Portland’s 100% Renewable Energy Claim Is “Greenwashing”

By Allison Coleman

In 2001, the Portland City Council declared that by 2010, all electricity used by city agencies would come from renewable energy. However, by 2010, only 9 percent of Portland’s power was renewable.

Undeterred, in 2012 Portland leaders again declared that city agencies would achieve 100 percent renewable energy. This time around, the city managed to get up to 14 percent.

Today, Portland has magically declared victory, claiming that municipal electricity use is 100% renewable. However, this is a blatant case of greenwashing. Portland is currently generating only 9 percent of its electricity from city-owned biogas and solar facilities. Another 15 percent is claimed from “green power” sold by Portland General Electric.

The remaining 76 percent of city use comes from a conventional mix of coal, gas, nuclear, and hydro. Portland then pretends to offset this by purchasing so-called “Renewable Energy Certificates” (RECs).

Unfortunately for consumers, an individual REC is not a unit of electricity; it is simply is a certificate claiming to represent the “environmental amenities” associated with one megawatt-hour of electricity generated by sources such as wind and solar. You cannot charge your phone or cook dinner with a pile of RECs because they don’t actually exist.

Last year, Portland spent $104,539 purchasing 74,671 RECs to create the image of 100 percent green power consumption. Every dollar spent buying those RECs was wasted money. Portland taxpayers should demand an end to this green power charade.


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

Earning Their Keep: Do Elected Officials in the Portland Region Show up for Meetings?

By Nick Pangares and John A. Charles, Jr.

Most elected officials who serve on school boards or city councils do not get paid for service. However, for at least five governing jurisdictions in the Portland metro region, councilors do receive compensation. Those jurisdictions are: the Commissions for Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Counties; the Portland City Council; and the Metro Council.

This research examined the attendance records for all regularly scheduled meetings for the five jurisdictions during 2014 and 2015. In some cases, there were also “board briefings” or “work sessions” to attend.

In general, most elected officials attended a high percentage of meetings, either by being present or by participating via telephone. Group participation rates usually exceeded 85%, on average.

Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski had the best attendance record of all elected officials over the two-year period – 100% for both years. Multnomah County Commissioner Judy Shiprack had the worst two-year record – 70% for board briefings, and 80% for board meetings. She is termed-out and not running for re-election.

Summaries of the attendance records for all elected officials are below. The numbers indicate the percent of meetings where the officials participated.

 

Clackamas County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

Ludlow Savas Schrader Smith Bernard
2014 98% 100% 82% 89% 89%
2015 98% 95% 93% 93% 89%

 

 

Multnomah County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

Madrigal Kafoury McKeel Wendt Baily Smith Shiprack
2014 100% 98% 88% 98% 86% 90% 83%
2015 n/a 92% 97% n/a 89% 95% 77%

 

 

Multnomah County Commission

Regular Briefings

 

  Madrigal Kafoury McKeel Wendt Baily Smith Shiprack
               
2014 100% 93% 83% 97% 94% 90% 70%
2015 n/a 100% 100% n/a 65% 90% 70%

 

 

Washington County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

  Duyck Malinowski Schouten Rogers Terry
           
2014 94% 100% 87% 87% 94%
2015 91% 100% 91% 88% 85%

 

 

Portland City Council

Regular Meetings

 

  Hales Fish Fritz Novick Saltzman
           
2014 92% 83% 92% 94% 85%
2015 97% 92% 97% 92% 85%

 

 

Metro Council

Regular Meetings

 

  Hughes Chase Craddick Harrington Stacey Collette Dirksen
               
2014 84% 97% 95% 97% 97% 97% 89%
2015 93% 98% 95% 98% 100% 98% 93%

 

 

Metro Council

Regular Work Sessions

 

  Hughes Chase Craddick Harrington Stacey Collette Dirksen
               
2014 85% 94% 96% 96% 96% 96% 94%
2015 89% 93% 93% 95% 98% 91% 91%

 

While taxpayers probably expect officials to show up, does attendance really matter? That depends. Strictly speaking, yes. Each body must have a quorum of members present to conduct business. If too many officials skip meetings, decisions can’t be made. So even if individual commissioners are ineffective, a minimum number of them are needed at any given meeting.

Moreover, at most public meetings where agenda items will be voted on, public testimony will be taken. Constituents have a right to expect that when they take the trouble to show up with prepared testimony, elected officials will be there to listen.

However, attendance has little to do with influence or effectiveness. Public meetings are a form of street theatre; all the key decisions have been made ahead of time behind closed doors. So an elected official with a spotty attendance record could easily be the most important member of the body – it’s just that the heavy lifting is being done out of sight.

For example, Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman had the lowest two-year record of attendance among all City Commissioners, but few observers would consider him ineffective. To the contrary, he may be the most influential member of the Council, especially with a Mayor who is not running for re-election.

Metro Presiding Officer Tom Hughes also had the worst attendance record among his peers. Yet any Council member hoping to advance new policy would hardly consider Councilor Hughes unimportant.

There are also extenuating circumstances. What we see may not reflect the whole story. According to Commissioner Malinowski:

“The issue of absences turns out to be apples and oranges most of the time. This is partially because 4 out of the 5 commissioners are part time, and most of the time the reason Commissioners miss meeting is because of prior obligations regarding outside County business. If you compare absences with the schedule of each commissioner, this is usually the case. However, meeting attendance and communication is critical, particularly when technical questions about County business need to be answered.”

When asked if there should be a required minimum participation rate for meetings, Commissioner Malinowski responded:

“Overall the honor system of attendance is working, and I don’t see a need for a minimum attendance rate requirement. Many times what happens is the Commission will cancel meetings if two or more Commissioners are going to be absent. This usually happens on Tuesday evening meetings.”

The value of attendance is ultimately determined by voters. Those who are satisfied with the performance of their representative may overlook a mediocre participation rate.

However, voters should remember two things. First, for the five jurisdictions featured in this report, elected officials get paid to show up. They are not volunteers.

Second, attendance does matter. If everyone takes a night off, no business gets transacted. And running a government entity is a business.

About the authors: Nick Pangares is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute. John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute and also serves on the board of a rural water district in Clackamas County. Volunteer Bob Ludlum assisted with data gathering for this report.

Time to “Uberize” the Transportation Economy

This week marks the beginning of a 120-day “pilot project” by the City of Portland to allow private car-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft to legally compete with cab companies. Given the consumer demand for such services, there is little doubt that the Portland experiment will become permanent.

Cab services have long been heavily regulated. Detailed rules governed every facet of operation, including rates, dispatching, and―most importantly―the number of cabs allowed in the city. Although justified as “protecting the public interest,” the system was really designed to protect cab companies from new competition.

This model is now being swept aside by the dual forces of technological innovation and entrepreneurial success. Goodbye taxi cartel, hello freedom.

Unfortunately, the roads that we all use are still run as a government monopoly. As with the old taxi cartel, if state officials decide that no more highways will be built, consumers are stuck with a shortage of service. And in fact, that decision has already been made. The last new highway in the Portland region opened in 1982. There are no plans for a new one.

Ultimately, this model can’t work. As Portland grows, we will need new roads. Encouraging the road-building “Ubers” of the world to provide these services is the next logical step in the growth of the regional transport economy.

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The Regime Trembles at the Sight of a Smartphone

“The regime trembles at the sight of a smartphone.”* That quote comes from Portland-based independent journalist and world traveler Michael J. Totten. One might guess that he wrote it about Portland’s city government and its aversion to ridesharing services like Uber that rely on smartphone apps to put riders and drivers together. But he didn’t.

He wrote it about the Cuban government after his visit to Havana last year. He summed up his observations in a lengthy piece he titled “The Last Communist City.” Hopefully, now that President Obama is taking steps to liberalize relations with Cuba, Havana may not be a communist city much longer.

But as we celebrate a new year, Portland still seems mired in the past. City regulators first tried to fine Uber for picking up passengers without official permission in December. Then the Mayor agreed to form a Task Force to revise its antiquated taxi regulations. Uber agreed not to initiate rides within city limits until April 9, by which time the City hopes to figure out how to accommodate the modern app economy.

Still, given how upset Portland officials were when Uber entered the city unannounced, the next question one might ask is:

Which city will welcome Uber and other ridesharing companies to serve their citizens first: Portland, Oregon or Havana, Cuba?

* Letter from Cuba: To Embargo or Not, Michael J. Totten, “World Affairs,” March/April 2014

Portland Should Join the “Free World” of Ridesharing

In November, Beaverton, Gresham, Hillsboro, and Tigard, Oregon joined Vancouver, Washington in welcoming ridesharing juggernaut Uber to operate legally in their cities. Conspicuously absent from this list was the region’s largest city, Portland, which became virtually surrounded by the smartphone app transit economy. Then, on the evening of December 5, Uber began operating without permission in Portland, in effect daring the authorities to stop it.*

If Soviet East Berlin couldn’t keep Western freedom out by building its infamous Wall, what chance does Portland have keeping its residents from exercising their freedom to choose ridesharing within arbitrary lines on a map?

Until now, most major cities have granted virtual monopolies to a few taxicab companies on the assumption that government must protect both the livelihoods of drivers and the safety and convenience of passengers within their jurisdictions. Economists will tell you that here, and in virtually every government-regulated industry, “the regulated end up capturing the regulators.” In this case the taxicab companies end up influencing government regulators to protect them from competition at the expense of the public.

Such influence is now ending in many cities, thanks to the rise of mobile applications, but it’s still going strong in Portland. So strong that a recent study of 50 large American cities gave Portland a grade of “F” for Transportation-Friendliness, primarily because it is so hostile to ridesharing.

Ridesharing can mean anything from carpooling with your neighbors to using a mobile app to summon one of many cars in your community whose owners are willing to drive you for money to your destination. Drivers can work as much or as little as they wish, “clocking in” to the app and out of it to fit their own lifestyles.

The new app economy has sprung up over a few short years, thanks to the creativity and productivity unleashed after another American “Berlin Wall” was torn down. The mandated breakup of the government-protected monopoly Bell Telephone System in 1982, and the rise of the Internet a few years later, led to the smartphones we all hold in our hands today. Going from no mobile applications in 2007, some two billion people worldwide now use them to improve their lives.

Mobile apps do virtually anything you can think of, from facilitating your online banking, to investing, to checking your health status…to helping you find quick, reliable transportation through companies such as Uber, Lyft, and a host of others.

Uber requires that drivers pass background checks, carry the proper insurance, own relatively new cars, etc. The beauty of ridesharing apps is that they can let drivers and passengers know something about who they’re riding with through instant feedback on the app. You can see your driver’s name, photo, car, license plate number, and rating by other passengers before ever getting in his or her car. Likewise, the driver can know your name and reputation assigned by your previous Uber drivers. Such feedback encourages everyone to be on their best behavior.

Uber requires that you pay with a previously enrolled credit card. No cash changes hands in the car, which may mean speedier and safer transactions. And, before ordering a ride the app can estimate the cost of your trip (often lower than a taxi) and how many minutes it will be before your car arrives. Note that nothing stops current taxicab companies from doing these same things―except perhaps government regulations.

This isn’t all about Uber. Uber is simply the largest ridesharing company at the moment, having just closed a $1.2 billion investment round that values the company at $40 billion. But if Uber fails to innovate or succumbs to recent bad publicity, it could end up like other also-ran technology firms. No ridesharing company has government-monopoly protection to shield it from your choosing another provider.

Beyond opening up transportation options for the public, ridesharing companies open up income-generating opportunities for car owners. In a truly free economy, we should celebrate the technological innovation that allows people with cars to make money by giving rides to people who want them.

The sharing economy itself stems from the realization that all of us own assets that we may not use all the time, whether it’s a spare bedroom in your home (think Airbnb), or an automobile that sits in your driveway for hours a day.

In city after city, people recognize the benefits of allowing ridesharing companies to operate. Portland Commissioner Steve Novick apparently justifies his decision to wait by saying he wants to find “…a way to adopt a less anachronistic [taxicab] system without destroying people’s livelihoods.” There is a way, Commissioner. Rather than imposing anachronistic regulations on ridesharing companies, remove them from the taxi industry and let everyone earn a living by offering customers more and better service.

Recently, more than 40 Portland business leaders demanded taxi reforms, calling on the City Council to legalize ridesharing. They wrote,

“…We have confidence you will see the laws and regulations that protect the taxi industry here in Portland for what they really are: outdated….They’re making people wonder―how can a taxi industry lobby keep Portland from being counted among the progressive, forward-thinking cities that are providing their residents and visitors with fast, easy, on demand services like Uber and its peers.” 

It’s time for Portland to live up to its hype and let young (and not so young) creatives do what they do best—create services that the rest of us want and need. It’s time to legalize transit freedom and bring Portland out of the Transportation Dark Ages.

* On December 8 the City issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber for 5pm December 11 and asked a Multnomah County judge to stop Uber from operating in Portland. Within less than 24 hours of these developments, Uber’s online petition asking Mayor Hales to let Uber operate in the City gathered more than 10,000 signatures.

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

 

Scare Tactics Not Working in Road Tax Debates

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) recently issued a report describing the deteriorating condition of Oregon highways. The authors estimate that the cumulative cost to the state economy from poor roads will be $94 billion by 2035.

At the same time, the Portland City Council is considering a new local income tax to pay for road maintenance and safety, citing a lack of adequate funding.

While road maintenance is indeed a problem throughout Oregon, the public is unlikely to approve new road taxes. The primary reason is a lack of trust. During the past 15 years, Portland has squandered vast amounts of money on fads like streetcars, light rail, bioswales, and “road diets.” At the state level, ODOT spent nearly two decades and $180 million on a silly bridge-with-light-rail proposal to Vancouver, Washington that is now dead.

These projects were mostly aimed at getting people “out of their cars.” Yet the reality is, regardless of how people travel, more than 99% of all trips take place on a road. So road maintenance needs to be the top priority with existing transportation dollars.

New methods to pay for transportation infrastructure will eventually be needed, but politicians need to re-earn the public’s trust before that can happen.

Leave Lodging Alone

By Everet Rummel

On July 2, the Portland City Council held a hearing on proposed amendments to the Zoning Code concerning short-term rentals. The council chambers were packed with citizens who support legalizing renting one or two bedrooms from a primary residence.

An emerging sector of many local economies is “homesharing,” or renting space in your home to strangers on a short-term basis, usually for a few nights. Smartphone apps such as Airbnb allow owners to list their homes for renters to see. Homesharing is controversial because it remains informal in most places and presents a challenge to the status quo of residential living and conventional hotels.

In Portland, homesharing falls under traditional bed and breakfast regulations. These may be too expensive for the typical homeowner short on cash, so many homesharers operate illicitly.

In an effort to regulate homesharing and make compliance cheaper, the City Council has taken testimony from citizens. Sharers say renting provides them with supplementary income, allowing them to keep their homes or enjoy their retirement years. Renters benefit from low prices and a more authentic atmosphere compared with hotel rooms. Opponents of homesharing fear increased noise, diminished neighborhood safety, and that lucrative short-term rental prices would attract landlords to the market, making long-term rentals less affordable.

However, noise and safety issues probably can be solved by talking to your neighbors and complaining to the police if things get out of hand. A study by the Rosen Consulting Group shows that short-term rentals make up a small fraction of the total rental housing stock in San Francisco, so they are unlikely to affect rents.

With many benefits and low costs, the City should embrace homesharing and interfere with it as little as possible. Council members are infatuated with the idea of requiring sharers to have their homes inspected and licensed and to display their license numbers if they post an ad on Airbnb. But maintaining a listing of high-quality rentals is in the best interest of Airbnb. The site already offers refunds to guests who cancel due to rentals that fail to meet health, safety, and legal standards. Online branding is a powerful tool that may be preferable to city codes for promoting high standards among homesharers.

 

The hotel industry has expressed a desire for “fairness.” It wants short-term rentals to face the same tax and regulatory burdens as conventional hotels. However, hotels are in a better position to comply with taxes and regulations, which will disadvantage cash-strapped homesharers. A truly fairer route would be to reduce the burden on both hotels and homesharers alike.

The City’s discussions so far have ignored the fact that many short-term rentals include entire homes; and no one is sure how to address the question of rentals in apartments or condos, either. Portland is instead leaning toward working out these crucial details later. Given the enormous costs of regulating such a diverse and informal industry as homesharing, Portland should step back from over-regulating it.

Everet Rummel is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Portland’s Renewable Energy Pipe Dream

By William Newell

Since 2001 the City of Portland has aimed to obtain all of its electricity from renewable sources. More than 10 years later, the City has failed to meet its own goals, even after renewing the pledge in 2009 and again in 2012.

To achieve its long-standing goal, the City has sought to purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs), which are said to “offset” emissions from electricity use. Unfortunately, RECs have major problems.

First, RECs are not required to show what emissions were avoided in their “production,” so there are few concrete savings for the City to claim. Second, intermittent energy sources require back-up power to maintain grid reliability. When wind dies down, as it often does, the system must make up the shortfall from natural gas and coal plants. Because some plants must “idle” while others “rev” their electricity production up and down, the plants utilize more fuel to produce less electricity. This ends up mitigating much of the claimed pollution savings.

Many Portlanders dream that the City can perfectly meld an urban forest with the concrete jungle, but behind Portland’s green curtain is an unaccountable government wasting taxpayer dollars on what amount to environmental “indulgences.”

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.

Mandatory Sick Leave Hurts the Working Poor

By Marc Kilmer

On March 6 the Portland City Council may vote on whether to require virtually all businesses that employ six or more people to provide them with at least five paid sick days per year. While this sounds well intentioned − who doesn’t support helping out a sick person? – it will actually end up hurting low-wage and less-skilled employees. For the sake of the working poor, this proposal should be rejected.

Let’s establish some basic facts about the employee/employer relationship. Employers provide compensation for an employee based on how much value that employee’s labor has for the employer. Employees with skills that are in higher demand get paid more, both because these skills help an employer’s business more and because there are fewer people with those skills. Any kid off the street can wash dishes, so a dishwasher is likely to make far less money than an electrician, someone who has a specialized set of skills.

Compensation is not just the wages paid to an employee. An employee costs a business much more than just salary. There are unemployment, Medicare, and Social Security taxes that must be paid. And if the company offers any benefits, then that is also a cost to the employer. An employee may make $40,000 a year, but it may cost the employer $60,000 a year to employ that person. The total cost of compensation, not just the salary, is what’s important to the employer.

Some people hold the view that an employer should provide a variety of benefits to workers, from paid sick leave to health care to disability insurance to retirement benefits. Any amount of money paid by employers for these benefits raises the cost of hiring that employee.

Mandatory sick leave increases the cost to an employer for hiring an employee. For more-skilled workers, that means that more money is going to the benefits side of the compensation equation and less to the wage side. So better sick leave means lower wages. Some employees may like that, some may not. But if the government mandates it, the employee has no choice.

For lower-skilled employees, the situation is more damaging. Since there are a federal and a state minimum wage, there is a floor below which an employer may not pay an employee. If the government raises the cost of compensation through mandatory sick leave, an employer cannot simply pay a lower wage to someone making minimum wage or close to it. In that case, the employee will have to be let go.

Some may say that the employer should simply absorb the cost of the higher compensation. What they ignore is that an employee’s compensation is based on the value that employee brings to the company. If an employer pays an employee more than his labor is worth, then that employer will soon go out of business.

Mandatory sick leave sounds like a good idea, but it will end up hurting the most vulnerable workers in our society. The more the government mandates benefits for workers, the fewer low-skilled workers will be hired. We need to encourage getting these low-skilled workers in the workforce, not discourage them. For the sake of the working poor, the City of Portland should not mandate sick leave.

Marc Kilmer is a Maryland Public Policy Institute senior fellow specializing in health care issues and a guest contributor to Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

Sick of Government Sick Leave Policies

On March 6 the Portland City Council may vote on whether to require virtually all businesses that employ six or more people to provide them at least five paid sick days per year.

Some supporters of this policy believe it’s actually immoral to make someone choose between coming to work sick and losing a day’s pay needed to take care of their family. Another perspective is that it’s immoral to impose such a policy when its cost may very well lead to less employment, especially for the working poor.

Supporters also argue that other cities and states are beginning to implement such policies, and at least 45 other countries already have them. Of course, other jurisdictions have lots of policies that reduce the flexibility and freedom of employer-employee relationships, and their economies generally suffer the consequences. Such impositions elsewhere shouldn’t justify adding them here.

Finally, some local economists believe the cost of extending paid sick days to employees is far outweighed by reductions in other business costs associated with employee turnover.

But if such positive tradeoffs were obvious to employers, they would offer paid sick days voluntarily out of their own economic self-interest. Of course, it’s not government’s job to encourage voluntary implementation of anything.

Remember that government “is not eloquence, it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”*

*Often attributed to George Washington, similar phrases were apparently in common use in the 1700’s.

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

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