Bond sale – $100 M invested 9/1/17

 

Requires new HCP; could also result in annual losses ??? $44,300,595 $874,668,232
Difference ??? (???) ($54,807,085) (1,082,107,713)

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Oregon Politicians Support Better Roads, Just Not Here

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Recently the Oregon Legislature held a hearing on HB 3231, a bill promoted by Rep. Rich Vial (R-Scholls) that would authorize the formation of special districts for the purpose of constructing and operating limited-access highways.

Opponents made many of the same arguments they’ve been using for decades: new highways threaten farmland; increased driving will undermine Oregon’s “climate change” goals; and we can’t “build our way out of congestion.”

Perhaps the most comical opposition argument was made by Marion County, which sent all three of its Commissioners in a show of force. The Commission Chair concluded his remarks by saying, “We understand progress; we just want that progress to go somewhere else.”

Oregon stopped building new highways in 1983 after I-205 was completed. Elected officials came to believe that our needs for mobility could be met through increased urban densities, massive subsidies for public transit, and various forms of “demand management” to entice or even force people out of their cars.

The new approach didn’t work.

It turns out that manipulating urban form through land-use controls has very little influence on driving. Sure, you can regulate suburbia out of existence through density mandates, as Metro is doing. You can also reduce the parking supply and bring light rail right to someone’s front door.

But no matter how much some people fantasize about using alternatives to cars, it’s not very practical. Midday meetings, post-work errands, childcare obligations, and countless other demands lead people to rationally opt for driving for most trips.

That’s why, after a 20-year spending binge of $3.67 billion for new rail lines, TriMet’s share of daily commuting in Portland actually dropped from 12% in 1997 to 10% in 2016.

Auto-mobility is a wonderful thing, and there is no reason to feel guilty about new roads. For one thing, driving is strongly associated with economic growth. According to ODOT, for every job created in Oregon, we can expect an additional 15,500 miles of auto travel each year. If you’re in favor of new job creation, you have to accept increased driving as a logical consequence.

Moreover, the emissions associated with driving are now so minor that the real concern should be reducing air pollution from congestion. Vehicles sitting in gridlock have per-mile emissions of infinity; getting those vehicles into free-flowing conditions will improve local air quality.

Autos generally have the lowest emission rates when traveling at steady speeds of around 50 MPH. This is also a driving speed that makes most drivers happy, especially at rush hour. The way to accomplish both goals is through the construction of new highways when needed, coupled with the use of variable toll rates (also known as “dynamic pricing”). This could happen under HB 3231.

Across the country, dozens of impressive new highways are being built, many with private financing. Dynamic pricing is being be used to pay off bonds and eliminate congestion. This is the progress that most commuters dream about.

Unfortunately, it probably won’t happen here. Oregon politicians only support progress somewhere else.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article originally appeared in the Portland Tribune on April 25, 2017.

The Greatest Challenge to Traffic Safety? It’s Not Residential Speed Limits

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Earlier this week the Oregon House of Representatives passed HB 2682, which will allow Portland to lower traffic speeds on residential streets from 25 MPH to 20 MPH. This was hailed as an important step towards reaching the city’s goal of zero traffic fatalities by 2025, but in reality the bill is mostly symbolic.

First, HB 2682 only affects residential streets. Most traffic fatalities occur on higher-speed arterials.

Second, reducing travel speed is just one of many factors in traffic safety, and not always the most important. According to the 2015 Portland Traffic Safety Report, 54% of fatal crashes involve alcohol or drugs. When pedestrians are involved, 30% of fatalities involve either an intoxicated walker or driver.

Traffic speed is a factor, but 80% of Portland’s fatalities and serious injuries occur on the 19% of roadways that are posted at 30 MPH or higher. None of those roads will be affected by HB 2682.

The ubiquitous use of digital devices by motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians represents the greatest new challenge to traffic safety. Unfortunately, people who would rather text than watch the road are unlikely to be helped by a law that reduces speeds in quiet neighborhoods from slow to slower.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Testimony Regarding Senate Bills 432, 602, 608, 612 and 618

Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO, Cascade Policy Institute

Regarding Senate Bills 432, 602, 608, 612 and 618

April 6, 2017

Advocates of land-use planning strongly believe that the benefits of planning always outweigh the costs.

But no regulatory system is perfect. Certainly the Oregon program can be improved, if we have the will.

The most obvious problem is that land-use regulation imposes a static vision on a dynamic economy. Oregon demands “urban containment” as the top priority, enforced through urban growth boundaries and rural exclusionary zoning. This has to result in an imbalance between housing supply and demand, leading to rapid price escalation. There is no other logical outcome unless planning advocates have invented a new economic theory that only they understand.

The bills under discussion today may not be the perfect responses to current problems, but surely at least one of them could be used by the Committee as a vehicle for modest reform.

I encourage the Committee to pick one flaw in the Oregon system and address it going forward.

You could focus on the dysfunctional urban growth boundary management process, the punitive “Transportation Planning Rule,” or perhaps farmland preservation requirements that are disconnected from economic reality.

It doesn’t matter which problem you address, but to say that no flaws exist and all reform bills must be killed year after year is not plausible.

Failure to address obvious problems will undermine public confidence in the legislative process. Please use the remaining time in this session to solve at least one problem related to zoning.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Testimony Before the Senate Business and Transportation Committee in Support of SB 656, SB 657, and SB 659

Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO, Cascade Policy Institute

Before the Senate Business and Transportation Committee

In support of SB 656, SB 657, and SB 659

April 3, 2017

The Public Purpose Charge (PPC) was originally authorized by the legislature to run for 10 years: from March 2002-March 2012. It was anticipated that subsidies for conservation, renewables, and market transformation would no longer be necessary after that time.

The chart below shows that the original forecast was correct. PPC administrators are running out of things to do. The low-hanging fruit for retrofits has been picked, and newer homes have been built to stringent energy codes. The mission has largely been accomplished.

Therefore reducing the PPC from 3% to 2%, as called for in SB 657, is appropriate. In 2019 you should drop it by another percent, and then phase it out entirely in 2021.

Keep in mind that the Energy Trust receives additional ratepayer funding through the “increment” allowed under SB 838. During 2017, that increment will more than double the amount of money that ETO will receive from the basic PPC. Therefore, the Trust would continue to have significant funding regardless of what you do with these bills.

Ratio of Energy Benefits (kWh saved or generated) to Expenditures

All PPC Administrators

2003-2004 2005-2006 2007-2008 2009-2010 2011-2012 2013-2014 2015-6/2016 % change, 2003-6/2016
ETO Conservation 5.7 6.6 6.7 4.4 4.5 5.3 3.4 -40%
ETO Renewables 13.8 4.0 33.5 1.6 1.4 2.0 1.6 -88%
School   districts 0.8 0.6 1.0 0.5 0.5 0.3 0.4 -50%
OHCS low-income 1.3 0.9 0.7 0.5 0.8 0.4 0.6 -54%
Self-direct (conservation) 7.2 3.2 4.3 5.2 3.0 2.5 3.8 -47%

Source: Biennial reports to the Legislative Assembly on PPC expenditures, all years. 

Since the PPC was first authorized in 1999, it has escaped scrutiny by the legislature. The oversight called for in these bills is long overdue and I encourage your support.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Selling Bonds to Buy the Elliott State Forest Would Be a Breach of Fiduciary Trust

By John A. Charles, Jr.

State Treasurer Tobias Read has announced that he is now prepared to support a plan being developed by Gov. Kate Brown to sell bonds that would “buy out” the Elliott State Forest from the Common School Trust Land portfolio and keep it in public ownership.

Unfortunately, this would saddle taxpayers with debt service on the bonds, thereby reducing or even eliminating the financial benefits of adding the bond proceeds to the corpus of the Common School Fund. This would be a breach of fiduciary trust on the part of the State Land Board.

Members of the public may not understand that bond sales don’t create “free” money; the face amount must be repaid over some designated period of time, with interest.

For example, if the legislature authorizes the sale of $100 million in general obligation bonds, total principal and interest will likely exceed $150 million over several decades.  All Oregon taxpayers will be legally obligated to pay off that debt.

Another option might be the sale of bonds backed by future earnings on the Oregon Lottery. But lottery revenues are essentially the same as General Fund revenues. Paying debt service on lottery-backed bonds will inevitably take money from public schools.

The Governor’s proposal to have the public buy a forest it already owns is akin to someone losing money in an IRA, then transferring funds into the account from a 401(k) to make up for the loss. If both accounts are owned by the same individual, there is no net gain; the loss is just disguised.

As the state’s elected Treasurer, Tobias Read should know better. The only way to decouple the Elliott State Forest from the Common School Fund is to sell it to private parties with no taxpayer financing involved.

Such an offer is sitting in front of the Board today. The Board should accept the offer of $220.8 million from the Lone Rock Timber consortium, place the net proceeds into the Common School Fund, and let the money begin immediately working for public school students.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

 

Let’s Build Some Highways

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Oregon stopped building new highways in 1983 when I-205 was completed. Top planning officials began espousing a philosophy of spending money on rail transit rather than roads. The government also used the power of zoning to crowd more people into urban centers, in the belief that high density would lead to less reliance on cars.

The new strategy failed.

The Portland regional transit agency, TriMet, was given more than $3.6 billion to build a light rail system; yet between 1997 and 2016, TriMet’s market share of all commute trips in Portland fell from 12% to 10%. As a result, traffic congestion has become a major barrier to regional mobility.

Now a bipartisan group of legislators, led by Republican Rich Vial of Wilsonville and Democrat Brian Clem of Salem, has introduced a bill that would jump-start the highway-building process. HB 3231 would authorize cities and counties to jointly form special districts for the purpose of building and operating limited-access public highways.

If built, such highways would likely be financed through loans, with debt service paid off by tolls.

So far HB 3231 has not received a public hearing. It should. Motorists deserve all the highways they are willing to pay for. Let’s give them a chance to vote with their dollars for a better road system.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

It’s Finally Time to Sell the Elliott State Forest

By John A. Charles, Jr.

At the February 14 meeting of the State Land Board, the Board voted 2-1 to enter into negotiations with a private consortium to sell 82,450 acres of the Elliott State Forest. Gov. Kate Brown, who was on the losing end of the vote, has ordered the Department of State Lands to come back in April with an alternative plan that would allow for continued public ownership.

Not only is the Governor being petulant, but the alternative she favors has been studied repeatedly since 1995. That was the year that the Board released its first “Draft Asset Management Plan.” The Elliott was then valued at $850 million, but annual revenues were dropping due to rising management costs.

The Land Board was told by a consultant that “selling the Elliott State Forest would be the most effective way to maximize Common School Fund revenues.” The Board is required by the Oregon Constitution to make money on the Elliott because it is an endowment asset for public schools.

Sadly, that recommendation was rejected. Instead, state officials spent the next 20 years engaged in fruitless negotiations with federal regulators regarding compliance with the Endangered Species Act. Every time the Board thought an agreement to cut more timber had been reached, it turned out to be a false summit.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups used the Elliott as a legal piñata. They successfully sued the Land Board so many times that the forest stopped generating any revenue by 2013 and actually became a financial liability for Oregon schools.

The costs of this wait-and-see approach were not trivial. According to a report published by the Board in 2014, the Elliott had cost the Common School Fund $1.4 billion in lost earnings since 1995.

Things actually worsened after the report was published. In 2015 the Land Board decided to finally sell the Elliott; but instead of taking competitive bids, the Board established a fixed price. The Board also downzoned the land by imposing multiple limitations on future timber harvesting.

The result was that the Board received a single offer in 2016, for the state-mandated price of $220.8 million. The net result of 22 consecutive years of public ownership was a loss to the Common School Fund of at least $1.62 billion.

Governor Kate Brown now wants to renege on the sale entirely (despite voting for it in 2015) and use state bonding capacity to “buy out” a portion of the Elliott. This is probably the worst idea yet. The public already owns the forest; why would we want to go into debt buying ourselves out?

While the $220.8 million offer now on the table is a far cry from the $850 million we could have received in 1996, it’s better than hanging on to a dead asset. Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and State Treasurer Tobias Read voted to sell the forest, and that was the appropriate decision. Adding $220 million in new revenue to the Common School Fund endowment will generate many billions of dollars for schools over the next century.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article originally appeared in the Portland Tribune on March 16, 2017.

Oregon Taxpayers, Not Riders, Pay Most Costs of Public Transit Operations

By John A. Charles, Jr.

In a recent interview with the Portland Business Journal, Chris Rall of Transportation for America argues for increased state support of public transit service. He says that Oregon only covers three percent of the operating costs of transit, while other (unnamed) states pay for 24 percent.

I don’t know the source of Mr. Rall’s claim, but the audited financial statements for the largest transportation districts in Oregon show a very different picture.

In FY 2016 TriMet had total operations revenue of $542,200,000 but only $118,069,000 came from passenger fares. That means TriMet riders received a 78% subsidy from other sources.

At Lane Transit District in Eugene, passenger fares in 2015 were only $7.2 million, while total operating revenue was $60.9 million. Non-riders paid for 88% of operations.

For Cherriots Salem-Keizer transit, public support totaled 94% of all operating revenue in 2015.

Undoubtedly the largest subsidy goes to the Portland-Eugene passenger rail line operated by ODOT. For every one-way ticket sold in 2015, the public paid $120.

Before state legislators approve any more subsidies to transit, they should require that transit operators recover at least 50% of costs from customers. If riders are only willing to pay 10 percent, why should taxpayers have to pick up the rest of the tab?


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

1 2 3 28