Testimony Before the House Committee on Revenue in Opposition to Tobacco and Inhalant Nicotine Tax Bills

To: Chair Barnhart and members of the House Committee on Revenue

From: Steve Buckstein, Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland-based non-partisan, non-profit public policy research organization

Re: Tobacco taxes and inhalant nicotine taxes proposed in
HB 2037, HB 2056, HB 2062, HB 2084, HB 2119, HB 2662, and HB 3178

Why the state should not depend on increased sin taxes

  • Oregon’s addiction to tobacco/nicotine revenues will only grow if we become more dependent on them to fund new or existing programs.
  • Taxes on alcohol and tobacco are frequently justified as a means of discouraging “unhealthy” behavior. But this objective quickly gives way to a different one: raising revenue. This creates a “moral hazard” problem: sin taxes cannot simultaneously both discourage consumption and raise more revenue. For one to succeed, the other must fail.
  • As cigarette smoking continues to decline, tobacco taxes will continue to shrink, punching one more hole in future state budgets.

The regressivity of Sin Taxes

Paying for any state programs by taxing smokers may make some program recipients better off, but it will also make smokers and their families worse off.  As you may know:

  • Cigarette smoking adults are more likely to be uninsured than non-smoking adults.
  • Cigarette smokers are in poorer physical condition than non-smokers.
  • Cigarette smokers generally have lower incomes and less formal education than non-smokers.
  • Cigarette smokers are more likely to be unemployed or unemployable than non-smokers.

Policy option:

Currently, less than eight percent of Oregon tobacco taxes are used for the Tobacco Use Reduction Program. Funding other state programs through cigarette, tobacco and/or nicotine taxes is very regressive, targeting less educated, lower income and sicker Oregonians. If anything, these taxes should be reduced, not increased.

How Legislators Can Balance Oregon’s Budget—Without Raising Taxes

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Despite an eight percent increase in general fund revenues, Governor Kate Brown and some lawmakers say Oregon is facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall in the 2017-19 biennium. Nevertheless, the Governor has released a budget that expands entitlements while raising taxes, fees, and charges by nearly $275 million for the general fund alone.

Expanding programs while increasing taxes is something Oregon could do if it were a rich state. Oregon is not a rich state. Income for the average Oregonian is about nine percent lower than the national average, and the cost of living is 15 percent higher. In other words, the average Oregonian earns less but pays more for basic items than the average American. Oregon legislators and other policymakers must face the reality that the state simply cannot afford costly new or expanded programs.

My analysis published in Facing Reality: Suggestions to Balance Oregon’s Budget Without Raising Taxes (February 2017), by Cascade Policy Institute and Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation, identifies seven straightforward solutions to the state’s current budget crisis for savings of nearly $1.3 billion in the next biennium.* If all the solutions were implemented, none of the tax and fee increases outlined in the Governor’s budget would be necessary.

Governor Brown blames three-fifths of the budget crisis on Oregon’s decision to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Policymakers undertook the expansion with full knowledge that the federal government would be shifting some of the costs of expansion to the state. Janelle Evans, budget director for the Oregon Health Authority, estimates these costs to the state’s general fund will be as much as $360 million in the next biennium. With many portions of the ACA likely to be reformed or replaced by this Congress, Oregon can see immediate budget savings by opting out of the Medicaid expansion now.

The skyrocketing costs of Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System presents the biggest long-run challenge to balancing state and local government budgets. As reported in The Portland Tribune, the impact on the 2017-19 state budget is approximately $500 million because the state funds two-thirds of the operating costs of school districts, which will also be hit with the steep increase in PERS costs. In addition to the higher costs of PERS padded into the agency costs, the Governor’s budget includes a $100 million line item to support the state’s increased PERS costs.

Senate Bill 560 provides a reform that would cap at $100,000 the final average salary used to calculate Tier 1 and Tier 2 retirement benefits. The PERS actuary calculates this reform alone would save the state budget approximately $135 million in the 2017-19 biennium.

Oregon has the 12th highest pay in the U.S. for state employees. The Governor’s budget proposes increasing the state government workforce by 675 full-time-equivalent employees. This expansion of the public sector workforce would cost the state more than $120 million in additional compensation costs for the 2017-19 biennium. A halt on adding more state employees during this biennium would free up resources and ward off some of the pressure to increase taxes, fees, and charges.

In addition to these items, Oregon can face its budget reality by adopting targeted reductions already identified by the Department of Human Services, reforming the state’s cash assistance programs, saying “no” to the Governor’s wish to expand Medicaid to those who are not “legally present” in the state, and saying “no” to Measure 98’s unfunded high school education spending mandate.

State tax revenues are approaching all-time highs. Nevertheless, the state must face the budget reality that Oregonians do not have the resources to support ever-expanding spending programs that outpace our ability to pay for them.

 

* Solution Impact
Medicaid—opt out of ACA expansion $360 million
Cover All Kids—reject expansion $55 million
PERS—$100,000 cap $135 million
Department of Administrative Services—halt additional hiring $120 million
Department of Human Services—targeted reductions $321 million
Department of Human Services—cash assistance reforms $160 million
State School Fund—reject Measure 98 $139 million
Total $1,290 million

 


Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is an Oregon-based economist and adjunct professor at Portland State University. Fruits has been invited to provide analysis to the Oregon Legislature regarding the state’s tax and spending policies. His testimony regarding the economics of the Oregon public employee pension reforms was heard by a special session of the Oregon Supreme Court. A version of this article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune on February 23, 2017.

Land Board Votes to Sell Elliott State Forest

By John A. Charles, Jr. 

On February 14 the Oregon State Land Board – comprised of Governor Kate Brown, Treasurer Tobias Read, and Secretary of State Dennis Richardson – voted 2-1 to sell 82,450 acres of the Elliott State Forest to a consortium of private parties led by Lone Rock Timber Management Company. The agreed-upon sale price is $220.8 million; and the net proceeds will be placed in the Oregon Common School Fund (CSF), an endowment for public schools.

This parcel is a small part of the Oregon Common School Trust Land portfolio of 1.5 million acres of lands that must be managed by the Land Board to maximize revenue over the long term for the benefit of public schools.

For many years the Elliott was a money-maker, but environmental litigation steadily reduced timber harvesting to a trickle. For the last three years the Elliott has actually lost money, which prompted the Board in August 2015 to vote unanimously to sell the Elliott and put the proceeds into alternative investments.

As a long-time Board member, Gov. Kate Brown repeatedly voted to sell the forest, but in December 2016 she changed her mind and announced her intent to use state bonding capacity to buy a portion of the Elliott and keep it in public ownership. Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins agreed with her conceptually, but no formal vote was taken and both of them have since left the Board.

At the meeting earlier this week, Gov. Brown made a motion to terminate any further negotiations to sell the forest, despite the fact that Lone Rock and its partners had spent at least $500,000 putting together a good-faith offer in response to the Land Board’s sale protocol. Her motion never received a second.

New Treasurer Tobias Read indicated that he was uncomfortable walking away from the offer at the last minute, and that the legal doctrine of “undivided loyalty” to Common School Fund beneficiaries – public schools – compelled him to sell the money-losing forest. Secretary of State Dennis Richardson concurred and the Governor was out-voted.

Cascade Policy Institute has been urging the Land Board to sell the Elliott since 1996, when the forest was valued at roughly $800 million. It was evident to us that over the next several decades, environmental lawyers would treat the Elliott like a legal piñata and file continuous lawsuits to prevent timber harvesting. That is exactly what happened, turning this vibrant forest into a net liability by 2013.

Cascade published a number of technical papers demonstrating that over virtually any time period and under any reasonable set of assumptions, Oregon schools would be better off if the Board simply sold the forest and put the net proceeds into stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments. These papers were ignored by multiple generations of Land Board members, including John Kitzhaber, Ted Kulongoski, Jim Hill, Phil Keisling, Randall Edwards, and Kate Brown.

Many editorial writers are urging the Land Board to “hit the pause button” on this sale, but the fact is the Board has been “pausing” since at least 1995. As timber harvest receipts steadily declined over the next several decades, Oregon wasted more than $3 million trying to negotiate a so-called “Habitat Conservation Plan” with the federal government that would shield Oregon from further litigation. Such an agreement was never reached.

In a report paid for by the Department of State Lands in 2015, experts found that the failure to sell the Elliott in 1995 – as recommended by a Department of Forestry consultant – had cost public schools $1.4 billion in lost earnings over a 20-year period.

Gov. Brown’s last-minute effort to buy back timberland the public already owns was poorly thought out. Most of the media observers – who tend to favor public ownership – have apparently overlooked the fact that any revenue bonds sold by Oregon would have to be paid off by profits generated on-site. Since the Elliott has been steadily losing money under public management, it’s unlikely that anyone would even buy such bonds.

Although selling the Elliott was the right thing to do, we will never know if the public received fair market value because the Land Board refused to take competitive bids. In 2016 the Board established a price of $220.8 million based on multiple appraisals, and no one was allowed to offer a higher amount. Clearly, this was a bizarre way to sell a valuable asset and demonstrates how Kate Brown, Ted Wheeler, and Jeanne Atkins consistently abdicated their fiduciary responsibilities in favor of a political agenda to retain public ownership.

Treasurer Read and Secretary Richardson deserve credit for moving forward with the sale. Neither of them wanted to do it, but they understand that they have an obligation to current and future public school students to add value to the Common School Fund.


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

“Facing Reality” Report Offers Solutions to Governor Brown’s $1.7 Billion Budget Hole Without Raising Taxes

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contacts:

Steve Buckstein (503) 242-0900

Jeff Kropf (541) 729-6229

PORTLAND, Ore. – Cascade Policy Institute and Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation jointly released a new report Wednesday, entitled Facing Reality: Suggestions to balance Oregon’s budget without raising taxes. The report offers practical solutions to fill Governor Kate Brown’s estimated $1.7 billion budget hole without raising taxes.

Facing Reality is the third budget blueprint in a series: In 2010 and 2013 Cascade Policy Institute and Americans for Prosperity-Oregon published Facing Reality reports that offered state legislators an opportunity to “reset” state government using the time-tested principles of limited government and pro-growth economic policies.

“Oregon has over one billion dollars more to spend than the last budget but is still nearly two billion short because Governor Brown’s budget continues out-of-control and unsustainable spending,” said Jeff Kropf, Executive Director of Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation. “It’s time to face the reality that raising taxes will never provide enough money to build the fantasy utopia envisioned by the Governor and current legislative leadership. There is no free lunch, and new taxes are only going to hurt the poor and the middle class.”

Facing Reality outlines $1.3 billion in reduced spending in seven specific areas which, coupled with small across-the-board agency reductions, equals $1.7 billion, enough to fill the Governor’s estimated budget hole and removing the need to raise taxes.

“Keep in mind that even with our Facing Reality budget reductions, the state of Oregon will still be spending more money than the previous budget,” said Steve Buckstein, Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute. “The reality the Governor and the legislature must face is that the bill for years of overspending is coming due, and raising taxes that hurt the economy is not the answer. Reducing how fast spending grows is the sustainable way forward.”

This third Facing Reality report offers politically possible solutions to meet the needs of Oregonians. It still gives most state agencies more money to spend, but without enacting new taxes being proposed by the several dozen tax increase bills introduced for consideration in the 2017 legislative session.

Here are the seven specific budget reductions proposed in Facing Reality:

Solution Impact
PERS—$100,000 cap $135 million
Department of Administrative Services—halt additional hiring $120 million
Medicaid—opt out of ACA expansion $360 million
Cover All Kids—reject expansion $55 million
Department of Human Services—targeted reductions $321 million
Department of Human Services—cash assistance reforms $160 million
State School Fund—reject Measure 98 $139 million
Total $1,290 million

For agencies not identified for specific reductions in the report, across-the-board reductions of about three percent from Governor Brown’s budget would eliminate the shortfall she identified. If this plan were implemented, none of the tax and fee increases outlined in the Governor’s budget would be necessary.

Buckstein and Kropf note, “Most Oregonians must face their own family budget realities every day. Facing Reality is a good-faith effort to hold our state government to the same budgetary realities. We look forward to working with state legislative and executive branch leaders to help implement such realities in 2017.”

Read the full report here: Facing Reality: Suggestions to balance Oregon’s budget without raising taxes

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.  Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation is a 501(c)3 charitable educational foundation dedicated to educating Oregon citizens about how state and local governments spend their tax dollars by researching, documenting, and publicizing government spending and developing policy proposals that promote sound fiscal policies and efficient government.

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Limiting Government: A Goal That’s Always Worthwhile

By Lydia White

As inauguration weekend unfolded, Republicans cheered with a gasp of relief, Democrats protested, and many broke down into tears and even violence.

The extremity of responses from people across the political spectrum reveals a troubling aspect of contemporary politics: Many are terrified the “wrong” party will come into the federal government’s vast powers.

If Americans feel their livelihood depends on one election cycle, the scope of government is far too big.

Since the 1990s, each party held control of the White House and both chambers of Congress for four years. Under their leadership, Republicans ballooned public debt by 32%, Democrats by 45%.

Every new administration, whether Republican or Democratic, brings more spending and less freedom. Yet, for some reason, Americans find this acceptable as long as the spending is on their party’s preferred programs, compensating for the other party’s inane spending. This never-ending cycle sets precedent for every subsequent administration to retaliate and further mushroom public debt.

Instead of continuing this trend of ever-growing government, self-declared limited-government advocates should live by their principles and scale back bureaucracy across the board.

Should they be tempted to engorge themselves by forcing “favorable” big government policies through Congress, conservatives must be ready to face the consequences. The powers amassed may very well land into the “wrong” hands yet again.


Lydia White is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Testimony Before the Oregon State Land Board on the Sale of State Trust Lands

Cascade Policy Institute President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. presented a version of this testimony before the Oregon State Land Board on December 13, 2016.


Re: December 13 SLB hearing on the possible sale of the Elliott State Forest

Dear Land Board members:

I am writing in advance of the December 13 Land Board hearing to summarize my testimony.

First, you were correct in deciding last year that a sale of the trust lands was necessary to fulfill your fiduciary responsibilities to the Common School Fund (CSF) beneficiaries. The continued requests from public land advocates to retain ownership should be ignored.

Unfortunately, your sale protocol is fatally flawed, for two reasons: (1) the four unnecessary “public benefits” requirements inherently devalue the asset; and (2) you are prohibiting competitive bids. Both of these elements ensure that you will not be able to get the best possible offer for the transfer, which you are required to do as fiduciaries.

Any sale should be made through a straight up, no-string-attached auction of the property. That is the only way you can determine fair market value.

To illustrate how much money you are leaving on the table, we’ve done two sets of calculations. In one scenario, we took the difference between the “official” price tag of $220.8 million and the high appraisal of $262 million ($41.2 million), and calculated the value of that over 50 and 100 year periods.

In another scenario, we assumed that the Land Board took the “maximum revenue” approach by dispensing with appraisals and simply selling the Elliott via competitive bid with no public benefit requirements. For this scenario we picked $350 million as a conservative value for what the winning bid might be, then subtracted the official price of $220.8 and used the difference ($129.2 million) as the starting point.

We used two different assumptions about future return rates – the first being the 7.5% used by Oregon PERS, and the second a more conservative rate of 6.0%. The projections are below.

Elliott State Forest sale

Investment projections of net proceeds under various assumptions

Difference between high appraisal and sale price: $41.2 M
Interest rate 7.5% 7.5% 6.0% 6.0%
Time period 100 years 50 years 100 years 50 years
Present value $41,200,000 $41,200,000 $41,200,000 $41,200,000
Future value $56,982,781,049 $1,532,217,537 $13,979,245,841 $758,910,356
Difference between market price and sale price: $129.2M 7.5% 7.5% 6.0% 6.0%
Time period 100 years 50 years 100 years 50 years
Present value $129,200,000 $129,200,000 $129,200,000 $129,200,000
Future value $178,693,575,522 $4,804,915,187 $43,837,829,190 $2,379,883,932

Notice the stunning difference in earnings between the first 50 years and the second 50 years. This is, of course, the miracle of compounding. The refusal of the Land Board to sell off this land in a traditional auction will likely cost public school students somewhere between $44 billion and $179 billion in lost earnings by 2117, and much more in the centuries beyond that. 

You have a fiduciary responsibility to the CSF beneficiaries to get the best possible price for the timberland. That can only come through a traditional auction. I urge you to set aside the one offer in front of you and direct the DSL staff to design a new, competitive bid sale protocol to be implemented during 2017.

Sincerely,

John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO

Cascade Policy Institute

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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Failed Promises: Why the Legislature Should Reject TriMet’s Request for New Spending Authority

TriMet is currently seeking new spending authority in SB 1510 to help finance regional “multi-modal” transportation projects. Legislators should deny this request based on previous experience with TriMet commitments.

To refresh the memory: during the 2003 session, TriMet sought approval to increase the payroll tax rate by one-tenth of a percent. According to TriMet’s then-General Manager,

“TriMet’s proposed payroll tax increase will be used exclusively to provide new or enhanced transit service. This will include assisting in the operation of Washington County Commuter Rail, Clackamas County light rail, Lake Oswego Streetcar, a substantial increase in Frequent Service routes, and enhanced local connections to these lines.”[1]

The rate increase was approved, and was phased in over a 10-year period.

During the 2009 legislative session, TriMet sought an additional rate increase. The legislature again approved the request. The TriMet board approved the first of 10 planned rate increases last September, and the new rate of 0.7337% went into effect on January 1, 2016.

Let’s look at the results. After a decade of tax increases, it’s clear that there is no correlation between increased TriMet revenue and actual levels of service: 

TriMet Financial Resource Trends for Operations, 2004-2015

 (000s)

CLICK HERE TO VIEW TABLE IN PDF 

2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 % change
Passenger fares $55,665 $68,464 $80,818 $93,729 $102,240 $114,618 $116,734 +110%
Tax revenue $155,705 $192,450 $215,133 $208,933 $248,384 $275,357 $292,077 +88%
Total operations $290,513 $342,274 $404,481 $433,609 $488,360 $522,155 $493,572 +70%

 

In fact, there is negative correlation – as TriMet’s revenue went up over the course of a decade, actual service went down: 

Annual Fixed Route Service and Ridership Trends for TriMet

2004-2015

CLICK HERE TO VIEW TABLE IN PDF 

2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 % change
 
Hours of service 1,698,492 1,653,180 1,712,724 1,682,180 1,561,242 1,608,090 1,676,826 -1.3%
Miles of service 27,548,927 26,830,124 26,448,873 25,781,480 23,625,960 23,763,420 24,248,910 -12%
Originating rides 71,284,800 74,947,200 77,582,400 77,769,119 80,042,810 75,779,560 77,260,430 +8.4%

 Note: The term “originating rides” excludes transfers.

Source: TriMet, http://www.trimet.org/pdfs/publications/trimetridership.pdf 

There is a slight correlation between revenue and transit use, as total originating rides went up 8% while operating revenue went up 70%. However, ridership peaked in 2012 and has dropped by 3.5% since then.

TriMet claims that the 2003 promise of “enhanced service” was met because many new rail lines were built. But to the 66% of TriMet riders who travel by bus and saw their service drop by 12%, shiny new rail lines were of little consolation.

TriMet now wants to expand its reach through SB 1510 so as to spend new funds for “multi-modal” projects. We suggest a simple response: unless and until TriMet transit service returns to at least 2004 levels, no additional spending authority should be granted.

[1] Fred Hansen, testimony before the Senate Revenue Committee on SB 549, March 11, 2003, p. 3.


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

Cascade in the Capitol: Testimony for the House Education Committee Against SB 1538 which would limit new charter school options

February 19, 2014

Testimony Against SB 1538 Before the Oregon House Education Committee

Chair Gelser and members of the Committee, my name is Steve Buckstein. I’m Senior Policy Analyst and founder of Cascade Policy Institute based in Portland.

I would like you to reject SB 1538.

Interestingly, the Senate has overwhelmingly approved SB 1525, which would make it easier for Oregon college students to take online courses from institutions outside the state. The chair of the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee noted how fascinating it was that the proposal would break down borders standing in the way of Oregonians having more higher education learning opportunities. That seems non-controversial and clearly a good thing.

Unfortunately, by a much closer margin, the Senate also approved SB 1538, which does the exact opposite of SB 1525. It actually builds up borders that will stand between Oregon’s Kindergarten through 12th grade students and new public charter school options that might offer the very educational opportunities they want and need.

Several years ago I was watching a Portland Public Schools Board Meeting where several charter applicants were making their cases to the board.

One group wanted to start a school with, what I recall, was a particular arts curriculum. They’d jumped through all the hoops required of a charter applicant, but when the board members began commenting, it became clear that the applicant stood no chance of approval.

One board member looked at the applicants, and at the audience, and stated, “We already have one of those.”

She went on to explain that the district already had a school with a similar curriculum focus, and therefore they obviously didn’t need any more. How she knew that there was no more demand among parents and students for such a focus was unclear.

They already had one of those, so that ended the discussion.

This bill would make it even easier for Portland and other districts to write off competent, innovative charter applicants by simply stating that their schools wouldn’t advance one or more educational goals that the board had identified.

We already have one of those” would become… “We don’t need even one of those.”

This bill would stifle innovation, and stifle opportunities for students currently “captured” by their local public schools to find any way out…to find a better fit for their educational needs.

I hope you reject it.

Cascade in the Capitol – Testimony Against Placing Limitations on New Charter Schools (SB 1538)

February 6, 2014

Testimony Against SB 1538 before the Oregon Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee
By Steve Buckstein

Chair Hass and members of the committee, my name is Steve Buckstein. I’m the Senior Policy Analyst and founder of Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland-based free-market think tank.

I’m here to ask you to reject SB 1538.

Chair Hass, the committee just approved SB 1525, which would make it easier for Oregon college students to take online courses from institutions outside the state of Oregon. You noted how fascinating it was that the proposal would break down borders standing in the way of Oregonians having more higher education learning opportunities. That seems non-controversial, and clearly a good thing.

Unfortunately, if you approve the bill we’re discussing now, SB 1538, you’ll be doing the exact opposite. You’ll be building up borders that will stand between Oregon’s Kindergarten through 12th grade students and new public charter school options that might offer the very educational opportunities they want and need.

A few years ago I was watching a Portland Public Schools board meeting where several charter applicants were making their cases to the board. One group wanted to start a school with, what I recall, was a particular arts focus. They’d jumped through all the hoops required of a charter applicant, but when the board members began commenting it became clear that the applicants stood no chance of approval.

One board member looked at the applicants, and at the audience, and stated, “We already have one of those.” She went on to explain that the district already had a school with a similar curriculum focus, implying that obviously they therefore didn’t need any more such schools. One was enough.

SB 1538, brought to you by the current Portland Public School Board, would make it even easier for Portland and other districts to write off competent, innovative charter applicants by simply stating that their proposed schools wouldn’t advance one or more educational goals that the board had identified.

Back when I was about to graduate from a Portland elementary school, I considered attending Benson Polytechnic High School. It was the one Portland public school with an emphasis on technical education, and it seemed to always have a waiting list to get in. I wondered then why the district never opened another Benson type school to meet the obvious need.

Why was “We already have one of those” the mindset then, and why is it the mindset still?

I now believe it’s because board members and administrators don’t have to be concerned about the needs of most students, because most students and their parents don’t have the means to exercise other options, such as moving near a school that better meets their needs, or paying taxes for the public school system and tuition for a private school at the same time.

If SB 1538 becomes law, this mindset of “We already have one of those” could easily morph into “We don’t need even one of those.”

This bill would stifle innovation, and stifle opportunities for students currently “captured”* by their local public schools to find any way out…to find a better fit for their educational needs.

I hope you reject it.


SB 1538 was approved on a 4 to 1 vote in the Committee and will go to the Senate floor for a vote.

Archived audio of the entire February 6, 2014 hearing is here, beginning with the hearing on SB 1525. Senator Hass’s comment about breaking down borders beginning at 08:19 into that hearing. The hearing on SB 1538 begins at 17:20, with public testimony for and against the bill. My oral testimony begins at 51:04.

* Public school districts often try to maintain or increase the percentage of eligible students living within each school’s particular geographic boundaries. This percentage is openly referred to by district officials as the “capture rate.” Anything that could reduce the capture rate of a given district school, such as creation of a new charter school, is seen by those officials as a potential threat to their capture rate goals.

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