Let Parents Wield School Spending Power

By Kathryn Hickok

Are we missing the trees for the forest in Oregon school funding and education reform debates?

Media reports, school districts, and political leaders usually focus on the big picture: reaching a 100% high school graduation rate so all children have the best chance in life. That’s a great goal. Frequently lost, however, is the fact that every child is an individual. The focus of real-life Oregon parents is helping their kids reach their potential in light of their specific needs and gifts.

These two perspectives shouldn’t be at odds. In fact, the second could drive the first―if more parents were empowered to make meaningful choices for their children’s education.

According to the National Education Association’s Rankings and Estimates report for 2016 and 2017, counting local, state, and federal funding, current expenditures per Oregon student in Average Daily Attendance are estimated to be $13,230, more than 33 other states. Adding in spending for capital outlays and interest payments, that number increases to $14,911 per student.

Yet, the National Association of Education Progress reports that only 34% of Oregon fourth-graders tested “proficient” in reading in 2015; and Oregon has the third-worst high school graduation rate in the country.

No one disputes the need for improvements to public schools. But children who need help today—first to learn the basics (like reading and math) and then to graduate from high school—should get the help they need now. What we ought to do is give Oregon students the power of choice to find their own paths to success.

For lower-income parents, the stakes are high. Nearly half the children born into poverty will stay in poverty as adults. Key to changing that outcome is an education that leads to high school graduation and future employment. Unlike parents with greater means, who can move to another neighborhood or pay out-of-pocket for private schools, lower-income parents often find their children trapped in public schools that do not meet their kids’ needs. Education Savings Accounts could change that.

Six years ago, Arizona became the first state to pass an Education Savings Account (ESA) law for some K-12 students, and it recently expanded eligibility to eventually include all Arizona children. Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee also have ESA programs limited to certain students, such as those with special needs.

An ESA is analogous to a limited-use debit card for qualifying education expenses. It gives parents who want to opt out of a public school a portion of the per-student state funding to spend on their child’s education in other ways. ESAs can fund a wide variety of education-related expenses, including tuition, tutoring, and supplemental materials. Money not used in one year can be rolled over for future education expenses, even college.

But if ESAs let parents spend education funds outside the public school system, would ESAs drain money from public schools? Not necessarily. Schools are funded by local, state, and federal money. ESAs would be funded by only part of the state component. The amount of the ESA deposits is negotiable and would be the biggest driver of their fiscal impact.

Legislators can design an ESA program so that it would be revenue neutral to public schools, or even create a net increase per student who remained in the system. If students leaving public schools took less funding with them than would have been spent if they had remained, schools could reduce their class sizes without a negative impact on per-student funding.

No one can craft a school system that meets every child’s needs. Statistical data analysis and bureaucratic goal-setting can’t ensure that any particular child makes it to high school graduation or excels in a career. But most parents are keenly aware of their own children’s needs. Giving parents power to find the right fit for their kids would make a world of difference, as any parent knows.

Focusing on the forest (the public school system), Oregon is missing the trees (kids). We should expand the role of parents in achieving better educational outcomes for their children. We’ve tried everything else. Parental choice is the future of education reform, and Education Savings Accounts are a fiscally responsible policy solution that can give all kids options now.


Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is also Director of Cascade’s Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program, which provides privately funded, partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families. A version of this article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 18, 2017.

Stop Health Care Taxes dot com

By Steve Buckstein

The Oregon legislature just passed, and the Governor signed, a bill designed to generate some $550 million in new taxes on health care, hospitals, and health insurance premiums. Ostensibly, this money is needed to help balance the budget, even after strong revenue growth, and to help maintain the controversial Medicaid expansion.

According to an Oregonian editorial, when word got out that someone might refer these new taxes to the ballot, legislative leaders showed “how they’re willing to protect that new revenue at all cost—even hijacking the referendum process at the core of Oregon’s identity.”

“Worse, however, the bill tosses aside the usual process requiring impartial groups to describe the measure on the ballot and in the voter’s pamphlet. Instead, [they gave] all that power to a committee made up of four Democrats and two Republicans.”

They also moved the referendum vote up from November 2018 to a January special election that will cost taxpayers more than $3 million.

The petitioners have just 90 days to collect nearly 59,000 valid voter signatures to refer the most egregious of these new taxes to the ballot.

These allow insurance companies to pass on to many of us, their policyholders, a new 1.5 percent tax on health insurance premiums in the state, at a time when premiums are rising out of sight already.

If you want to vote on the new premium taxes, go to StopHealthCareTaxes.com, download, sign and return a Petition sheet today.


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

Who says Oregon pays public school teachers more than other states? The National Education Association, that’s who!

By Steve Buckstein

As Oregon legislators wrestle with how much money to spend on public education, advocates claim that we spend too little compared to other states. They demand that legislators spend more, and raise taxes to do it. But, according to the nation’s largest teachers union, the reality is quite different.

As I noted recently, in its Rankings & Estimates report for 2016 and 2017, the National Education Association says that Oregon spends more per student than 33 other states: $13,320 per Average Daily Attendee versus $12,572 nationally.

Another interesting finding in the NEA report is how much Oregon pays its public school teachers. In 2015-16 it shows the average teacher salary in the country was $58,343, compared to $60,459 here in Oregon. We spend three percent more on teacher salaries than the national average.*

But, the report also shows that our per capita personal income is nine percent less than the national average: $48,783 versus $43,783.

So, while we pay our teachers three percent more, we do that out of incomes that are nine percent less than the average American. Add those two numbers together, and it’s clear that based on our ability to pay we compensate Oregon teachers very well.

All this data add weight to the argument that we don’t need new taxes to better fund public education. We fund it very well already.


*“Where applicable, ‘average teacher salary’ includes the contract amount plus 6 percent for the employer portion of retirement contributions.” Page 146 of the NEA report.


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

The Case of the Missing Transit Money

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Last week the TriMet Board adopted a budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins on July 1.

As usual, the budget shows no correlation between the levels of subsidies given to TriMet and the amount of service provided to customers.

For example, in 2008, TriMet had a total of $397 million to pay for operations of bus and rail service. In 2018, the agency predicts it will have $600 million, a 51% increase. Yet bus service—which carries two-thirds of all passengers—has barely improved.

In 2008 the “revenue-miles” of bus service (those miles where buses were in operation) totaled 22,574,030. If service increases in 2018 as planned, the total is likely to be 22,597,927—only a 0.1% increase.

Where did all the money go?

TriMet claims that increased light rail service made up the difference, but between 2008 and 2016 the revenue-miles of MAX only went up 14%. No service increase in 2018 will make up the difference between 14% and 51%.

Moreover, ridership is not growing along with the increased funding. In fact it is shrinking. During 2008 the total number of “originating rides” (which excludes transfers) was 77.6 million. Ridership peaked in 2012 at 80 million, and then dropped to 77.2 million in 2016.

TriMet is also losing market share, especially at peak hours. According to the Portland city auditor, in 2008 an estimated 15% of all Portland commuters used TriMet. By 2016, that had dropped to just 10%.

The steady rise in TriMet’s revenue is almost entirely due to tax subsidies, not passenger fares. In fact, next year passenger fares will only account for 10% of TriMet’s all-funds budget—likely the lowest level of passenger support in TriMet history.

Nonetheless, the Oregon legislature is considering a bill that would authorize a new, statewide employer tax that would generate even more subsidies for transit. The Portland experience shows that this is a bad idea. The more we subsidize monopoly transit, the more the employees divert funds for their own use.

Last year TriMet spent $1.23 on employee benefits for every $1.00 expended in wages. That largely explains why service levels have been stagnant.

In 1969 the Portland City Council put Rose City Transit out of business because Councilors believed that a government-run monopoly would be much more efficient than a private-for-profit company. The TriMet experience has shown that the City Council was wrong.


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

 

Who says Oregon spends $13,230 per public school student? The National Education Association, that’s who!

By Steve Buckstein

Ever since Oregon’s property tax limitation Measure 5 shifted the bulk of education funding from local sources to the state general fund in 1990, public education advocates have claimed that our schools are severely underfunded, spending less than most other states. They want the legislature to raise taxes now to rectify this supposed crisis.

Ask a knowledgeable Oregonian how much money is spent per student in our public schools and they might say the number is about $8,781, which is what the state currently gives school districts per student.

But, ask the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, and you’ll get a much different answer. According to the NEA’s just-released Rankings & Estimates report for 2016 and 2017, when you count local, state, and federal funding, current expenditures per Oregon student in Average Daily Attendance are estimated to be $13,230. That puts us five percent above the national average of $12,572. Oregon spends more than 33 other states.*

Add in spending for capital outlays and interest payments, and that $13,230 number goes up to total expenditures per student of $14,911.**

Even at the lower number, public schools spend over $396,000 a year for each 30-student classroom. Subtract the average teacher salary plus benefits of some $85,000, and Oregonians should ask where the additional $300,000-plus is going before even thinking about raising taxes on anyone.


* There are several ways to calculate current expenditures per student. The NEA computes two of those ways in this report. Definitions are given in the report Glossary. Oregon’s 2017 Average Daily Attendance (ADA) of pupils “under the guidance and direction of teachers” is estimated in Table I-3 to be 531,434. Oregon’s 2017 Fall Enrollment of pupils registered in the fall of the 2017 school year is estimated in Table I-6 to be 578,176. Because there are more pupils registered in school districts than actually in class on an average day, current expenditures per ADA of $13,230 (Table J-9) is higher than current expenditures per Fall Enrollment, which is $12,161 (Table J-10). Oregon spends more than 33 other states under both these methods.

** Under the two ways of calculating expenditures per student explained above, the author’s calculation of estimated 2017 total expenditures based on Average Daily Attendance of $14,911 is higher than that based on estimated Fall Enrollment, which is $13,705.


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

Kicker Envy 2017

By Steve Buckstein

Individual Oregon income taxpayers may receive kicker refunds when they file their 2017 tax returns based on a percentage of the state income tax they paid in 2016. Based on the May revenue forecast, $408 million could be coming back to taxpayers, with the average refund being $210. A final determination of whether the kicker will “kick” and how big it will be should be announced on August 23.

But even before those potential refunds reduce our 2017 tax liability, some are questioning whose money it is, and others seem envious that the “rich” will get much bigger refunds than the rest of us. So, whether the kicker law is good or bad public policy, let’s think a little about who this money really belongs to. Is it a rebate for overpaying your taxes, or is it somehow “our” money that is better left in government coffers?

How the kicker works 

First, the mechanics of the kicker law: Oregon state government is highly dependent on the personal income tax for its General Fund budget. With a fairly flat tax structure, most wage earners are in the nine percent income tax bracket, while the highest income earners are in the top 9.9 percent bracket. Therefore, state revenue can be quite volatile, going up and down as the economy cycles between boom and bust.

The legislature first passed the kicker law in 1979, and voters added it to the state constitution in 2000. It mandates that state economists estimate what income tax revenue will be over the following two-year budget period. The legislature then must balance the budget by not allocating more money than the estimate. If the estimate is low by two percent or more, then the entire surplus must be returned to taxpayers. The kicker law actually is composed of two parts, dealing with personal income taxes and corporate income taxes differently. In 2012 voters decided that any corporate kickers would be returned to the state general fund to provide additional funding for K-12 public schools.

Some people argue that the way the kicker “kicks” makes little sense. They correctly note that projecting state revenue two years out to within a two percent margin is terribly difficult, and has been done only rarely. Others defend the kicker law as an important brake on runaway government spending, especially since voters have rejected other tax and expenditure limitations at the polls.

Whose money is it? 

Whether the kicker law is good or bad public policy doesn’t change the answer to a more fundamental question: Whose money is it?

Some argue that the kicker money really belongs to the state. After all, they say, it’s in the state’s coffers because individuals paid what the tax law said they owed on their tax returns. As long as any Oregonian has a “need” for that money—be they school children, the elderly, the disabled, etc.—then the money should go to them instead of back to the individuals who earned it.

How much is that latte? 

Of course, this is the Marxist “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” justification. Taken further, not only would the kicker money remain with the state, but the state could retroactively come after even more of your previous income if, in the wisdom of government officials, anyone still “needed” those funds.

One way to look at this argument is to think about walking into a coffee shop today and ordering a $3 latte. The price is posted on the wall, but the person behind the counter asks you a question before accepting your order. “Did you get a raise last year?” “Yes,” you tell her proudly, “I was very productive last year and my boss gave me a 10 percent raise.” “That’s great,” she replies. “The $3 latte will cost you $3.30.” “Why?” you wonder. “Because your ability allows me to better meet my needs.”

You wouldn’t accept this argument from your barista, and you shouldn’t accept it from your government.

Next, some argue that the kicker “lavishes a windfall on those who don’t need it.” They point to the top one percent of taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes over about $386,000 who would receive more than $4,500 each, while the average taxpayer would only get back $210. What is often unstated in this argument is that those “lucky” top taxpayers paid way more income tax than the rest of us, and they will get back exactly the same percentage of their tax payments as everyone else does.

Envy is a powerful emotion, but it should not trump reason. If we can find a better way to restrain runaway government spending, we should do so. But until that day arrives, the kicker law is one defense against those who argue that some of the money you earned belongs to someone else just because they “need” it.


Oregon Income Tax Calculator: https://smartasset.com/taxes/oregon-tax-calculator


Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. An earlier version of this Cascade Commentary was published in November 2007.

 

Overtaxed and Underbuilt

By John A. Charles, Jr.

An Oregon Legislative committee is proposing a massive series of tax increases to pay for various transportation projects.

The proposal calls for higher taxes on vehicle registration, increased gas taxes, a new sales tax on motor vehicle purchases, a statewide employee tax to subsidize transit, and a new bicycle sales tax.

While there are many bad ideas on this list, perhaps the most offensive is the sales tax on vehicle purchases. It is being crafted so that most of the money would be diverted from highway maintenance into something called the “congestion relief and carbon reduction fund.”

Anything that includes “carbon reduction” in the title is guaranteed to be a boondoggle.

Before this proposal goes any further, legislators should consider a bill simply focusing on improving the road system. We all benefit from better roads.

In addition, they should try to charge people based on actual road use, not the mere ownership of vehicles. The gas tax is a good surrogate for this, so it would make sense to increase the gas tax rate while lowering vehicle registration fees. This would be fair to motorists, while still raising the funds needed for road improvements.


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

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.

Oregon Taxpayers, Not Riders, Pay Most Costs of Public Transit Operations

By John A. Charles, Jr.

In a recent interview with the Portland Business Journal, Chris Rall of Transportation for America argues for increased state support of public transit service. He says that Oregon only covers three percent of the operating costs of transit, while other (unnamed) states pay for 24 percent.

I don’t know the source of Mr. Rall’s claim, but the audited financial statements for the largest transportation districts in Oregon show a very different picture.

In FY 2016 TriMet had total operations revenue of $542,200,000 but only $118,069,000 came from passenger fares. That means TriMet riders received a 78% subsidy from other sources.

At Lane Transit District in Eugene, passenger fares in 2015 were only $7.2 million, while total operating revenue was $60.9 million. Non-riders paid for 88% of operations.

For Cherriots Salem-Keizer transit, public support totaled 94% of all operating revenue in 2015.

Undoubtedly the largest subsidy goes to the Portland-Eugene passenger rail line operated by ODOT. For every one-way ticket sold in 2015, the public paid $120.

Before state legislators approve any more subsidies to transit, they should require that transit operators recover at least 50% of costs from customers. If riders are only willing to pay 10 percent, why should taxpayers have to pick up the rest of the tab?


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

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.

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