About John Charles

President and CEO

Power Is the Narcotic of Choice for Politicians

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Oregon’s free-market research center, Cascade Policy Institute, celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala dinner party on October 20 at the Tualatin County Club. Since its founding in 1991, Cascade has emerged as a leading voice for individual liberty and economic opportunity. Building coalitions with others, Cascade has helped develop innovative policies such as Oregon’s charter school law and the more recently enacted Right-to-Try statute.

Cascade helped Ethiopian immigrants break the Portland taxi cartel and secure a license to operate a new company. The Institute also helped a young Black woman start her hair-braiding business by persuading the legislature to repeal onerous licensing regulations.

And a paper first published by Cascade in 1996 suggesting that 84,000 acres of the Elliott State Forest be sold off helped persuade the State Land Board to do just that; a sale will be approved by the Board in December of this year.

However, such advancements will be tougher to come by in the years ahead, because the culture of Oregon has changed. The permanent political class that now rules the state has little respect for the entrepreneurial spirit.

The 2016 legislative session served as Exhibit A for this change. In the short space of 30 days, the majority party rammed through two major pieces of legislation: (1) a dramatic increase in the minimum wage; and (2) a mandate forcing electric utilities to provide 50% of their retail load from designated “renewable energy” sources.

Each bill only received a few hearings. Vast areas of complexity were brushed aside as unimportant. When hundreds of witnesses showed up pleading for a more incremental approach, they were dismissed. In 35 years of lobbying, I had never seen anything like it.

This was in contrast to Cascade’s early years, when the organization sponsored “Better Government Competitions” in 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2000. These events solicited good ideas from citizens about how to make government work better. Top officials including Governor John Kitzhaber and Portland Mayor Vera Katz enthusiastically endorsed Cascade’s “citizens’ suggestion box.”

Today, many elected officials openly disdain the public they serve. They don’t want your ideas, just your obedience and your tax dollars. Moreover, if you compromise and give them half of what they want today, they’ll be back for the rest tomorrow.

Nowhere was that more evident than with the so-called “coal to clean” bill in 2016. Why was this topic even being discussed when only nine years ago the legislature passed SB 838, which mandated that large electric utilities procure 25% of their power needs from specified “renewable energy” sources by 2025?

SB 838, passed in 2007, was seen as a visionary achievement. The leading legislative advocates, Senator Brad Avakian and Representative Jackie Dingfelder, were exultant. Oregon was now on a path to renewable energy Nirvana!

Yet by 2016, the “25 by 25” banner was seen as wimpy and out of date. Oregon’s perceived reputation as an international environmental leader had been undercut by legislation elsewhere. So the new (arbitrary) standard became “50% by 2040.”

We can do better than this. Perhaps if Measure 97 fails, legislators will stop looking for quick fixes and work together on tax reform. There are officials in both parties willing to tackle PERS reform and transportation finance, if the Majority party allows it.

Replacing hubris with humility would be a good first step.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the October 2016 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

Something’s Rotten in Metro’s Missing Garbage Tax Money

By John A. Charles, Jr. and Allison Coleman

Metro is asking for a new tax levy this November (Measure 26-178 on your ballot) despite the fact that it already has sufficient funds to operate all its parks.

In 2002, the Metro Council enacted a garbage tax for the specific purpose of funding operations and maintenance of Metro parks. That amount was raised to $2.50 per ton in 2004. Between 2002 and 2015, the garbage tax brought in $46.8 million for Metro parks.

Given that Metro raised all this money for parks, why is Metro asking for voter approval of another $80 million parks levy in the upcoming November election? Where did the $46.8 million in garbage tax money go?

The answer can be found in a bait-and-switch ordinance adopted by Metro in 2006. The Council amended the Metro Code to retain the garbage tax, but “undedicate” its use so that revenues would be swept into the Metro General Fund.

Since 2006, regional taxpayers have paid more than $32 million in garbage taxes that should have gone to parks, but instead went to other purposes. We’ve heard the scare stories before, but it’s time to call Metro’s bluff. Voters should reject the Metro tax levy and demand that all money from the garbage tax be rededicated to parks maintenance, as promised 14 years ago.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Allison Coleman is a Research Associate at Cascade.

Metro’s $32 Million Broken Promise

— Why You Should Vote Down Metro’s Natural Area Levy

By John A. Charles, Jr. and Allison Coleman

In 2006, the Metro Council submitted to the voters a general obligation bond measure in the amount of $227.4 million to fund natural area acquisition. The measure was approved.

In a little-noticed appendix to Resolution No. 06-367A, the Metro Council stated that greenway lands acquired with bond funds would be land-banked with limited maintenance beyond initial site stabilization and possible habitat restoration. The Council noted that it had the financial means to carry out this promise:

“Once the 2006 Natural Areas Bond Measure is approved by voters, Metro will commit existing excise taxes to this basic level of maintenance, with Metro having sufficient resources currently to manage the newly acquired properties in this manner for a period of approximately ten (10) years.”

If the phrase “existing excise taxes” seems puzzling, there’s a reason; almost no one remembers that in 2002, the Metro Council enacted a garbage tax of one dollar/ton for the specific purpose of funding operations and maintenance (O&M) of parks. That amount was raised to $2.50/ton in 2004. Between 2002 and 2015, the garbage tax brought in $46,789,044 for Metro parks.

Metro Solid Waste Excise Tax

Dedicated to natural area maintenance

 

Year Excise Tax Tonnage Total Revenue
2002 $1.00 1,251,823 $1,251,823
2003 $1.00 1,362,204 $1,362,204
2004 $2.50 1,563,884 $3,909,710
2005 $2.50 1,626,255 $4,065,637
2006 $2.50 1,720,168 $4,300,420
2007 $2.50 1,613,848 $4,034,620
2008 $2.50 1,524,370 $3,810,925
2009 $2.50 1,381,326 $3,453,315
2010 $2.50 1,320,992 $3,302,480
2011 $2.50 1,248,191 $3,120,477
2012 $2.50 1,297,716 $3,244,290
2013 $2.50 1,373,612 $3,434,030
2014 $2.50 1,431,132 $3,577,830
2015 $2.50 1,568,513 $3,921,282
Total Revenue     $46,789,044

Given that Metro raised all this money for parks, and promised no new taxes before 2016, why did Metro place an operating levy on the ballot in 2013 for parks maintenance (which passed); and why is Metro asking for voter approval of another $80 million parks levy in the upcoming November election? Where did the $46.8 million in garbage tax money go?

The answer can be found in a bait-and-switch ordinance adopted by Metro just a few weeks after the bond measure was referred out to voters in March 2006. The Council amended Metro Code Section 7.01.023 to retain the $2.50/ton excise tax, but “undedicate” its use so that revenues would be swept into the Metro General Fund.

Since 2006, regional taxpayers have paid more than $32 million in garbage taxes that should have gone to parks O&M, but instead went to other purposes.

Instead of owning up to this chicanery and restoring the garbage tax as a dedicated revenue source, Metro officials continue to make the case for a new property tax. In a 2011 publication, Metro claimed, “…the existing financial model is not sustainable. Metro’s portfolio of land continues to grow, while the general fund resources needed to support it are decreasing.”

In a more recent document, Metro asserted, “In Metro’s general fund, which pays for many primary programs and support services, costs continue to rise faster than revenues.”

Both of these claims are false. In 2011 Metro was already taking in more than $3 million annually in garbage tax revenue for parks. By the end of 2015 it was nearly $4 million.

Meanwhile, Metro was swimming in a sea of new revenue. The Metro Auditor found that during the 10-year period of 2003-2013, total annual revenue went up 22% in real terms, while total expenses went up only 16%. Annual revenue per capita for the Metro region went up 7%; expenses per capita increased by only 4%.

Metro Councilors now state that if voters refuse to approve a new tax levy in November, the agency will “have to ramp back pretty much everywhere.”

We’ve heard the scare stories before, but it’s time to call Metro’s bluff. Voters should reject the Metro tax levy (Measure 26-178 on your ballot) and demand that all money from the $2.50/ton garbage tax be rededicated to parks maintenance, as promised 14 years ago.


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

Light Rail to Bridgeport Village: The Dumbest Train Project Yet

By John A. Charles, Jr.

TriMet and Metro are promoting the idea of a new light rail line from Portland State University to the Bridgeport Village shopping mall in Tualatin.

The question is, who would ride it?

We already know from experience that mall shoppers prefer private cars to trains. The Red Line to the airport was opened in 2001 specifically to service the Cascade Station shopping center, which is anchored by IKEA, Target, and Best Buy. Field observations conducted by Cascade Policy Institute in 2010 and again in 2016 showed that more than 98% of all passenger-trips to and from Cascade Station are made in private automobiles. Light rail is simply irrelevant.

The same is true for Gresham Station, another shopping center specifically built around a light rail stop. Regardless of the time-of-day or day-of-week, virtually all trips to and from Gresham Station are made in private vehicles.

The Green MAX line, which terminates at Clackamas Town Center, has also had no effect on travel patterns at the mall.

In order for the Bridgeport Village line to be built, Tigard residents will need to approve the city’s participation in the project by voting for Measure 34-255 in the November election. Local voters should learn from experience and turn down this measure. Light rail through Tigard would be a total waste of money.

Measure 97 and the Mirage of School Funding

— Voters are destined for disappointment

 

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Proponents of Measure 97 have consistently claimed that if the measure passes, it will generate an additional $3 billion annually for public education and other social services. Judging from the comments I’ve read in various Oregon newspapers, many people are falling for this argument.

Apparently none of the letter writers have ever watched a legislative appropriations hearing. These are the meetings where a tiny group of senior politicians sit in a back room and decide how to spend billions of dollars. I’ve watched hundreds of such hearings, and the most predictable outcome is that politicians will spend money in front of them on whatever they want.

Let’s just take a simple example. Oregon was one of 44 states that sued the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s to recover the health care costs associated with smoking. Plaintiffs claimed that the tobacco industry had long been imposing uncompensated costs on states in the form of health care for smokers who became sick from use of the product.

The suit was settled through adoption of a Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) with the four largest tobacco manufacturers. As part of the agreement, each state was to receive payments every year from 1998 through 2025.

According to the plaintiffs, the estimated $25 billion of MSA money was supposed to be used for tobacco prevention activities and health care subsidies necessary to treat smoking illnesses. But that was not a formal part of the agreement. Each state was free to use the funds in whatever way its state legislature approved.

In Oregon, total MSA funds received since 1998 have exceeded $1.26 billion. Almost all of it was spent on programs that had nothing to do with tobacco cessation or public health. Only 0.8 percent was appropriated for tobacco prevention programs.

How could this be? They promised!

Yes, Virginia, they promised. But every two years, 90 legislators show up in Salem, and they each have their own priorities. Once you put a pot of money on the table for them to spend, it’s game over.

Almost no one in the Capitol remembers what the MSA was, and, furthermore, they don’t care. They only care about spending money for the stuff they want right now.

Measure 97 is a horrible tax proposal, for many reasons. It unfairly targets a small subset of all businesses directly, but hits all businesses and all of us indirectly. It taxes sales but not profits. It would be the largest tax increase in Oregon history.

But if voters ignore these concerns and approve it anyway because they think it will increase funding for schools, they are destined for bitter disappointment.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

800px-WES_train

MAX at 30: Portland Transit Needs a New Plan

September 5 marked the official 30th anniversary of the opening of TriMet’s light rail system. Like many Portland residents, I took a free ride that day and felt that this was a big step forward for transit service.

Unfortunately, actual performance never lived up to the hype. My hopes for “high-speed” transit were dashed when I discovered how many stops there were. The average train speed today is only 18 MPH.

My expectation that MAX would include five or six train cars was also incorrect. There are only two cars per train on MAX, and there will never be more than two cars because Portland has 200-foot blocks in downtown. Longer trains would block busy intersections.

The cost of construction also spiraled out of control. The Orange line to Milwaukie cost $210 million per mile, making it hundreds of times more costly than simple bus improvements.

In short, MAX is a low-speed, low-capacity, high-cost system, when what we really need is just the opposite—a higher-speed, higher-capacity, low-cost system.

Regional leaders should pull the plug on any more rail and start focusing on the future of transit, which will feature driverless vehicles, door-to-door delivery, and private car-sharing services such as Uber Technologies.

The passenger rail era died a hundred years ago. It’s time for Portland to get into the 21st century.

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Repeating Mistakes Is Not a Housing Strategy

The Portland City Council has approved a plan for the Housing Bureau to lease industrial land in North Portland for $10,000 per month, beginning October 7. The site is to be used for the construction of a large homeless shelter that potentially could serve up to 1,400 people. This idea, pushed by developer Homer Williams, was rushed through with virtually no due diligence.

Before additional money is spent, the City Council should carefully analyze what went wrong in two previous construction projects. First was the $58-million Wapato Jail built by Multnomah County in 2004, but never operated. With 525 beds in pristine condition, one would think there is potential for this site to temporarily house at least a few people now living under bridges.

Second, in 2011 Portland opened the $47 million Bud Clark Commons, which includes 130 studio apartments and extensive social services for low-income individuals. It was a nice idea, but the police have been called so often to the Commons that in December 2013, then-Chief Mike Reese told the Portland City Council that he was considering filing a chronic nuisance property complaint against the shelter.

Both structures were built with good intentions, but things did not go as planned. Let’s learn from the past before repeating mistakes in the future.

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Oregon Land Board Low-Balls Elliott Timber with Fixed-Price “Bidding”

Last week the Oregon Department of State Lands announced the “fair market value” of 82,450 acres of Common School Trust Lands within the Elliott State Forest as $220.8 million. The number was picked by Roger Lord of the consulting firm Mason, Bruce & Girard after analyzing three different professional appraisals. Proceeds from the land transfer will go to the Common School Fund and be invested for the long-term benefit of public school students.

At a public meeting held in Salem, the Director of the Department, Jim Paul, reiterated that anyone hoping to acquire the 82,450 acres must offer exactly $220.8 million. Any offer above that will be considered “outside the protocol” and deemed “non-responsive.” This announcement was the latest step in the Land Board’s plan to dispose of the Elliott property in a non-competitive bid process.

The Land Board has invented a “fair market” value of the Elliott timberland without allowing a market to actually function. The price investors are willing to pay might be higher than $220.8 million, or even multiples of that number. Unfortunately, we’ll never know because the Land Board is refusing to take competitive bids. Clearly, this is a breach of fiduciary trust. Public school students, teachers, and parents deserve to get top dollar in this once-in-a-lifetime sale of a public asset.

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Portland Schools Need Radical Change, Not Just a New Superintendent

Portland school superintendent Carole Smith abruptly resigned in July, after nine years on the job. She was originally planning to retire next June, but the release of an independent investigation into the district’s inept handling of contaminated drinking water caused her to speed up her departure.

The school board immediately announced a national search for a successor, and the rest of the story is predictable. After months of searching, finalists will be scrutinized in a detailed public vetting, and someone will be signed to an expensive contract. The new leader will enjoy a short honeymoon and then gradually sink into the bureaucratic quagmire of school politics.

Amidst never-ending arguments about school transfers, graduation rates, and a myriad of other issues, buyer’s remorse will set in. Eventually the superintendent will resign and the process will begin anew.

This is the way we’ve been doing things for decades, usually with disappointing results. We could take a different path. But first we have to admit that if system results are disappointing, we need to change the system, not the people.

Large urban school districts are inherently dysfunctional. Teaching is a distributed service; the learning takes place student by student, classroom by classroom. When measured in terms of students, teachers, money, and facilities, there are millions of moving parts. The notion that a single bureaucrat in the central office can design the optimal system to satisfy all customers is a fantasy.

The system itself needs radical change, and the single most important reform Portland could pursue would be to redesign how the money flows.

Right now, tax dollars go to the district, regardless of results. Students are assigned to schools like factory widgets and few families have other options. The suppliers of service have all the leverage, while consumers have almost none.

A better option would be for the district to seek legislative approval of Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs). The ESA concept is simple: Parents who are dissatisfied with the government school assigned to them can opt to have most or all of the per-student money that would have gone to that school for their children deposited instead in personal accounts managed by the state treasurer. The funds in each account become property of the family and may be used for a variety of educational services, including private education, home schools, online learning, and tutoring.

Ideally, any money left over at the end of a school year would remain in the account, available for future use. This would encourage wise stewardship of those funds. If the account still had money at the time the student graduated from high school, it could be used for college tuition or technical training.

Distributing school funding through consumers rather than providers would instantly change the balance of power. High-cost union contracts would have to change. Parents would need to be satisfied. And market discipline would replace ineffective top-down management.

Most parents would probably not use ESAs. It’s likely they are satisfied with their neighborhood school and wouldn’t want the hassle of shopping around. But the mere fact that they could use an ESA would create incentives for teachers and administrators to behave differently. When suppliers of a service know that 100 percent of their customers have the means to shop elsewhere, they focus on satisfying those customers.

Carole Smith was neither the worst nor the best Portland school superintendent in recent memory; she was just part of the conveyor belt of socialism that defines generic government education. Stopping the conveyor belt would be a good first step toward liberating students and improving educational achievement in Portland.


This article originally appeared in the July 2016 edition of the newsletter, Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.

Elliott Forest Oregon.gov

Oregon Land Board Low-Balls Elliott Timber at $220.8 Million

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.

503-242-0900

john@cascadepolicy.org

 

PORTLAND, Ore. – Today the Oregon Department of State Lands announced the “fair market value” of 82,000 acres of Common School Trust Lands within the Elliott State Forest as $220.8 million.

The number was picked by Roger Lord of the consulting firm Mason, Bruce & Girard after analyzing three professional appraisals which valued the land at $262 million, $225 million, and $190 million, respectively.

All proposed “Elliott Acquisition Plans” are due to the Department of State Lands by 5:00 p.m. November 15, 2016. If there are multiple plans accepted, the Oregon Land Board will choose the winning offer at its December meeting. Proceeds from the land transfer will go to the Common School Fund and be invested for the long-term benefit of public school students.

At a public meeting held in Salem, the Director of the Department, Jim Paul, reiterated that anyone hoping to acquire the 82,000 acres must offer exactly $220.8 million. Any offer above that will be considered “outside the protocol” and deemed “non-responsive.”

Today’s announcement was the latest step in the Land Board’s plan to dispose of the Elliott property in a non-competitive bid process. This prompted Cascade Policy Institute President John A. Charles, Jr. to make the following statement:

“The Land Board has invented a ‘fair market’ value of the Elliott timberland without allowing a market to actually function. The price investors are willing to pay might be the $262 million appraisal, or it could be multiples of that number. Unfortunately, we’ll never know because the Land Board is refusing to take competitive bids. Clearly this is a breach of fiduciary trust. Public school students, teachers and parents deserve to get top dollar in this once-in-a-lifetime sale of a public asset.”

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and educational organization that focuses on state and local issues in Oregon. Cascade’s mission is to develop and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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