Day: May 10, 2011

Ideas Matter, and So Do Institutions

When Cascade was founded in 1991, I was in my 12th year as executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council. Before that I had worked for a national environmental group based in New York. I was an unlikely candidate to ever lead a free-market think tank.

While I was not immediately aware that Cascade had been formed 20 years ago, I was aware that my own views about environmental protection were changing. The large sources of smokestack pollution I had seen as a boy growing up in northern New Jersey were well-controlled by the 1990s. Chronic urban smog, largely the result of auto emissions mixing with other chemicals in the presence of sunlight, had been permanently eliminated in most major cities due to dramatically improved auto technology. With virtually all pollution trends moving downward, things were so much better that environmental activists were increasingly looking for things to do just to keep busy (though they would never admit that).

In 1992 a friend suggested I take a look at Reason magazine, the journal of policy and culture published by the Reason Foundation. Becoming a subscriber opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about how we organize ourselves as a society and prompted me to think critically about natural resource policy. At roughly the same time, Oregon economist Randal O’Toole began publishing Different Drummer, a journal for “libertarian environmentalists.” I had a hard time even understanding that phrase, but I had followed Randal’s work for over a decade (pioneering the use of economic analysis of public land timber sales) and had a lot of respect for his thinking. Different Drummer regularly showed how large, intrusive government inevitably created incentives that resulted in both economic inefficiency and environmental destruction.

In 1994 Cascade Policy Institute sponsored its first Better Government Competition (BGC), which it billed as a “statewide citizens suggestion box” for ideas about how to reduce the size of government or to improve the delivery of government services. For some random reason I received a copy of the announcement, and since there were cash prizes available (always a good incentive), I carefully read it over. After thinking about it I submitted an idea related to electronic tolling of roads and variable (peak-hour) pricing.

My concept was not named one of the 10 finalists, but I enjoyed writing it and it introduced me to Cascade’s work in a more personal way. As I received announcements about CPI events, I began attending just to check out this whole free-market policy scene. I went to a Cascade lunch featuring José Piñera, the world’s leading authority on converting Social Security programs to asset accounts. That was quite a refreshing presentation.

I also attended a small meeting where I was introduced to Ted Kolderie from Minnesota, the father of the charter school movement. The meeting was facilitated by Cascade, though CPI’s co-founder Steve Buckstein now admits he thought the whole charter school concept was never going to work. So much for predictions!

I also went to a highly entertaining CPI presentation by Marshall Fritz, who made a compelling argument for a complete return of education services to the private sector on a voluntary, market-driven basis.

By 1995 it had become clear to me that the environmental movement was no longer focused on protecting the environment; it had been taken over by people who were much more interested in simply controlling people’s lives. Oregon land-use planning in particular had become a nightmare that was destroying the lives of thousands of people, for no reason other than the planner obsession for control. And federal forest regulation in the wake of the Spotted Owl litigation had placed thousands of Oregon workers on the unemployment list, while turning federal forests into museums that we could look at but not touch. I knew that my time at the Environmental Council was drawing to a close.

In 1996 Cascade sponsored its second BGC, and I entered it again. This time I suggested selling the Elliott State Forest and placing the proceeds (estimated at the time to be $880 million or more) into the Common School Fund to finance a school voucher program. I was named one of the 10 winners of the 1996 competition (apparently the judges were better that year); and in the process of converting my concept into a business plan, I got to know the early CPI staff – Steve, Tracie Sharp, Kurt Weber and Patrick Stephens. We had fun visiting in the office and at events, but it never crossed my mind that I might eventually work there.

However, in the spring of 1996 I announced my resignation from OEC, effective October of that year. I had pushed the OEC board as far as I could in the direction of free-market environmentalism, but they would not go any further. And my public questioning of land-use regulation and the Portland obsession with light rail made it clear that we needed to part company. I had no master plan for my next step and no job offers, but I knew it was time to leave.

In November and December of 1996, I began enjoying being out of the work force for the first time in my adult life and occasionally dropped by the CPI office to chat. On one of those visits, Steve engaged me in a long conversation (which turned out to be my job interview), and then asked if I would like to work full-time at Cascade to promote a property rights-based approach to environmental policy. I didn’t really know what it would mean to be an analyst with CPI, and I’d have to take a pay cut from my previous job, but I decided that working at Cascade would be fun. And professionally, it was a relief to know that Cascade was a place where I would never be too radical when it came to limiting the scope of government!

So now I’m in my 15th year at Cascade. Steve works for me (where he is happy to be out of management), and two of the three founding board members – Dave Gore and Bill Udy – are still serving. Our annual budget has gone up from $67,000 to $1.1 million, and our staff includes 12 people. We’ve evolved from the traditional “think tank” role of publishing papers and hosting speakers; we’re now very active in state legislative affairs and routinely send our analysts around the state to engage people and encourage their activism at a grassroots level.

Among think-tankers it’s common to hear the phrase “ideas matter,” and that’s true. But ideas by themselves rarely change society. We also need social change agents. We need institutions that can nurture ideas, market them, engage potential allies, and help tear down the various Berlin Walls that separate selected fields of state-dominated policy (such as the monopolies in education, highways, transit and public lands) from the marketplace. We need organizations that can attract unlikely supporters – like former leaders of environmental groups – into a growing parade for freedom.

Now in its 20th year, Cascade Policy Institute has changed my life, by taking ideas espoused by Madison, Jefferson, Friedman and others and making them policy-relevant to contemporary times. Cascade’s stated mission – to promote “individual liberty, economic opportunity and personal responsibility” – is one that I am passionate about. We are changing lives, one step at a time, and it is very rewarding to play a role in this process.

Cascade still has a lot of work to do, but we are gaining new supporters almost every day. The freedom parade is growing, and we appreciate everything you have done to make this happen.

 

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Poison Pills vs. Gun Rights

Three common sense firearms bills passed the House of the Oregon Legislature and are now in the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, they are not only in jeopardy, but there is a possibility they will be amended with “poison pills.”

 

The three bills address very different, yet important, issues. The first makes Concealed Handgun Licenses (CHL) not subject to public records laws except under specific circumstances; the second allows reciprocity to out of state CHL holders; and the third provides a legal means to carry a firearm on a motorcycle, snowmobile or ATV.

 

During recent Senate hearings on these bills, the public was asked to testify on concepts that were not in writing, yet were under consideration as amendments to the bills. One concept was simply stated as “guns on public school grounds.” Another was “access to firearms for persons suffering from mental health issues.” The concepts were not defined or thought out. They are broad, sweeping issues that in no way pertained to the bills under consideration. Currently, these bills have bipartisan support and likely would pass the Senate in their current form. But if they are amended to include any of these concepts, the bills may suffer a quick death even though they address important issues that affect our 2nd Amendment rights.

 

The “poison pill” tactic isn’t new in politics, but it is cowardly. If anti-gun activists have issues they want addressed, they should introduce a bill and go through a legitimate public process, not hide behind political antics.

 

 

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Testimony regarding HB 3605: Requires Oregon Governments to Fund OPEB Benefits

Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr., regarding HB 3605: Requires Oregon Governments to Fund OPEB
Before the House Rules Committee, May 9, 2011


My name is John Charles and I am President & CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a non-profit policy research organization. Cascade supports HB 3605 and believes it can be one of the most significant bills of the session.

 

HB 3605 grew out of concern regarding the unfunded, long-term public sector liabilities associated with “Other Post-Employment Benefits”, or OPEB. These benefits include things other than pensions, such as dental, vision and medical coverage.

 

All across the country, state and local governments are discovering that many of the commitments made to public employees about retirement benefits require funding that those units of government don’t have. Consequently, most governments are failing to place adequate reserves in trust funds to pay for future obligations. Instead, they are paying only what they owe current retirees, while allowing future obligations to quietly grow.

 

Up until recently, taxpayers and even most elected officials had no way of knowing how bad the problem was. However, in 2004 the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) adopted Statement 45, which requires that all units of government undertake a valuation of their OPEB obligations and state those obligations in annual financial reports. Implementation of GASB 45 was phased in during 2007-2009, and all units of government must now comply.

 

OPEB audits must calculate liabilities for all current and future retirees, amortized over a period not to exceed 30 years. Based on these calculations, actuaries determine what the Annual Required Contribution (ARC) would be if each entity paid for current OPEB benefits as well as a pro-rated share of future obligations.

 

However, the ARC is not actually mandatory, despite use of the word “required”; governments must publish information about net OPEB liabilities, but are not required to create OPEB trust funds or pay anything into trust funds. That remains a policy choice of each individual government.

 

Additional background information about GASB 45 is attached on the yellow sheet.

 

The Oregon Problem

 

A review last year of audited financial statements for 100 randomly-chosen Oregon governments (green spreadsheet, attached) by Jacob Szeto of the Oregon Capitol News (an affiliate of Cascade Policy Institute) showed that there are more than $3 billion in OPEB liabilities. Of that total, only 7.8% is funded. Most governments have no money set aside in OPEB trust funds, as can be seen in the “Funded Ratio” column on the green spreadsheet (3rd column from the right).

 

By way of comparison, at December 31, 2010, Oregon PERS was funded at roughly an 88% level, plus the total obligations are known. For OPEB liabilities, the level of under-funding is much worse, and the total obligations are not known. If there are $3 billion in unfunded OPEB liabilities from 100 units of government, one can only speculate what the total is for the roughly 1,700 units of government in Oregon.

 

Reliance on a pay-as-you-go system means that long-term unfunded liabilities will likely grow, creating cash flow problems for future managers, especially as large numbers of baby boomers begin retiring.

 

The Policy Solution: HB 3605 takes a very simple approach to this problem by requiring that all units of government in Oregon make Annual Required Contributions (ARC) into OPEB trust funds, as determined by outside actuaries.

 

This is not a new concept. ORS 238.420 already requires an ARC for the Retirement Health Insurance Account (RHIA), which is a multi-employer OPEB system administered by PERS.  That law states in part:

“The Retirement Health Insurance Account shall be funded by employer contributions. Each public employer that is a member of the system shall transmit to the board such amounts as the board determines to be actuarially necessary to fund the liabilities of the account. The level of employer contributions shall be established by the board using the same actuarial assumptions it uses to determine employer contribution rates to the Public Employees Retirement Fund. The amounts shall be transmitted at the same time and in the same manner as contributions for pension benefits are transmitted under ORS 238.225.”

 

 

If you look on the green spreadsheet, you’ll notice that RHIA (listed as #2 on page one) has a funded ratio of 41.9%. It is one of the very few entities with any money in a trust fund. Although the agency has unfunded actuarial liabilities of $297 million, that amount represents only 3.5% of the covered payroll, so the risk is minor.

Some people may ask if this bill is an “attack” on organized labor, or government itself. The answer is “no.” It is simply an attempt to ensure that promises made to employees about retirement benefits are kept. If specific units of government will not have the money to keep those promises, then managers should have an adult conversation with their employees NOW, not at some unknown time in the future when the crisis explodes.

 

Note that HB 3506 does not tell governments how to respond to an OPEB funding problem; it simply requires them to comply with the ARC. If there is no way to make sufficient cash payments into OPEB trust fund accounts now, then that problem needs to be addressed, and there are probably thousands of ways that individual OPEB liabilities could be reduced.

 

One of the most common methods is to change the vesting period for post-employment benefits. If, for instance, employees now have only a two-year vesting period to receive retirement medical benefits, and the vesting period were changed to six years, the OPEB liability (as calculated by the actuaries) would go down, thus the ARC would go down.

 

For employees who actually work longer than six years, this would have no effect on their benefits, so it is a relatively painless way of addressing the OPEB funding problem.

 

Other potential solutions would depend on the specific nature of employee contracts at the various governments.

 

Poster Child for HB 3605: TriMet

 

A quick glance at the attached spreadsheet will show that TriMet is #1 in unfunded liabilities, by any measure. In fact, the agency is not just #1 – it is an outlier so extreme that it begs some form of explanation. A brief discussion may assist legislators in understanding the need for HB 3605.

 

In 1994 TriMet changed the basic template of its union contract, incrementally lowering the age of retirement and dramatically increasing post-employment benefits. The cost of these obligations steadily accrued each year, but TriMet did not create a trust fund to pay for them. Since GASB 45 did not yet exist, almost no one outside the agency knew about this ticking time bomb.

 

In 2008 TriMet adopted GASB 45, and the district’s outside audit showed, for the first time, a “schedule of funding progress” for OPEB. The Unfunded Actuarial Accrued Liability (UAAL) for OPEB as of January 1, 2008 was $ 632 million.

 

In the 2010 TriMet budget document, the narrative to the Board stated, “TriMet needs to begin to take steps to partially fund a retiree-medical trust to assure a funding source for retiree health benefits, which have already been accrued but are not yet funded.” That was a clear and concise statement of need — yet the adopted budget for that year (FY 10-11) included zero funding for the OPEB trust fund.

 

In the very back of that document, on page 241, TriMet presented a revealing 10-year financial forecast. A copy is attached (the blue page). In that forecast, TriMet predicted that it would finally begin funding the OPEB trust with a token payment of $1 million in 2012, followed by identical payments for the next four years (line U on the blue sheet). The agency did not anticipate getting serious until FY 2019, when it projected an OPEB payment of $10 million.

 

Five months later, TriMet’s 2010 audit was released. The audit showed that in just two years the OPEB liability had ballooned from $632 million to $817 million, and all of it was unfunded.

 

Last month, TriMet released its draft budget for FY 11-12. The narrative is now much more evasive about the subject of OPEB. On page six, it simply states, “The FY 12 proposed budget reflects pay as you go funding of OPEB costs for retirees, and an initial deposit to an OPEB trust to begin funding future retiree OPEB benefit.” It does not say how much.  Also, the 10-year financial forecast page has been deleted.

 

If you search long enough, however, you can finally find on page 45 that the promised payment of $1 million has been downgraded to $410,000. Meanwhile, the OPEB liability keeps rising by the month, and is now probably in the neighborhood of $900 million.

 

Like high school students who keep telling their parents that they will start on that big term paper “tomorrow”, the TriMet Board has been procrastinating for 17 consecutive years on OPEB. This is setting up both employees and future board members for a massive meltdown later this decade.

 

It is important to note that TriMet’s OPEB problem is not the result of declining revenues. To the contrary, TriMet has been one of the few units of government with rising revenues, thanks in part to the legislature.

 

In both 2003 and 2009 the legislature authorized increases in the regional payroll and self-employment tax for TriMet (and Lane County Transit). TriMet began implementing the tax rate hike in January 2005, and will continue to implement it by raising the rate by 1/100th of a percentage point every year through 2024.

 

The chart below shows that the payroll tax increase, combined with substantial increases in passenger fares and federal grants, has led to both operating and capital funding increases that most local governments could only dream of.

 

TriMet Financial Resources, 2004-2012[1]

(millions)

 

FY 04/05 FY 08/09 FY 09/10 FY 10/11 (est) FY 11/12 (budget) % Change 04/05-11/12
Passenger Fares $   59.49 $   90.10 $   93.73 $   97.97 $103.80 74.5%
Payroll tax revenue $171.23 $209.10 $207.10 $217.20 229.10 33.8%
Total operating resources $308.77 397.24 $423.50 $424.20 $443.21 43.6%
Total resources $493.72 $888.35 $809.75 $763.66 $1,004.44 103.44%

 

TriMet will likely respond by stating that the purpose of the payroll tax rate increase was to pay for the “operating cost of new service”, not OPEB liabilities, which is true; but as the chart below illustrates, the increased service never materialized. In fact, service has been steadily dropping for the past three years:

 

Service Trends for TriMet Since the Payroll Tax Rate Increased in 2005

Fixed Route Service – light rail, bus, commuter rail[2]

 

 

March 2004 March 2006 March 2008 March 2010 March 2011 % Change
Peak vehicles 620 602 611 627 599 -3.4%
Service hours 147,138 143,308 144,912 143,089 132,777 -9.8%
Vehicle miles 2,684,606 2,620,246 2,546,365 2,531,041 2,357,214 -12.2%

 

 

To summarize, the agency hit a gusher of cash in the past seven years, but proceeded to cut service by 12% while dramatically increasing its unfunded OPEB liability. This is a financial disappearing act that would make Penn & Teller envious.

 

While TriMet is an extreme form of the management problem HB 3605 attempts to address, the challenge is the same across the board: promises are being made at many governments for post-employment benefits that probably cannot be kept. The time to deal with fiscal reality is now. The legislature should step in to require that modest steps be taken based on a 25-year amortization schedule.

 

It is rare that legislators have a chance to enact laws that will demonstrably make a positive difference for future generations. This is one of those cases.

 

Thank you for your consideration.


[1] TriMet budget documents, various years, 2004-2011

[2] TriMet monthly performance reports, 2004-2011

 

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