Press Release: Report Shows No Return on Investment for Portland Seed Fund

December 3, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
503-242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org
 

PORTLAND, Ore. – A new report released by Cascade Policy Institute concludes that the managers of the publicly financed Portland Seed Fund cannot provide documentation to show any positive return on investment for the millions of dollars spent on risky start-up ventures.

The Portland Seed Fund is a public-private venture intended to close a funding gap for entrepreneurs. It invests $25,000 in each startup selected and reserves money for follow-up investments as well. The City of Portland, the City of Hillsboro, and the State of Oregon (through the Oregon Growth Account) supplied most of the money for the first Seed Fund and a significant portion of the second Seed Fund. So far, the public funds amount to $3.4 million, with another $100,000 likely to come from this year’s Portland Development Commission (PDC) budget. The City of Portland and the Oregon Growth Account are the two biggest supporters, each contributing $1.5 million or more.

The Portland Seed Fund has spent large amounts of taxpayer money to subsidize private-for-profit companies, yet governments which gave money could not provide information about the success of those expenditures when questioned by Cascade researchers. It is not even clear that there are any defined expectations for this fund. Very little information is available, and the average taxpayer would have no way of knowing where tax funds are being spent. The Seed Fund is not even listed on the City of Portland’s Investment Reports.

Cascade President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. commented, “The Portland Seed Fund allows politicians to play at being venture capitalists―without any of the personal risks that real venture capitalists bear. This is a misuse of taxpayer funds.”

The Cascade paper urges the City Councils of Portland and Hillsboro, and Oregon’s state legislators, to have public discussions about the Seed Fund, and either explain why tax funds are being spent on private companies or shut the Fund down.

Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Cascade promotes public policy solutions that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. The full report, entitled The Portland Seed Fund: Planting High Hopes, Reaping Few Results, may be viewed here.

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The Governor’s Budget: Much More Than Beer Money

Governor John Kitzhaber released his proposed 2015-17 budget this week. Critics were quick to argue that it’s either too much or too little, depending on their point of view. Media reports focused on his General Fund budget which, at $18.6 billion, would be an eleven percent increase over the current budget.

In an attempt to make this number seem inconsequential, one person commented on an Oregonian story that $18.6 billion over two years works out to about $6.50 per day per Oregonian. He characterized that as less than the price of one beer at a Blazer game, and noted that with the Governor’s budget “you get a whole state, and you’re only renting the beer.”

But that’s less than one third of the story. While the General Fund is, in effect, the discretionary part of the budget funded primarily by state income tax revenue, the All Funds budget is much larger.

At $66.5 billion, the Governor’s All Funds budget proposal is more than three-and-a-half times bigger than the $18.6 billion General Fund amount. Much of that comes from fees and federal funds, but it’s still our money.

So, in the words of that one-beer-a-day commenter, the Governor’s total budget proposal actually would buy every Oregonian three Blazer game beers a day. Put in a more meaningful way, that’s $16,625 over the two-year period for every man, woman, and child in the state. Or, $66,500 for a family of four. Now that’s real money.

Can We Correct Oregon’s High Corrections Costs?

By Brandon Maxwell

Behind Oregon’s cultural mystique lies a troubling truth: Compared with similar-sized states, we have one of the fastest growing prison populations in the nation and spend 7.5 percent more per inmate than the national average. Of the fourteen states with populations between two and five million people, ten of them spend less per inmate than Oregon. Where is the money going?

According to the Legislative Fiscal Office, entry-level correctional officers in Oregon take home 24 percent more annually than surrounding states. Likewise, Oregon is the only state that doesn’t require union correctional workers to contribute to their own health plan premiums. As a result, taxpayers carry the burden.

Union wages and benefits aren’t the only things rising―so is the average age of inmates. $21,000 in outside health care costs can be attributed annually to the average inmate over 46. Oregon taxpayers are not only footing the health care bills for aging union members, but for aging prisoners.

Making Oregon a right-to-work state would open the door to performance-based pay through competition, and medical parole reform would curtail Oregon’s aging inmate population. Both could save taxpayers money while arguably improving efficiency in the correctional system.

Oregon taxpayers have a right to be concerned about high prison costs. But until we confront and remedy the causes behind the costs, Oregon’s financial burden will only continue to rise.

 Brandon Loran Maxwell is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

More Money, Same Problems for Oregon Schools

By William Newell

Oregon’s 2013 legislative session ended with the passage of the largest education budget the state of Oregon has ever seen. At nearly $6.75 billion, the budget has been hailed both as a renewed effort to prioritize education and as a weak attempt to reinvest in a lagging school system. The purported decade of underinvestment looks confirmed by the fact that Oregon’s school system was given a “C” by Education Week and a “D-” by Students First, two respected education research institutions. But is it true Oregon’s government has spent too little and thus neglected its duty to provide a quality education system? The answer might surprise you.

Instead of investing too little, Oregon schools have failed to invest their scarce resources in the right places, namely students and teachers. A major part of the problem lies in the hiring of an ever-increasing number of administrators and non-teaching support staff who are soaking up highly valuable but limited funding. A report released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice shows that Oregon had a 47.3 percent increase in the number of administrators and non-teaching support staff from 1992 to 2009. This astounding growth more than triples that of students and teachers, which only grew by 15.4 percent and 12.7 percent respectively. Oregon schools now employ more administrators and non-teaching support staff than they do teachers.

At the same time, student achievement has stagnated with small increases and even decreases in national reading and mathematics scores. Looking at statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Oregon fourth-grade students have improved their scores in mathematics by 14 points but have fallen below the national average score at the same time. Eighth graders, once well above the national average in math, have regressed back down to the national average. In reading, fourth graders are below the national average and have only seen a two-point score increase. For eighth graders, their reading scores have fallen by two points and have also regressed to the national average. All in all, Oregon students have not reaped the benefits of additional administrators and support staff.

If the growth of administrators and support staff had risen in line with that of students, Oregon could have saved $302,612,947 per year according to the same Friedman Foundation report. These savings could have meant reducing taxes or employing new teachers and keeping young teachers from being fired due to district cuts. A little math shows that if Oregon spent that $300 million on employing teachers compensated at $80,000 (salary plus benefits), the state could have employed almost 3,782 more teachers than it does now.* Instead, Oregon maintains the third largest class sizes in the entire U.S., according to the National Education Association, with a 20.2 student-to-teacher ratio. Instead of creating a larger, more inefficient education bureaucracy with its new money, Oregon schools should refocus on those who matter most: students and their teachers.

*Teacher compensation was calculated by taking the average Oregon K-12 teacher salary of $57,000 plus 40% for benefits.

William Newell is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is a graduate of Willamette University.

Oregon Lawmakers: Get Proactive on the Economy

Who wouldn’t want to live in the Pacific Northwest?

According to the 2010 Census, Oregon has enjoyed a relatively large population growth. There were 12 percent more people in the Beaver State in 2010 than in 2000. This is good compared to the national growth rate of 9.7 percent.

Oregon is attractive. But other than a pleasant climate, a breathtaking coastline, and beautiful mountains, what makes Oregon stand out?

From an economic viewpoint the answer is “not much.” Over the past decade Oregon had a few years of strong growth, but that was driven entirely by computer and electronics manufacturing. While production of computer components and other electronic products surged from ten percent of the state’s economy in 2001 to 30 percent in 2010, the rest of the private sector stood still or declined. And even though recent media headlines noted that Oregon saw the second highest economic growth rate in the country at 4.7 percent in 2011, you would have to read down the page to realize that this was a 42 percent decline from our 8.1 percent growth rate the year before.*

It is a bit frightening to see the numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Comparing the recession year of 2001 to the recession year of 2010, there is absolutely no private-sector job growth. There are as many people working private jobs in Oregon today as there were a decade ago.

Again, it is nice that electronics manufacturing has become big in Oregon, and 16,000 Intel employees should be proud of their jobs. But it is problematic that this particular branch of manufacturing is the only driver of the state’s economy. Jobs in the electronics industry are among the easiest to move, both nationally and globally.

The problem is that the Beaver State lacks consistent growth-promoting policies. Instead of being economic visionaries, the lawmakers in Salem come across as run-of-the-mill ho-hummers.

Oregon’s ranking with the Tax Foundation has not changed much over the past ten years. Taxes are relatively high – currently 17th highest in the nation. Oregon is not in the tax dungeon like New York or California; but on the other hand, there is no concerted effort in Salem to make Oregon attractive relative to its peers in the West.

Oregon’s tax rates continue to make the state uncompetitive compared with others. The high individual income tax is a good example. Since two thirds of the state’s tax revenues come from the individual income tax, state legislators are more interested in a tax code that maximizes revenue than one that promotes growth. As a result, Oregon has a nine-percent state income tax bracket that covers the vast majority of income tax filers. Even California is more lenient toward individual incomes.

And let’s not forget that Washington and Nevada have no state income tax at all.

In terms of business taxes, Oregon ranks about the same as for individual income taxes: better than California and Idaho, but worse than Washington and Nevada. This is yet more evidence that state lawmakers are taking a passive, go-with-the-flow attitude to economic policy.

Government employment is another area where state legislators could be proactive. While there is no steady, long-term growth in private employment in Oregon, government employment is doing well. In 2001, at the bottom of the Millennium recession, there were 181 state and local government employees per 1,000 private-sector employees. In 2010, at the bottom of the Great Recession, that ratio had risen to 191. This means, in plain English, that while the private sector was essentially standing still, job-wise, over the long term, Oregon’s governments kept adding to their payrolls.

Since the summer of 2010 there have been some reductions in local government employment, but available Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows no break in the trend of swelling state payrolls. In other words, the prevailing spending-as-usual attitude continues in Salem.

Instead of complacency, the state legislature needs to take a proactive approach to the economy. Their duty is not first and foremost to maintain government and the status quo, but to facilitate the growth of prosperity and economic freedom in the state. To do this, they could start with something as simple as capping tax-funded payrolls to what the private sector can afford. If there are no new jobs being created in the private sector, then at the very least there should be no expansion in tax-funded payrolls, either.

Another step is a more competitive tax code. Interstate migration data from the Census Bureau shows that while Oregon has gained population over the past decade, Washington is a much stronger magnet. It is fair to assume that Washington’s lack of income tax is a major reason for this.

There is a lot more to do, of course, but these two measures would be a good way to start.

 

*http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2012/06/oregon_economy_growing_at_nati.html

 

Sven Larson is Senior Fellow in Economics at the Wyoming Liberty Group and a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center. He holds a Ph.D. in social sciences with major in economics and has taught economics at colleges in three countries. His research on health policy, taxes, and government budgeting and entitlement reform has been published by think tanks including Cascade Policy Institute and the Wyoming Liberty Group.

Oregon’s Budget Transformation

Governor John Kitzhaber has called for transforming state government, in part by proposing a new ten-year budget process that he says “is necessary to change a decade of declining employment and wages.” The Governor hired former Metro Chief Operating Officer Michael Jordan to implement this transformation, while leading and supervising all aspects of the state’s day-to-day operations as its first COO. Jordan’s charge includes reviewing outdated state systems, streamlining departments, and creating efficiencies and cost savings.

The transformation process includes a set of Guiding Principles and Outcome-Based Budgeting Principles that sound good but so far fail to address adequately at least four important concerns:

First, Government cannot and should not do everything. Determining core functions and prioritizing them should be the first step to achieving more accountability in state government.

Many state agencies don’t have a clear understanding of what their priorities should be. This concern was highlighted in a legislative hearing where the head of an agency was asked by a freshman legislator what his highest priority activities were.* Without hesitation, the agency head looked at the freshman and told him that everything his agency did was high priority.

The legislator then asked what would be cut if the agency budget ended up smaller than requested. The agency head stated, again without hesitation, that he couldn’t cut anything. He repeated that everything his agency did was a top priority.

If everything is a top priority, then nothing is a top priority.

The proper role of government in a free society clearly includes the protection of our rights to life, liberty, and property. But just as clearly, for example, it should not include provision of our jobs, entertainment, and alcohol. We should be willing to end state economic development programs, which do not create jobs so much as they pick winners and losers in the economy.

We need to end state control of liquor through the OLCC, and we should not even consider using tax dollars to fund entertainment venues such as sports stadiums. These belong in the private sector.

Of course, sticking to core functions is hard, especially because of the misguided belief that anyone’s unmet need is the proper concern of government. It is not. The average person can’t afford the time in Salem to lobby against any given program that may only cost him or her a few dollars a year. However, it is well worth the time for those who benefit from a program to spend as much time and money as needed to ensure that the millions or billions of dollars at stake move from the taxpayers to them.

The pressure is always in favor of more government, not less. To resist this pressure, lawmakers need to understand government’s proper role and the harm they do when taking money from some to provide benefits to others. Citizens need to learn why more government means less freedom and how they might meet their needs better through voluntary, private sector approaches.

Second, we need to understand why one of the Governor’s 10-Year Plan Guiding Principles—the reliance on evidence-based information to make informed policy decisions—hasn’t worked before and may not work in the future.

In the late 1980s, then-Senator President John Kitzhaber relied on this principle when he helped create the Oregon Health Plan (OHP). The Plan attempted to use medical and scientific evidence to prioritize treatment of medical conditions for Medicaid patients based on cost-benefit analysis. The problem then was (and likely will be now) that politics gets in the way.

Medical conditions that objectively should have fallen below the cutoff line in the OHP rose above the line because special interest groups successfully lobbied for their constituents. Consequently, the plan saved little, if any, money for taxpayers. As long as government provides the service, or provides the funding, this dynamic will be hard to change.

Third, achieving streamlined operations and cost savings through consolidation of agencies, boards, and commissions will be harder than it sounds.

Forces are at work in large firms and governments that cause them to produce goods and services at increased per-unit costs. Economists call these forces diseconomies of scale. They are especially prevalent when trying to combine monopolies―which defines government agencies.

Take, for example, Oregon’s attempt from 1992 through 2001 to reduce education costs by consolidating school districts. Legislation resulted in 277 school districts being consolidated down to 198. Rather than fewer districts resulting in less administrative overhead, at the end of the period there were actually more central office staff per pupil than at the beginning. Also, non-teaching staff grew faster than teachers, and real per student spending rose more than 11 percent. We should not be surprised if upcoming efforts to consolidate boards, commissions, and agencies yield similar results.

Finally, as famed management consultant Peter Drucker warned: “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

This gets us back to the first concern above. Unless we prioritize core functions, and stop doing other things, state government will expend a lot of energy, and a lot of taxpayer dollars, trying to do efficiently that which government should not be doing at all.

* House Agency Oversight and Efficiency Committee, Oregon Legislature, April 8, 1997. Rep. Ryan Deckert (D) questioning William Scott, Director, Oregon Economic Development Department.

Insolvency, One Step at a Time

The Oregonian on Sunday examined TriMet’s deteriorating finances and called attention to high-cost union contracts, first approved in 1994, as the starting point of the decline. Due to the compounding effect of these contracts, TriMet now spends $1.63 in benefits for every $1.00 spent on wages, and the agency has more than $1.2 billion in unfunded actuarially accrued liabilities for promised retirement benefits.

 

As a result, transit service has been cut by 14% in the past four years, and more cuts are due beginning September.

 

What was revealing in the Oregonian feature was how no one was willing to accept responsibility. At any point during an 18-year period, dozens of people served on the TriMet Board or in top management positions, and they could have demanded change. But they didn’t.

 

Of course, leadership starts at the top, and it’s the governor who appoints the TriMet Board. In August 1994, then-Governor Barbara Roberts met with the TriMet board chair, Loren Wyss, who strongly objected to the draft contract. Instead of supporting him, she forced him off the board.

 

The legacy of that decision is a terminally dysfunctional business model at TriMet. Someone on the TriMet board needs to have the courage to say that. But who will do so when it’s so much easier to remain silent?