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.

Car Ownership Is Not a Crime

By John A. Charles, Jr.

A bill has been introduced in the state legislature that would impose a $1,000 ownership tax every five years on automobiles more than 20 years old.

Fortunately, leaders of the Republican Party quickly denounced it; and without bipartisan support the bill has no chance of passage. The chair of the House Revenue Committee, Rep. Phil Barnhart of Eugene, has announced that the bill is dead.

The fact that this legislation was even introduced points to a conceptual problem shared by many lawmakers: They think that owning a vehicle is undesirable and should be taxed.

But owning a car imposes no cost on the public; it’s the use of the vehicle that we should be concerned with.

As one legislator told me many years ago, “I own four cars—but I only drive one at a time!”

Since we do need money for improved roads, any transportation tax should focus on road use. One option would be to lower the cost of vehicle registration in exchange for a small increase in the gas tax.

Motorists deserve all the roads they are willing to pay for. Raising the gas tax would give drivers a chance to vote with their tires for a better road system.


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

“Facing Reality” Report Offers Solutions to Governor Brown’s $1.7 Billion Budget Hole Without Raising Taxes

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contacts:

Steve Buckstein (503) 242-0900

Jeff Kropf (541) 729-6229

PORTLAND, Ore. – Cascade Policy Institute and Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation jointly released a new report Wednesday, entitled Facing Reality: Suggestions to balance Oregon’s budget without raising taxes. The report offers practical solutions to fill Governor Kate Brown’s estimated $1.7 billion budget hole without raising taxes.

Facing Reality is the third budget blueprint in a series: In 2010 and 2013 Cascade Policy Institute and Americans for Prosperity-Oregon published Facing Reality reports that offered state legislators an opportunity to “reset” state government using the time-tested principles of limited government and pro-growth economic policies.

“Oregon has over one billion dollars more to spend than the last budget but is still nearly two billion short because Governor Brown’s budget continues out-of-control and unsustainable spending,” said Jeff Kropf, Executive Director of Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation. “It’s time to face the reality that raising taxes will never provide enough money to build the fantasy utopia envisioned by the Governor and current legislative leadership. There is no free lunch, and new taxes are only going to hurt the poor and the middle class.”

Facing Reality outlines $1.3 billion in reduced spending in seven specific areas which, coupled with small across-the-board agency reductions, equals $1.7 billion, enough to fill the Governor’s estimated budget hole and removing the need to raise taxes.

“Keep in mind that even with our Facing Reality budget reductions, the state of Oregon will still be spending more money than the previous budget,” said Steve Buckstein, Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute. “The reality the Governor and the legislature must face is that the bill for years of overspending is coming due, and raising taxes that hurt the economy is not the answer. Reducing how fast spending grows is the sustainable way forward.”

This third Facing Reality report offers politically possible solutions to meet the needs of Oregonians. It still gives most state agencies more money to spend, but without enacting new taxes being proposed by the several dozen tax increase bills introduced for consideration in the 2017 legislative session.

Here are the seven specific budget reductions proposed in Facing Reality:

Solution Impact
PERS—$100,000 cap $135 million
Department of Administrative Services—halt additional hiring $120 million
Medicaid—opt out of ACA expansion $360 million
Cover All Kids—reject expansion $55 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

For agencies not identified for specific reductions in the report, across-the-board reductions of about three percent from Governor Brown’s budget would eliminate the shortfall she identified. If this plan were implemented, none of the tax and fee increases outlined in the Governor’s budget would be necessary.

Buckstein and Kropf note, “Most Oregonians must face their own family budget realities every day. Facing Reality is a good-faith effort to hold our state government to the same budgetary realities. We look forward to working with state legislative and executive branch leaders to help implement such realities in 2017.”

Read the full report here: Facing Reality: Suggestions to balance Oregon’s budget without raising taxes

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and educational organization that focuses on state and local issues in Oregon. Cascade’s mission is to develop and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity.  Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation is a 501(c)3 charitable educational foundation dedicated to educating Oregon citizens about how state and local governments spend their tax dollars by researching, documenting, and publicizing government spending and developing policy proposals that promote sound fiscal policies and efficient government.

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Measure 97 and the Mirage of School Funding

— Voters are destined for disappointment

 

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Proponents of Measure 97 have consistently claimed that if the measure passes, it will generate an additional $3 billion annually for public education and other social services. Judging from the comments I’ve read in various Oregon newspapers, many people are falling for this argument.

Apparently none of the letter writers have ever watched a legislative appropriations hearing. These are the meetings where a tiny group of senior politicians sit in a back room and decide how to spend billions of dollars. I’ve watched hundreds of such hearings, and the most predictable outcome is that politicians will spend money in front of them on whatever they want.

Let’s just take a simple example. Oregon was one of 44 states that sued the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s to recover the health care costs associated with smoking. Plaintiffs claimed that the tobacco industry had long been imposing uncompensated costs on states in the form of health care for smokers who became sick from use of the product.

The suit was settled through adoption of a Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) with the four largest tobacco manufacturers. As part of the agreement, each state was to receive payments every year from 1998 through 2025.

According to the plaintiffs, the estimated $25 billion of MSA money was supposed to be used for tobacco prevention activities and health care subsidies necessary to treat smoking illnesses. But that was not a formal part of the agreement. Each state was free to use the funds in whatever way its state legislature approved.

In Oregon, total MSA funds received since 1998 have exceeded $1.26 billion. Almost all of it was spent on programs that had nothing to do with tobacco cessation or public health. Only 0.8 percent was appropriated for tobacco prevention programs.

How could this be? They promised!

Yes, Virginia, they promised. But every two years, 90 legislators show up in Salem, and they each have their own priorities. Once you put a pot of money on the table for them to spend, it’s game over.

Almost no one in the Capitol remembers what the MSA was, and, furthermore, they don’t care. They only care about spending money for the stuff they want right now.

Measure 97 is a horrible tax proposal, for many reasons. It unfairly targets a small subset of all businesses directly, but hits all businesses and all of us indirectly. It taxes sales but not profits. It would be the largest tax increase in Oregon history.

But if voters ignore these concerns and approve it anyway because they think it will increase funding for schools, they are destined for bitter disappointment.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

Like a Sales Tax on Steroids

Now that the massive Gross Receipts Tax measure IP 28 will be on Oregon’s November ballot, we likely will see many estimates of its impact on the state economy.

An economic research center at Portland State University just came out with its report on the measure, funded by the measure’s sponsor, union-backed Our Oregon.

Too bad that the sponsors picked a center headed by a respected former Oregon State economist who said publicly in March that their proposal would be “like a sales tax on steroids.”

Dr. Tom Potiowsky now chairs the PSU Economics Department and directs the Northwest Economic Research Center at the university. While the new PSU report doesn’t include the “sales tax on steroids” language that he personally used in March, it does confirm that such taxes “share many characteristics with sales taxes, and thus a greater burden on lower income households.”

The report also finds that because the tax will increase the cost of doing business in Oregon, it will destroy some 13,500 private sector jobs by 2027, while the added tax revenue will enable government employment to grow by 33,600 positions over the same period.

So, the tax will most hurt those least able to afford it, and will shift employment from the private to the public sector. Not bad for a sales tax on steroids.

A Sales Tax by Any Other Name…

Public employee union backers of Initiative Petition 28 have turned in more than enough signatures to place their massive 2.5 percent gross receipts tax measure on Oregon’s November ballot.

While supposedly dedicating most of the $6 billion per biennium additional tax revenue to public education, health care, and senior services, in reality legislators would be under pressure from powerful lobbyists in the Capitol to substitute at least some of this new revenue for money they would otherwise dedicate to those services. In short, the loudest voices in Salem, not voters, will ultimately control where this extra tax money goes.

While the unions portray their measure as making large, out-of-state corporations pay their fair share of Oregon taxes, the nonpartisan Legislative Revenue Office has released a detailed report giving a much more balanced perspective, which includes:

■ IP 28 will increase state and local taxes by $600 per year on average for every man, woman, and child in Oregon, totaling over $6 billion each full biennium.

■ IP 28 will dampen income, employment, and population growth over the next 5 years. In fact, it is expected to reduce employment growth by more than 20,000 jobs over the next five years, with private sector job growth slowing while public sector job growth accelerates in order to spend all that new tax money.

■ IP 28 will hit lower- and middle-income Oregonians harder than it will affect high-income earners. In other words, it is a regressive tax.

Perhaps most telling, the Legislative Revenue Office concludes that IP 28 will act largely like a consumption tax. It estimates that roughly two-thirds of that $6 billion per biennium tax increase will be passed on to Oregon consumers in the form of higher prices. Another name for a consumption tax is a sales tax.

The reality that IP 28 would effectively be a sales tax should be a lesson for all Oregonians that businesses generally don’t pay taxes, people do. Even the largest corporations are made up of people, namely employees, and sell their goods and services to other people, namely customers. It is largely these two groups of people who pay so-called business taxes like the one that IP 28 would impose.

The backers of IP 28 certainly understand that it is really a tax on people, not corporations. But, it is harder to get voters to approve a tax measure when they think it will hit them with rising prices at the store and fewer job opportunities. Better to promote the fiction that big faceless corporations have some magic pots of money that they will simply hand over to state government and public employees without any consequences for the rest of us.

Public employee unions back IP 28 because most of the tax revenue it would generate will go into the pockets of their members. Once the rest of us realize that this money will come primarily out of our pockets, we might not be too excited about voting for this massive new money grab.


A version of this article originally appeared in The Coos Bay World on June 1, 2016.

If Gambling Is a Problem, Who Is Responsible?

Governor Kate Brown opposes a plan by the Coquille Indian Tribe to build a casino in Medford.

In her public statement, the Governor said she opposes the addition of any more casinos because “even a single additional casino is likely to lead to significant efforts to expand gaming across Oregon to the detriment of the public welfare.”

Her concern for the public welfare is touching, but if one simply “follows the money” associated with the state’s own gambling franchise—the Oregon Lottery—it’s clear that the Governor has little regard for the health of Oregon citizens.

The Oregon Lottery is a state-run monopoly using a network of 3,939 retailers to offer players a wide choice of games, including Scratch-its, Keno, Powerball, Win for Life, Mega Millions, Lucky Lines, and Pick 4.

In addition, the Lottery has approximately 11,925 Video Lottery terminals deployed throughout the state. These terminals accounted for 71.5% of total sales in 2015 and are highly addictive. According to the Oregon Health Authority, roughly 90% of problem gambling in Oregon is associated with Lottery video machines.

In 2015, Oregon earned $1.2 billion from the state Lottery. In January, Powerball mania resulted in record sales of $36 million in one week. An Oregon Lottery spokesman said, “Any time sales go up, that’s a good thing for our beneficiaries.”

Who are these beneficiaries? By law, 57% of net Lottery revenues support public education. Activities loosely defined as “economic development” get 27%. State parks and salmon enhancement programs split 15% of revenues.

Those activities account for 99% of all Lottery funds. The last 1% gets allocated for problem gambling. The state estimates that 81,800 adults and 4,000 adolescents have a gambling addiction.

If Governor Brown were so interested in the “public welfare,” she would be advocating for an increase in the percent of Lottery funds dedicated to the 86,000 problem gamblers. This would at least give her some moral high ground to stand on before criticizing a casino proposed by the Coquille Tribe.

But despite total control of the legislative process by the Democratic Party, the Governor has not made this a priority.

Oregon’s misuse of tobacco tax money is even more egregious. Oregon was one of 44 states that sued the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s regarding the health care costs associated with smoking. As a result of a Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) with the four largest tobacco manufacturers, each state was to receive payments every year from 1998 through 2025.

According to the plaintiffs, MSA money was supposed to be used for tobacco prevention activities and health care subsidies necessary to treat smoking illnesses, but that was not a formal part of the agreement. Thus, each state was free to use the funds in whatever way its state legislature approved.

In Oregon, total MSA funds received since 1998 equal $1.26 billion—yet only 0.8% of the money has been used for tobacco prevention activities.

The Governor’s hypocrisy associated with the use of tobacco and gambling profits is embarrassing. She should clean up her own house before she starts lecturing any of the Tribes about their casino expansion plans.


This article originally appeared in The Coos Bay World on May 24, 2016.

A Sales Tax by Any Other Name

Public employee union backers of Initiative Petition 28 appear to have turned in more than enough signatures to place their 2.5 percent corporate gross receipts tax on Oregon’s November ballot.

While the unions portray their measure as making large, out-of-state corporations pay their fair share of Oregon taxes, the nonpartisan Legislative Revenue Office (LRO) just released its more balanced perspective, which includes:

■ IP 28 will increase state and local taxes by $600 per year on average for every man, woman, and child in Oregon, totaling over $6 billion each full biennium.

■ IP 28 will dampen income, employment, and population growth over the next 5 years.

■ IP 28 will hit lower- and middle-income Oregonians harder than it will affect high-income earners. In other words, it is a regressive tax.

■ Finally, the Legislative Revenue Office concludes that IP 28 will act largely like a consumption tax. It estimates that roughly two-thirds of the $6 billion per biennium tax increase will be passed on to Oregon consumers in the form of higher prices.

Another name for a consumption tax is a sales tax.

Public employee unions back IP 28 because most of the tax revenue it would generate will go into the pockets of their members. Of course, that revenue will come out of everyone else’s pockets.

Who Profits from Gambling?

Governor Kate Brown opposes a plan by the Coquille Indian Tribe to build a casino in Medford.

In her public statement, the Governor said, “even a single additional casino is likely to lead to significant efforts to expand gaming across Oregon to the detriment of the public welfare.”

What she actually means is she’s opposed to more gambling if it’s not run by state government.

During the current two-year budget cycle, Oregon expects to earn $1.2 billion from the state Lottery. In January, Powerball mania resulted in record sales of $36 million in one week. A Lottery spokesman said, “Any time sales go up, that’s a good thing for our beneficiaries.”

The hypocrisy of Oregon politicians about gambling and other so-called “sinful” activities is tiresome. We are constantly lectured to avoid smoking, drinking, and gambling because those activities are bad for us; but as soon as legislators get a cut of the action, it’s full steam ahead.

Now that recreational marijuana is legal and taxed, politicians are suddenly enjoying a new profit stream. Can marijuana advertising be far behind?

As soon as our governor starts reining in the state Lottery, I might take her concerns about tribal casinos seriously. Until then, she should stop pretending to be a voice of morality.

Enjoy the illusion that you’re not really paying taxes, when you cash that expensive refund check

Are you happy getting three extra days to file your income tax returns this year?

For nearly eighty percent of us, it doesn’t matter much because we are expecting refunds. No check writing for us. Why? Because the withholding system almost encourages over-withholding, thus giving the impression that we don’t pay taxes, the government pays us!

Try a little experiment. Ask ten of your friends how much they paid in taxes. Chances are, eight of them might say something like, “I didn’t pay anything, I’m getting money back!”

This happened because my hero Milton Friedman had one of his few bad ideas when he proposed the withholding concept while working at the Treasury Department during World War II. The government needed money fast to finance the war effort, and as Friedman said years later:

“It never occurred to me at the time that I was helping to develop machinery that would make possible a government that I would come to criticize severely as too large, too intrusive, too destructive of freedom. Yet, that was precisely what I was doing.”

Of course, by over-withholding we’re just giving the government an interest-free loan. But psychologically, doesn’t it feel nice getting that refund check?

So, enjoy the illusion that you’re not really paying taxes when you cash that expensive refund check. You paid dearly for it!

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