Education Savings Accounts Can Help Students Without Hurting Public Schools

By Steve Buckstein

School choice programs allow students to choose schools or other educational resources and pay for them with a portion of the tax funding that otherwise would go to the public school assigned to them by their ZIP code.

While school choice is popular with large segments of the public, opponents often claim specific programs like vouchers or Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) drain funds from the public school system, and so must be rejected.

What opponents overlook is that public funding for K-12 education should actually help educate students, not simply fund specific schools whether or not they meet specific student needs.

The latest and most versatile school choice programs sweeping the country are Education Savings Accounts. ESAs deposit a percentage of the funds that the state otherwise would spend to educate a student in a public school into accounts associated with the student’s family. The family may use the funds for private school tuition or other approved educational expenses such as online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses, and other customized learning services and materials. Funds remaining in the account each year after expenses may be “rolled over” for use in subsequent years, even into college.

Here in Oregon, this school choice debate will center upon the latest proposal to offer all K-12 students many more educational options: a universal Education Savings Account program contained in Senate Bill 437. SB 437 is also known as the Educational Opportunity Act: The Power of Choice.

So, will this bill drain funds from public schools, or will it leave them harmless while allowing many students to make different choices? The answers depend on several assumptions which have now been evaluated in a new review and evaluation of a universal ESA program for Oregon.

The amount of the ESA deposits is the biggest driver of fiscal impacts. As introduced, SB 437 would provide participating students with disabilities and in low-income households $8,781 per year (current state funding) in their ESAs. All other participating students would receive $7,903 (90% of current state funding).

As Introduced, based on the assumptions below, the Fiscal Impact on the state and local school districts could be in the range of $200 million annually based on the following assumptions:

■ 90 percent of 61,000 students currently enrolled in non-public education would participate in the program.
■ Seven percent of 563,000 students currently enrolled in public schools would participate.

Based on these assumptions, the program has a fiscal “break even” for state and local school districts combined at an ESA annual amount of $6,000 for each participating student with disabilities and/or in a low-income household and $4,500 for all other students. These are the dollar amounts proposed in the -1 Amendment to the bill.

The Figure below shows the net fiscal impact on state and local budgets across a range of ESA amounts, again based on the assumptions above. 

If fiscal impact were the only measure by which to evaluate this ESA program, the Figure shows that the program is “optimized” at an amount of $3,000 for each participating student with disabilities and/or in a low-income household and $2,250 for all other students. Once fully implemented, the program would save state and local governments $53 million a year.

Figure:

ESA_FIGURE

Of course, fiscal impact is not and should not be the primary measure of this or any well-designed school choice program; but it is a political reality that such a program should not impose a fiscal burden on the state at a time that all budgets are under pressure.

The primary measure of this ESA program should be that it offers Oregon families as much choice as possible in how their children take advantage of educational opportunities funded by the state.

The full report, Education Savings Accounts: Review and Evaluation of a Universal ESA in Oregon, can be found online here.


Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder 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.

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.

Oregon Leaders Must Reject ACA’s Medicaid Expansion

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Despite an eight percent increase in general fund revenues, Governor Kate Brown and some lawmakers say the State of Oregon is facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall in the 2017-19 biennium. In her inaugural address, the governor blames more than $1 billion of the shortfall on the state’s choice to expand Medicaid and other taxpayer-funded insurance. The Census Bureau estimates that about one in four Oregonians are in the state’s Medicaid program.

In addition to the expansion provided by the Affordable Care Act, the governor seeks new state money to expand single-payer public insurance to those who are not “lawfully present” in the United States, under a program called Cover All Kids.

Although the federal government pays a large portion of the costs of Medicaid expansion, the state’s share of the costs is growing under the ACA. The huge costs of Medicaid mean even a small increase in Oregon’s share has big impacts on the state’s budget. State Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, incoming co-chair of the Ways and Means Committee for Human Services indicates that about one-third of the deficit at the Oregon Health Authority comes from what she called a “minuscule” reduction in the federal match. This deficit is certain to grow as federal support for expansion shrinks over time, as outlined in the ACA.

The state has massively underestimated the costs of Medicaid expansion in Oregon. A 2013 report prepared for the state estimated that the Medicaid expansion would cost Oregon’s general fund $217 million in the upcoming 2017-19 biennium. Janelle Evans, budget director for the Oregon Health Authority, now estimates a cost to the state’s general fund of at least $353 million. For the federal government, the cost of Oregon’s Medicaid expansion will cost more than $3.5 billion over the next two years.

Oregon simply cannot afford the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and Governor Brown’s expensive new entitlement. Nationally, expansion costs and enrollment have grown much faster than projected. Previous expansions of the Medicaid program have resulted in crowding out, the process by which taxpayer funded Medicaid replaces private health insurance. These earlier expansions have seen crowd-out rates ranging from 15 percent to 50 percent, depending on the type of expansion. Not only does the expansion crowd out private insurance, government spending on the expansion crowds out funding for other state and national priorities, such as education, infrastructure, and defense.

In Congress, repeal of much of the ACA is imminent. Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is working on a timeline for repealing major provisions of the health care law, including the expansion of Medicaid. In the absence of repeal, Congress should consider an enrollment freeze approach. A freeze would halt new enrollment while allowing current enrollees to stay in the program until their incomes climb above eligibility limits. It would be an intermediate step towards repeal with immediate benefits for taxpayers and current enrollees.

However repeal of the ACA rolls out, Oregon’s congressional delegation should be at the forefront of ending the Medicaid expansion as soon as possible. While Congress works through the details, Oregon can take steps in the upcoming legislative session to protect the state’s fragile finances. One first step would be to opt out of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and reject Governor Brown’s proposal to expand coverage even further. As noted in the governor’s inaugural address, the state’s choice to expand Medicaid is the single largest source of the impending budget deficit. Rejecting the health care law’s expansion is the clearest path to fiscal solvency and financial responsibility.


Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is president and chief economist at Economics International Corp., an Oregon based consulting firm specializing in economics, finance, and statistics. He is also an adjunct professor of economics at Portland State University, an Academic Advisor to Cascade Policy Institute, and author of Cascade’s report, The Oregon Health Plan: A “Bold Experiment” That FailedThis article originally appeared in The Oregonian on January 27, 2017.

The Past, Present, and Future of School Choice in Oregon

By Steve Buckstein

The vast majority of Oregonians attended public schools assigned to them based on their ZIP codes. Yet, everyone has friends or relatives who made different choices such as private, religious, and home schooling.

Few know, however, that these other choices were almost eliminated in the 1920s. Bigotry was strong across America then, and not only against Blacks. The Ku Klux Klan and others placed a measure on Oregon’s 1922 ballot that would have required children to attend only schools run by the government. The Oregon Compulsory Education Act was defended as “a “precautionary measure against the moral pestilence of paupers, vagabonds, and possibly convicts.”

Approved by a narrow margin, the measure was challenged and overturned by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1925. In its ruling the Court said “the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

So, while choices other than public schools remained available, most families have been unable to afford public school taxes and private school tuition at the same time. This reality caused a small group, including myself, to place a citizen initiative on Oregon’s ballot in 1990. Measure 11 would have provided refundable tax credits to every K-12 student in the state, which they could use to attend any public, private, religious, or home school of their choice. No state had voted on such a sweeping reform before, and we felt it was time for Oregon to lead the way.

On election night that November we came up short, with only about one third of the vote. That didn’t surprise us, because school choice was a new concept to most people, and it was easy for our opponents to scare voters into saying No. Before the votes had even been tallied, we began thinking about how we could move our school choice agenda forward in the future. We decided that Oregon needed a free-market think tank to advocate for school choice as well as other limited government ideas. We incorporated Cascade Policy Institute two months later. In the 25 years that have now passed some significant progress on the school choice front has been made.

We worked hard to introduce the charter school concept in the state in the mid-1990s. By 1999 the Oregon legislature passed a charter school bill that now allows more than 120 public charter schools to operate across the state.

Also in 1999 we evolved from just talking about school choice to actually providing choice to hundreds of low-income kids in the Portland area through our Children’s Scholarship Fund program. We initially raised $1 million of private money that was matched by $1 million nationally to provide partial scholarships to over 500 students for four years at the schools of their choice. The fact that over 6,600 children applied for those 500 slots demonstrated that the demand for school choice is great in Oregon. We can’t help them all, so we continue to advocate for broader programs that will.

In 2011 three school choice bills passed as part of an education reform package, including expansion of online charter schools, more options to sponsor new charter schools, and open enrollment between public school districts.

Over these past twenty five years Cascade and others have brought a number of national speakers to the state talking about the benefits of school choice elsewhere, including some 61 privately or publicly funded scholarship programs, charter schools, education tax credits, vouchers, and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

In 2014, Cascade proposed a limited Education Savings Account bill to help disabled, foster, and low-income children. ESAs allow students to take some or all of the money the state would spend on them in a public school and put it on a restricted use debit card. They can fund a wide variety of approved educational options, such as private school, individual tutoring, and distance learning. Any money not used in a given year can be rolled over to spend on educational expenses in the future, even into college.

Earlier tax credit and voucher programs are now seen as the rotary-dial telephones of the school choice movement. ESAs, with their expansive array of options and their ability to hold costs down as students plan and save for the future are seen as the smartphones of the movement— smartphones with virtually unlimited apps to help children learn in their own unique ways.

This year, Cascade is promoting a broad ESA proposal in the Oregon legislature. Senate Bill 437, and other bills that may emerge, are designed to enhance school choice for everyone. In the future, our mission—and yours if you choose to accept it—will be to help our fellow Oregonians understand and support what many now call the new civil rights issue in America: the right of every child, no matter where they live or their parents’ financial means, to reach their own potential by making their own educational choices affordable. Until this right is achieved, too many children will remain trapped in schools assigned to them by their ZIP code that fail to meet their needs.

We won’t stop advocating for school choice until every child has the real choices they deserve. We appreciate the help of everyone who shares this vision. It can’t become a reality too soon.


Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. 

An Oregon Education Solution Whose Time Has Come

By Kathryn Hickok

Derrell Bradford has spent his adult life passionately advocating for education reform through parental choice. Derrell grew up in southwest Baltimore and received a scholarship to a private high school. Better than anyone, he knows the power of educational choice to unleash a child’s potential.

“A scholarship is not a five-year plan or a power point…,” Derrell explained recently. “It’s a ticket to the future, granted today, for a child trying to shape his or her own destiny in the here and now….”

Choices in education are widespread in America, unless you are poor. Affluent families can move to different neighborhoods, send their children to private schools, and supplement schooling with enrichment opportunities. Lower- and middle-income families, however, are too often trapped with one option: a school in need of improvement assigned to them based on their home addresses. Families deserve better.

January 22-28 is National School Choice Week, the world’s largest celebration of parental choice and effective educational options for all children.

Students have different talents and needs and learn in different ways. The landscape of options to meet those needs is more diverse today than ever. These options include traditional public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.

Oregon’s 2012 “Mother of the Year” and parental choice activist Bobbie Jager says, “The word ‘choice’ in our home means, ‘of high quality and carefully selected,’ as our children’s education and schools should be. As parents, we need to be able to make these choices for each of our children.”

It’s time Oregon took a serious look at the diversity of options parents now have in 61 school choice programs across the country, including privately or publicly funded scholarship programs, charter schools, education tax credits, vouchers, and Education Savings Accounts.

Parents—not public school bureaucracies—should be in the educational “driver’s seat.” To really empower Oregon families, the Legislature should enact Senate Bill 437 during this year’s upcoming legislative session. This law would give parents who want to opt out of a public school that is not meeting their child’s needs a portion of the per-student state funding for spending on their child’s education in other ways. With this “Education Savings Account” (analogous to a debit card for qualifying education expenses), parents can choose the schools or services that will meet their children’s learning needs.

Oregon has a history of bold experimentation in other policy areas. It’s time to expand the role of parents choosing―and the market delivering―better education for Oregon’s children through educational choice, because every child deserves a ticket to a better future right now. Parental choice is the way of the future, and Education Savings Accounts for Oregon parents are a life-changing education solution whose time has come.


Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in The Coos Bay World on January 23, 2017.

Surprise! Renewable Energy Mandates Are Actually Fossil Fuel Mandates

By John A. Charles, Jr. and Lydia White

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are objecting to PGE’s plan for new, natural gas-powered generation to help replace the electrical output that will be lost when PGE shuts down the Boardman coal plant in 2020. What these groups should admit is that they are the ones responsible for that decision.

Last March, the Oregon legislature adopted the Oregon “Renewable Portfolio Standard” (RPS), which requires PGE to procure 50% of its retail load from designated renewable energy sources by 2040. This requirement, enacted with few public hearings in the rush of the one-month session, was demanded by environmental groups as a way to burnish the state’s mythical green power credentials.

The RPS is essentially a mandate for more utility-scale wind and solar power. These are known as “intermittent resources” because wind farms don’t generate any power about 68% of the time, while solar goes dead about 71% of the time. Being forced to rely on randomly-failing generators means that utilities must have back-up sources (known as “spinning reserve”) in order to preserve grid reliability.

Electricity cannot be stored like other commodities. As soon as electricity is fed into the grid, it travels at the speed of light through many pathways until it is consumed almost instantaneously by a household, factory, or some other end-user. Supply and demand have to be matched at all times in order to avoid grid failure, or “blackout.”

Right now, wind and solar only account for about 5.69% of Oregon’s electricity supply. As lawmakers keep ratcheting up RPS mandates towards 50%, the need for spinning reserve will go up as well. The only practical fuel is natural gas.

These new gas-fueled plants will be running even when not used, in order to be ready when the windmill blades stop turning or the sun goes down. This will result in wasted fuel and increased air pollution.

If utilities must have spinning reserve, can we predict the need for it? This question was the subject of a paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The researchers found that a 1.0 percentage point increase in the share of fast-reacting fossil generation capacity in a country is associated, on average, with a 0.88 percentage point increase in the long-run share of renewable energy.

In other words: more wind and solar = more fossil fuel use. Oregon legislators rushed through the RPS law so quickly that they forgot about the law of unintended consequences.

PGE and PacifiCorp will both be turning to increased natural gas generation over the next 20 years because they don’t have a choice. Customers want their electricity 100% of the time, not 30% of the time. If environmental groups are offended by the use of more natural gas, they should admit that the 50% RPS requirement was a mistake and ask legislators to repeal it.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Lydia White is a Research Associate at Cascade. This article originally appeared in the Portland Business Journal on January 12, 2017.

Making Youth Unemployment Worse

The unintended negative effects of raising minimum wage rates

By Randall Pozdena and Steve Buckstein

President-elect Donald Trump has nominated the CEO of one of the nation’s largest fast food chains to serve as U.S. Secretary of Labor. The food preparation and serving industry employs almost half of all minimum wage workers. It is thus widely assumed that the nominee would be unfriendly to minimum wage regulation. Efforts such as the union-financed Fight for 15 are seeking to raise the federal minimum wage in the food service industry to $15 per hour—a 52 percent increase over the $9.87 average pay rate in the industry today.

The spotlight has thus returned to the issue of minimum wage regulation, including the impact of recent Oregon legislation. SB 1532, passed in 2016, phases in a $14.75 minimum wage in the Portland metro area, and $13.50 and $12.50 respectively in other metro areas and rural areas, by 2022. The average annual increase over the prior (statewide) minimum wage would be 8.5, 6.6, and 5.0 percent respectively for these three tiers over the 2016-2022 phase-in period. As with the last major reform in 2002, the legislated minimum wages would be adjusted after that time by any increases in the CPI.

To put these events in perspective, Cascade Policy Institute has released a major, new analysis of the history, theory, and empirical impacts of minimum wage regulation. The report focuses on the labor market impacts on youth, aged 16 to 24—the age cohort most likely to be affected as new entrants into the labor force. The study uses data and statistical techniques that, for the first time, allow measurement of how the impact of an increase in the minimum wage evolves over time, not just in the period immediately after the increase. In addition, it allows prediction of the interaction of the minimum wage shock with employment, wages, and labor force participation over time.

The findings have ominous implications for youth labor markets. First, as many studies over the past fifty years have shown, the new study finds that increases in the minimum wage significantly depress youth employment and labor force participation. The share of youth employed falls by 3 percent in just the first six months after a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage, and it falls by 6 percent after a year. Similarly, the share of youth participating in the labor force declines by 4 percent at 6 months and 6 percent at 18 months.

Second, contrary to the claims of minimum wage advocates that higher minimum wages create a cascade of even greater increases, youth wages only rise by the amount of the mandated increase—and then only for those lucky enough to find a minimum wage job. Collectively for all youth, what wage increases occur are more than offset by condemnation of a large share of youth to a zero wage; namely, to unemployment.

Third, the study finds that even a one-time increase in the minimum wage persistently continues to depress the share of youth who are employed. Specifically, statistically significant employment impacts can be expected to cumulate over time for at least five years into the future. Even seemingly innocuous increases in the minimum wage—such as Oregon’s prior 2002 policy of adjusting for the CPI—can significantly depress youth employment. Since the implementation of that adjustment policy fourteen years ago, the previous 56 percent share of youth employed has fallen to just 46 percent, an 18 percent decline. Thus, it appears that inflexible, automatic CPI indexing is inferior to letting markets set youth wage rates.

Oregon’s newest policy of legislating different minimum wage levels among metro and designated rural markets is, ironically, a concession to the reality that unregulated private market forces better balance the supply and demand for youth labor. Since the state imposed higher-than-market levels of wages nonetheless, the new study uses its findings to estimate the impact on the three tiers’ respective youth labor markets.

Although detailed, localized youth employment data for Oregon does not exist, application of the nationally estimated behavior measures can be used to estimate regional tier impacts. This analysis suggests that Portland metro area youth will suffer the most, with the share of employed youth falling by 30 percent by 2022. Youth in the state’s other metro areas will see a 20 percent decline, and youth in designated rural areas of Oregon will see a 15 percent decline.

Even though a three-tiered minimum wage is an attempt to accommodate real economic differences between urban and rural areas, Oregon has made a public policy mistake that predictably will be paid for by many of the state’s youngest current and soon-to-be potential members of the youth labor force.


Randall Pozdena is President of QuantEcon, Inc., an Oregon-based consultancy. He received his BA in Economics from Dartmouth College and his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Cascade Policy Institute’s new analysis, Minimum Wage: Its Role in the Youth Employment Crisis. Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Portland’s Regional Transit Strategy Is Not Working

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Portland Auditor released the 2016 Annual Community Survey on November 30. The responses show that the share of all commute trips taken by public transit fell 17% during the past year.

This was part of a longer-term decline in transit use. The transit share of all Portland commute trips peaked in 2008 at 15%. Since then it has hovered near 12%, and now rests at 10%.

Taxpayers should be especially concerned about the negative correlation between passenger rail construction and market share. In 1997, when the region had only one light rail line—the Blue line to Gresham—transit market share was 12%.

After extending the Blue line to Hillsboro and adding four new lines plus the WES commuter rail and the Portland Streetcar, transit market share is only 10%.

Travel Mode Share for Weekday Commuting

Portland citywide, 1997-2016

Mode 1997 2000 2004 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 2016
                   
SOV 71% 69% 72% 65% 62% 61% 63% 60% 61%
Carpool 9% 9% 8% 8% 7% 6% 6% 5% 6%
Transit 12% 14% 13% 15% 12% 12% 11% 12% 10%
Bike 3% 3% 4% 8% 7% 7% 8% 7% 8%
Walk 5% 5% 3% 4% 6% 7% 8% 9% 9%
Other n/a n/a n/a n/a 7% 6% 6% 7% 7%

      Source: Portland Auditor, Annual Community Survey

The numbers cited above are for citywide travel patterns. When broken out by sector, the Auditor found that just 5% of all commuters in Southwest Portland took transit to work in 2016. Despite this lack of interest by commuters, TriMet and Metro are working to gain approval for another light rail line extension from Portland State University through SW Portland to Bridgeport Village. The likely construction cost will be around $2.4 billion.

Unfortunately, there is no empirical basis for thinking that cannibalizing current bus service with costly new trains would have any measurable effect on transit use.

Transit advocates like to claim that we simply need to spend more money to boost ridership, but we’ve already tried that. TriMet’s annual operating budget went up from $212.2 million in 1998 to $542.2 million in 2016. After adjusting for inflation, that’s an increase of 72%. Those increases were on top of construction costs for rail, which cumulatively exceeded $3.6 billion during that era.

It’s time to stop the myth-making and start holding public officials accountable for a plan that isn’t working.


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

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