Oregon Politicians Support Better Roads, Just Not Here

By John A. Charles, Jr.

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

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

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

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

The new approach didn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Proposed Oregon ESA Law Would Offer Students Choices While Breaking Even for Public Schools

By Steve Buckstein

Senate Bill 437, under consideration this legislative session, would offer Oregon K-12 students the flexibility to choose the educational options that best meet their individual needs through a universal Education Savings Account program. 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 approved educational expenses such as tuition, tutors, online courses, and other services and materials.

The fiscal impact of a universal ESA program for Oregon has been evaluated in an analysis released by Cascade Policy Institute. The fiscal “break even” for state and local school districts would be reached at an 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 dollar amounts are proposed in an amendment to the bill.

Of course, fiscal impact should not be the primary measure of this or any well-designed school choice program; but it is a political reality that a fiscal burden should not be imposed on the state at a time that all budgets are under pressure. An ESA program would offer Oregon families as much choice as possible in how their children take advantage of educational opportunities funded by the state. For more about the Educational Opportunity Act: The Power of Choice, visit schoolchoicefororegon.com.


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

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.

New Report Analyzes Fiscal Impact of Proposed Oregon Educational Opportunity Act

— Education Savings Account (ESA) program awaits Senate action

April 13, 2017

Media Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
Steve Buckstein
503-242-0900
steven@cascadepolicy.org 

PORTLAND, Ore. – Cascade Policy Institute today released a review and evaluation of a universal Education Savings Account (ESA) program for Oregon. Senate Bill 437 would cover all K-12 students and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Education Committee. SB 437 is also known as the Educational Opportunity Act: The Power of Choice.

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 after expenses may be “rolled over” for use in subsequent years, even into college.

Empirical research on private school choice finds evidence that private school choice delivers benefits to participating students—particularly in the area of educational attainment.

Currently, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee have active ESA programs that are limited to particular groups of students such as those with special needs. Nevada passed a near-universal ESA bill in 2015, but it is yet to be funded. Last week, Arizona lawmakers passed a new ESA bill that will open their state’s ESA program to all Arizona children, phased in over the next few years.

A fiscal analysis of Oregon’s SB 437, as introduced, finds that it would have a net fiscal impact on the state and local school districts of approximately $200 million. This net impact can be reduced—and turned into a net cost saving to state and local governments—by adjusting the annual amount deposited into the ESAs. The program would “break even” at an 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 suggested in an Amendment to SB 437.

Cascade founder Steve Buckstein notes, “While vouchers may be considered the rotary telephones of the school choice world, Education Savings Accounts are the smartphones of that world. They offer many more opportunities for families and students, and introduce competitive forces into education finance, which may help keep costs down.”

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

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s premier policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org and schoolchoicefororegon.com.

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Arizona’s Universal Education Savings Account Law: A “Breakthrough” in Education Financing for Students Today

By Kathryn Hickok

Six years ago, Arizona became the first state to pass an Education Savings Account law for some K-12 students. Last week, Arizona lawmakers passed a new ESA bill which expands the program eligibility to include all Arizona children, phased in over the next few years.

The Heritage Foundation’s education policy fellow Lindsay Burke explains:

Education savings accounts represent a breakthrough in public education financing. Instead of sending funding directly to district schools, and then assigning children to those schools based on where their parents live, parents receive 90 percent of what the state would have spent on their child in their district school, with funds being deposited directly into a parent-controlled account.

Parents can spend the money on the educational services that best meet their children’s individual needs, such as private or home schools, tutors, online courses, and therapy. Funds not used by the student in a given year can be rolled over for future years.

Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee also have ESA programs limited to particular groups of students, such as those with special needs. Nevada passed a near-universal ESA bill in 2015, but it is yet to be funded.

“When parents have more choices, kids win,” said Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. It’s time for Oregon parents to have those choices, too. For more information about Oregon’s Education Savings Account bill, under consideration this legislative session, visit schoolchoicefororegon.com.


Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

 

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

Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO, Cascade Policy Institute

Before the Senate Business and Transportation Committee

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

April 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

All PPC Administrators

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

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

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


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

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

By John A. Charles, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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.

Now Is the Time: Oregon’s Educational Opportunity Act, The Power of Choice

By Steve Buckstein

Oregon now has the chance to become an early adopter of a universal Education Savings Account program. An ESA program allows Kindergarten through 12th grade students to use part of the state funds allocated to their local school districts for other educational expenses and services of their choice, such as private or home schools, tutors, and online courses. Funds not used by the student in a given year can be rolled over, all the way to college.

Senate Bill 437 as Introduced would allow 100 percent of the average annual state funding (currently $8,781) for disabled and low-income students, and 90 percent for all other students, to fund ESAs for any students wishing to use them. This likely would result in a $200 million fiscal impact on the state and local school districts combined. A small price to pay for educational freedom, but not likely to happen in a legislative session facing a budget shortfall.

So, the bill has been amended to virtually eliminate any negative fiscal impact. It lowers ESA accounts to $6,000 for disabled and low-income students and $4,500 for all other students. These accounts represent real money…for real educational opportunities…for every student—with no fiscal impact on the state budget.

Please share your interest in Senate Bill 437, the Educational Opportunity Act, with your state legislators. And get involved at the Educational Opportunity Act Facebook page and at SchoolChoiceforOregon.com.


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

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.

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