By John A. Charles, Jr.
Rarely has Oregon’s lack of political leadership been as painfully obvious as it is now on the topic of grid reliability.
Most of us take for granted the miracle of electricity. We flip a switch and the lights come on. Computers, air conditioners, smartphones—all powered by the magic of the grid. We don’t care how electricity arrives; we just want it, every hour of the day.
One of the intriguing characteristics of the grid is that electricity must be consumed at the same time it is generated. It cannot be stockpiled the way water can be stored in a tank. As a consumer, you can’t go next door and borrow a cup of kilowatts.
Supply and demand on the grid must be in equilibrium at all times, to avoid blackouts. This makes power generation tricky. Utilities need electricity sources they can count on—known as “baseload” power. They typically use coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric generators for this purpose. Those sources with the most operating flexibility—typically gas and hydro—are also used as “peakers,” to alter the power supply so it matches hourly changes in consumer demand.
The Oregon legislature declared war on reliable sources in 2007, when the first “Renewable Portfolio Standard” (RPS) law was passed. The RPS mandated that large utilities procure at least 25% of their power from politically-designated “renewable energy” sources by 2025. The most notable feature of this law was that it disallowed hydro dams built prior to 1995 to count as “renewable” energy—creating the legal fiction that the Columbia River hydropower system did not exist as a clean energy source. The point of this definition was to force utilities to switch to wind and solar.
Legislators doubled the RPS mandate to 50% (by 2040) in 2016. This was referred to by advocates as the “coal to clean” bill. They falsely promoted it as a means to eliminate coal-fired electricity. But the grid doesn’t work that way. Oregon is part of a multi-state network, in which thousands of power sources are being used at any given time. Once on the grid, electricity flows at the speed of light throughout the distribution system, powering millions of toasters, microwaves, and HVAC systems. Coal power is not physically isolated from solar or hydro.
In response to these political mandates, electric utilities are gradually shutting down coal plants in Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Wyoming. Unfortunately, they are proceeding without a clear plan for replacing baseload power. Wind and solar won’t cut it; as “intermittent” sources they fail to produce electricity about 70% of the time.
Oregon’s only coal-fired plant, located near Boardman, is owned by Portland General Electric (PGE). Due to an environmental lawsuit that was settled a decade ago, Boardman is scheduled to close by the end of this year. Electricity forecasters are predicting Northwest power shortages as early as 2020, and deficits of thousands of megawatts later in the decade.
PGE does not have a precise plan to replace Boardman. The utility expects to sign hydro contracts as a transition strategy. But any weather-related power source can disappear quickly, as happened in 2001 when the region experienced a low-water year. The result was a shortage of electricity, and the painful shutdown of the aluminum industry. Some 5,000 jobs in the Northwest disappeared.
PGE also expects to build or buy more wind and solar, coupled with battery storage. But the best utility-scale storage facility in the country can only deliver power for four hours.
We are on the brink of a blackout crisis. Instead of addressing a problem they created—the RPS law—state legislators have wasted the 2020 short session trying to prevent “global climate change” by placing limits on fossil fuel use in Oregon. Even if enacted, this would have no measurable effect on climate, so it is a waste of time and money.
Business leaders and civic groups should demand an end to this insanity. Here’s a short agenda:
First, investigate the possibility of extending the life of Boardman. The facility was designed to run for another 20 years. We should not shut it down unless all of its baseload power can be replaced by other reliable sources, at a reasonable cost.
Second, consider having the legislature refer out a referendum to re-legalize nuclear power. Some of the most cutting-edge research on smaller-scale nuclear energy is being done here in Oregon, but any commercialization will have to take place elsewhere. It’s time for a new conversation on this subject.
Finally, repeal the RPS statute. Operating the grid is complicated enough; mandating the types of power sources utilities can use is only making things worse.
John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center. A version of this article appeared in the February 2020 edition of The Oregon Transformation Newsletter.
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By Miranda Bonifield
You may not be able to tax carbon out of existence, but you can tax agriculture out of business.
That’s the refrain of Timber Unity, the coalition which sees the resurrection of last year’s cap-and-trade bill as a threat to businesses which have called Oregon “home” for decades. One woman at the Timber Unity protest in Salem February 6 said she would see an additional $45,000 in taxes if SB 1530 passes. That’s a non-starter for small businesses whose profit margins are often in the single digits.
In other words, hardworking people will be put out of business if this bill passes: folks who brought their trucks from around the state before dawn to remind Salem what the voice of Oregon sounds like. The atmosphere among the thousands gathered wasn’t tense or angry. The thousands gathered were just ordinary people who care about the environment and want to make an honest living.
Timber Unity has proposed alternatives that could help continue the downward trend of carbon emissions, which are already at their lowest level per capita since 1960. But a bipartisan compromise or referring the issue to voters don’t seem to be options. (Perhaps that’s because we already know passing a carbon tax would be a hard sell at the ballot box.)
As Senator Betsy Johnson (D, Scappoose) said, “Real Oregonians are affected by what we do in this building. …This was a bad bill last session. It’s a bad bill this session.”
Miranda Bonifield is Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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By John A. Charles, Jr.
After eight years of bragging that the proposed light rail line to Tigard would result in average daily ridership of 43,000, TriMet has quietly dropped the estimate to 37,500.
This “bait-and-switch” was totally predictable. At the start of every rail planning process, TriMet creates a high ridership estimate to get local politicians excited. Once the politicians agree to help fund the project, ridership forecasts are revised downwards. Eventually construction begins, and just before opening day, ridership estimates are lowered again.
At that point, it’s too late for politicians to back out.
TriMet promised Milwaukie officials that there would be 19,450 average daily rides on the Orange line in 2020. The actual ridership today is 12,160—63% of the forecast.
For the Blue line, ridership today is only 50% of the 2020 forecast.
The worst performer is the Yellow line, where ridership is a paltry 38% of the 2020 forecast.
While ridership is always low, construction costs are always high. For the Tigard line, cost estimates have gone up by 58% just since 2016. The current estimate is $2.85 billion.
Tigard light rail will be the most wasteful project in state history, if it ever gets built. The time to pull the plug is now.
John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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By Rachel Dawson
The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), the agency charged with building and maintaining the city’s transportation system, is shifting the responsibility of improving traffic congestion away from itself and onto individual residents.
This was made apparent in a recently released 2018 report provided by Bloom Communications that surveyed Portland residents’ attitudes and perceptions of the Bureau. The contents of the survey are unsurprisingly critical of PBOT and demonstrate Portlanders’ increasing frustration with the region’s transportation system.
Of the themes that emerged, survey participants were generally concerned with safety on public transit, potholes and degrading roads, increasing traffic congestion, and PBOT’s lack of vision.
People want safe and efficient commutes. 81% of participants said that driving their car was the safest way for them and their families to commute, as they have greater control over who they come in contact with and what happens to them. Another 64% said they would consider taking transit if they were sure they “could reliably get to [their] destination faster or in the same amount of time as driving [their] personal car.” However, the current transportation system is seen as an inconvenience for many participants, and it is quicker for them to drive their car due to the frequency at which the MAX and city buses make stops.
PBOT is charged with repairing potholes and maintaining roads in Portland, yet some participants voiced their frustration with potholes not being filled in and car lanes disappearing across the city, replaced by bike lanes.
When it comes to bike lanes, PBOT doesn’t seem to know what it wants. Various striping patterns around the city lack consistency and confuse bikers and drivers alike.
According to one PBOT stakeholder (emphasis added):
“…The average joe probably doesn’t want the bike lane; they just want the street maintained. These are not necessarily the vocal people that come in and drive the budget. It’s concerning to see most of our city policies focused around that vocal minority. Are we aligning with who the general people are? Or are we focused on the Biker’s Alliance?”
Despite this concern, it seems that PBOT will continue to turn a deaf ear to the majority of commuters who want improved roads and more efficient commutes. The report states that “Portlanders demand a solution to traffic congestion but are unwilling to alter the way they are used to commuting to make positive changes and ease the situation….[R]esidents will have to start changing how they commute.” PBOT has no desire to increase road capacity and is placing the responsibility for rising levels of traffic congestion on individual Portlanders.
Portland commissioner Chloe Eudaly will send Portland’s expiring 10 cent per gallon gas tax back to voters in May 2020. Gasoline-using vehicles pay for 100% of the tax but only receive 56% of the benefits. The other 44% is spent on pedestrian and bicycle safety. Portland’s auditor reported in a 2019 audit that the program was poorly managed and lacked realistic project schedules. Moreover, the program’s spending seems to highlight the concerns held by the above PBOT stakeholder, that city policies are focusing disproportionately on pet projects and the vocal biking minority instead of aligning with the general public.
Commuters want efficient and safe commutes on well-maintained roads. PBOT should be serving the public, not dictating how residents should commute. Voters should reject the 10-cent gas tax and demand that PBOT take responsibility for Portland’s increasing congestion. PBOT should try to reduce congestion, not make it worse. Portlanders deserve better.
Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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Transparency is critical as Metro asks voters to trust the agency with billions in new taxes
February 11, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
Cascade Policy Institute has raised concerns with Metro Council that the regional government’s Parks and Nature program may be violating Oregon’s Public Meetings Law.
In a letter to Metro President Lynn Peterson and Metro Council, Cascade Policy Institute has identified two meetings of the Parks and Nature Oversight Committee that were held without public notice.
One of these meetings was last Tuesday, February 4, 2020. At an afternoon work session, Councilor Sam Chase informed the rest of Council that he had met with the Oversight Committee earlier that day. At the meeting Councilor Chase and the committee discussed issues Cascade Policy Institute’s Eric Fruits had raised regarding the Parks and Nature program in testimony to council on January 23, 2020. Councilor Chase says he and the committee discussed the administrative costs of the Parks and Nature program, which skyrocketed last year. There was no public notice of the public meeting of the Oversight Committee.
The other meeting was September 24, 2019. There is no record of a public notice announcing this meeting of the Oversight Committee. According to minutes the committee discussed the program’s administrative costs, which at the time were running at 20% for the year, or double the amount Metro promised to voters. Other issues included the upcoming Parks and Nature ballot measure and land acquisitions.
As late as December 6, 2019, the Oversight Committee’s webpage had no record of the September 24, 2019, meeting according to an archived copy of the webpage.
After Dr. Fruits’ testimony to Metro Council regarding the Oversight Committee, it appears Metro created a backdated webpage to give the appearance that it provided public notice of the September 24, 2019 meeting. For example, the page says, “The Sept. 24 meeting will include a tour of Killin Wetlands Nature Park” (emphasis added).
A review of the source code for the webpage reveals that the page was published on January 24, 2020, one day after Cascade Policy Institute’s testimony to Metro Council.
Oregon Public Meetings Law requires that public notice be given of the time and place of meetings and that the time must be “reasonably calculated to give actual notice to interested persons.”
Metro provided no notice of its most recent meeting of the Parks and Nature Oversight Committee. Even worse, it appears Metro created backdated notice to cover its failure to notify the public of its September 2019 meeting of the Oversight Committee.
Oregon’s Public Meetings Law indicates members of a governing body may be liable for attorney and court costs both as individuals or as members of a group if found in willful violation of the Public Meetings Law. To reduce the risk of such consequences, Metro Council must perform a thorough review of the relevant law regarding its public meetings and take whatever actions necessary to ensure Metro abide by both the letter and the spirit of the law.
As Metro is asking voters to approve billions of dollars in new taxes for housing services and transportation, transparency encouraging citizen oversight of the regional government’s spending is more important than ever. Proper notice of public meetings is not just the law, it’s the right thing to do.
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By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
With this year’s “short” session of the legislature, the $700 million a year cap-and-trade bill is on everyone’s mind.
As they say on the infomercials: “Wait, there’s more.” Way more. Way more taxes. This year, Portland area voters are facing at least six new tax measures.
First, we have Metro’s transportation package that will amount to more than $400 million a year in new taxes.
This week, Metro is also looking to move forward with another set of taxes for homeless services. That’s expected to cost about $300 million a year.
Then, we’ve got Portland Public Schools’ billion dollar plus school construction bond, where $200 million will be used to pay for cost overruns from the last bond measure.
Wait, there’s more.
In November, Portland voters will be asked to renew the city’s 10-cents per gallon gas tax.
In the Portland area alone, voters will see at least six new taxes totaling more than a billion dollars a year.
Also in November, ballots will go out for a $2 per pack increase in Oregon’s cigarette tax plus a massive new tax on vaping products.
Wait, there’s one more.
In response to House Speaker Tina Kotek’s call for a housing emergency in Oregon, Governor Kate Brown is pressing for a new tax on home sales. That’s right, the state with a housing affordability crisis is looking at a tax to make homes more expensive.
No matter how much they spend, they always want more. It’s time for Oregon voters to pick up their ballot and tell their politicians, “Enough is enough.”
Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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By Miranda Bonifield
When Kendra Espinoza’s husband suddenly left their small family, her two daughters’ lives were thrown into chaos. Separation is never easy on kids. But on top of all the normal anxieties of the situation, Naomi and Sarah went from homeschooling with a stay-at-home mom to enrollment in the local public school while their mom worked. While this might be a smooth transition for some kids, Naomi was bullied and Sarah struggled in her classes.
Kendra knew it wasn’t the right option for them. So, the Montana mother took a second job and pursued every financial avenue she could to send them to a Christian private school. There, her daughters flourished in an environment where Kendra felt they were learning good values.
Tuition became more burdensome when in 2017 Montana ended the tax credit scholarship that helped stabilize Naomi and Sarah’s lives. The small program had allowed Montana taxpayers to deduct up to $150 from their taxes when they voluntarily donated to scholarship organizations that helped kids like the Espinozas.
Montana’s tax credit scholarships could be used at any school, whether secular or religious, until the Montana Department of Revenue chose to interpret the state’s prohibition against aid to religious organizations to include participation in this program. Though a trial court found in favor of families’ free exercise, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the entire scholarship tax credit to avoid either benefiting or discriminating against religious schools. On January 22, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.
Ending a scholarship program which helped families across the state solely to prevent religious schools from benefiting is arguably a violation of the free exercise and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Previous Supreme Court cases like Trinity Lutheran v. Comer (2017) established that a church’s status as a religious organization may not be used to deny it benefits from an otherwise secular aid program.
Montana has argued, tenuously, that the precedent set in Locke v. Davey allows a state educational funding program to refuse funding explicitly religious options such as pastoral degrees. But even the scholarship program in Locke included religious schools and religious classes, drawing the line only at explicitly religious purposes.
Montana’s tax credit scholarship, which originally assisted school-aged children to attend any participating private school, could have legally and Constitutionally continued to help Kendra Espinoza and her kids without providing undue support to religious organizations. In fact, out of 29 states with a total of 62 school choice programs, Montana’s is the only program which chose to explicitly remove support for religious schools on the basis of their religion.
While school choice programs may allow funding to be directed to a variety of schools, the real beneficiaries are the families who can choose schools which help their unique children. The real beneficiaries are kids like Naomi and Sarah. Espinoza v. Montana is less a question about public funding for private schools and more an issue of equal access to education for American families. While striking down Montana’s tax credit scholarship program removed options for all children, it disproportionately impacted the children of low-income families for whom private school tuition is at best a major sacrifice and at worst an impossibility.
For moms like Kendra, school choice isn’t a distant political ideal. It’s an immediate practical reality which means the difference between watching your child struggle through a one-size-fits-all system and choosing a school that can nurture your child’s growth. This month’s arguments in Espinoza v. Montana should become an important precedent for defending a family’s right to choose an education consistent with their values, bringing a fairer understanding of what it means to provide equal access to education.
A favorable ruling in Espinoza v. Montana could help empower families who otherwise would be unable to attend private schools—a boon both to public schools which would benefit from increased competition and to students who could thrive with the education that best fits them.
Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is also the Program Assistant for the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program, which helps lower-income Oregon children attend private and parochial elementary schools through partial-tuition scholarships.
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