Month: April 2020

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Ballot Measures with No Accountability Deserve a No Vote

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

We all need to raise questions about our politicians’ priorities and how they spend our money. Even well-meaning policies should be skeptically scrutinized. Especially well-meaning policies. At the heart of every crisis in Oregon, there’s a policy that’s gone sideways. From PERS to CoverOregon to housing affordability and homelessness to massive overruns on Portland Public Schools construction: All are failures because of inadequate scrutiny.

That’s why I’m opposed to both Metro’s housing measure and the renewal of Portland’s 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax. They’re both unfair taxes and are likely to fail to make any measurable improvement in the lives of Oregonians.

Much of the blame for the Portland area’s housing affordability and homelessness can be placed on Metro and other local governments’ decades-long policy to pursue density at any cost. Their push for expensive high-rise housing has displaced housing that was once available for low- and middle-income residents. Their refusal to expand the urban growth boundary has stifled any development of affordable housing on the edges of the region.

Now Metro tells us it will cost $250 million a year to deal with the problems their own policies have caused. Homelessness and affordable housing is a regionwide problem that affects almost everyone. However, Metro crafted their measure so the costs of Measure 26-210 fall on only 10% of households and businesses. That’s not a “we’re all in this together” approach, it’s an “us vs. them” approach—it’s not just unfair, it’s wrong.

Over and over in the endorsement interviews, the measure’s proponents were asked who they’re going to help and how they’ll measure success. Over and over, the proponents deflected from these obvious questions, saying it’s complicated or too hard to put numbers to. Willamette Week, which endorsed the measure, details the lack of accountability:

Here’s what gives us pause: The supporters of Measure 26-210 cannot say with any specificity how they plan to spend this money.

They don’t know how much money would be spent on rent assistance, how much on addiction treatment, how much on mental health care, and how much on employment services.

When pressed, the architects of the measure did not promise a single metric for measuring how many would be served by these tax dollars, or what aid they’d get. They have shielded themselves from failure by never saying what success might look like.

When most people think of the homeless crisis, they think of the people sleeping in doorways, under overpasses, or in their cars. They think of the camps scattered across the city. Even so, neither Metro nor Measure 26-210’s proponents can say how many people will get off the streets or how many camps will clear out. If there are no clear measures of success, then there’s no accountability, and the crisis will never clear up.

Portland’s streets are a mess. By the city’s last estimates, Portland has a road paving backlog of about 3,100 lane miles. That’s enough to pave a two-lane road from Pioneer Square to El Paso, Texas. Over the years, Portland has taken money away from road maintenance to spend on light rail and streetcars. For example, in 2009, Portland committed $30 million to the Milwaukie light rail project. That same year, the city eliminated paving projects on local streets. In 2012, the city suspended major paving projects.

Now Measure 26-209 is looking to raise about $75 million in gas tax revenues over the next four years to fund Portland’s “Fix Our Streets” program.

Except, very few of the streets will actually be repaired. The list of proposed projects shows paving projects for only seven miles of city streets. That’s less than one percent of the current backlog.

In the endorsement interviews, proponents claimed sidewalk repair would be a key areas of gas tax spending. But, again, the list of proposed projects identifies a total of only one mile of sidewalk repairs.

Take a look at the breakdown of spending under Measure 26-209. Many of the projects are designed to increase congestion and make things worse for drivers.

  • $4.5 million for Neighborhood Greenways designed to impose burdens on auto drivers. PBOT defines “Neighborhood Greenways” as “Streets with low traffic volume and speed where bicycles, pedestrians and neighbors are given priority.”
  • $1.5 million for all the “In Motion” plans—Northwest In Motion, North Portland In Motion, Southwest In Motion. All designed to make driving a car more costly. They’re more like “Slow Motion” plans.
  • $2 million for speed bumps.

We have a housing affordability and homeless crisis. We have a traffic congestion crisis. Both tax measures aspire to solve pressing problems. However, both measures are doomed to fail. They both lack the accountability that is necessary for effective government. That’s why Cascade Policy Institute spends so much time and energy staying on top of these issues—to provide skeptical scrutiny and accountability where they’re needed most.

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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Portland Gas Tax: Big Dollars, Minuscule Results

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

This May, Portland voters will be asked to renew the city’s 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax. As with the last one, Measure 26-209 promises slightly more than half of the money raised will be used to repair and repave Portland streets.

As with the last measure, while the dollars look big, the results are minuscule. For example, the street paving projects promise an eye-popping $25 million in spending. But, when you look at the actual projects promised, it adds up to only 7.5 miles of city streets.

But if you look at the breakdown of spending under Measure 26-209, you’ll see that many of the projects are designed to increase congestion and make things worse for drivers paying the gas tax.

  • $4.5 million for Neighborhood Greenways where “bicycles, pedestrians and neighbors are given priority.”
  • $1.5 million for all the Slow Motion plans—Northwest Slow Motion, North Portland Slow Motion, Southwest Slow Motion—all designed to make driving a car more costly.
  • $2 million for speed bumps.

Portlanders voting for Measure 26-209 will be voting to underwrite programs that will make their commutes measurably worse.

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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Portland’s homeless population needs a “hand-up,” not another Metro money grab

By Rachel Dawson

The Oregon nonprofit Cascadia Clusters understands the value of providing Oregon’s growing homeless population with a “hand-up” by helping individuals gain the skills needed to construct affordable transitional housing. Cascadia Clusters is a nonprofit charity that receives no government funding. Instead, it relies on donations.

The organization provides meaningful skills training for homeless individuals along with a daily stipend. These skills include framing, roofing, insulation, and finish carpentry. The “tiny homes” they build make up the units at Hazelnut Grove in North Portland and Agape Village in Southeast. Each tiny home is about 200 square feet and costs $18,000 to build. Each has a basic kitchen, a sleeping loft, and a composting toilet. The people who take part in Cascadia Clusters’ construction training gain both a safe home and the skills to lift themselves out of poverty.

The work being done by Cascadia Clusters differs dramatically from Metro’s “Supportive Housing Services” Measure 26-210 on the May ballot. Unlike Metro’s poorly planned and unclear measure, Cascadia Clusters has a straightforward plan for what the organization wants to accomplish and how, when, and where all donated money will be used. Its “hand-up” philosophy can be imitated by other groups wanting to help people leave the cycle of homelessness for good. Voters who want to assist the homeless should consider donating to one of the many Portland nonprofits with a track record of helping those in need, and vote no on Metro’s bureaucratic money grab.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization.

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Letting Oregonians Find a Path to Recovery Is Essential Business

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D. 

Oregon is nearing the end of the first month of Governor Kate Brown’s state-at-home order. The order is just one of many ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way consumers shop and the way businesses sell. These shifts in behavior, designed to “flatten the curve” of infection through social distancing, are happening across many (if not all) markets. Even so, in many cases it’s impossible to know now whether these new habits are achieving—or will achieve—the intended effect.

Take a seemingly silly example from Oregon. We are one of only two states in the U.S. that prohibits self-serve gas. In response to COVID-19, the state fire marshal announced it would temporarily suspend its enforcement of the self-service ban. In the wake of the announcement, public opinion fell into two broad groups.

  • Those who want the option to pump their own gas argue that self-serve reduces the interaction between station attendants and consumers, thereby potentially reducing the spread of coronavirus.
  • On the other hand, those who support the prohibition on self-serve have blasted the fire marshal’s announcement, arguing that all those dirty fingers pressing keypads and all those grubby hands on fuel pumps would likely increase the spread of the virus.

Both groups may be right, but no one yet knows the net effect. We can only speculate. Policymakers often claim their decisions are guided by science. In the real world, however, science does not provide simple or quick guidance. Politicians and bureaucrats are simply guessing, just like the rest of us. The difference, of course, is that the guessers in government have the power of the state to back up their decisions.

The guesswork of COVID-19 response is a timely reminder of Hayek’s knowledge problem. Even well-meaning policymakers don’t have adequate knowledge of alternatives and preferences facing firms and consumers. They also don’t understand all the risks or consequences of their decisions. In many, if not most, cases firms and consumers are in a better position to assess the risks they face and the ways to mitigate that risk. Allowing firms to experiment and iteratively find solutions that work for their consumers and employees (potentially adjusting prices and wages in the process) may be better than a top-down determination of which businesses and products are “essential” or “non-essential.”

Consumers want to purchase goods without getting contaminated. Employees want to work in safe environments. Firms need to attract both consumers and employees, while minimizing potential liability. These (partially) aligned incentives will almost certainly induce individuals to take at least some steps that mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This might notably explain why many firms imposed social distancing measures well before governments started to take notice.

For example, one effect of COVID-19 is that it has become more expensive for firms to hire warehouse workers. Not only have firms moved up along the supply curve (by hiring more workers), but the curve itself has likely shifted upwards reflecting the increased opportunity cost of warehouse work. Predictably, this has resulted in higher wages for workers. For example, Amazon and Walmart recently increased the wages they were paying warehouse workers, as have brick and mortar retailers, such as Kroger, who have implemented similar policies.

In addition, some companies have found ways to reduce risk while continuing operations:

  • CNBC reports Tyson Foods is using walk-through infrared body temperature scanners to check employees’ temperatures as they enter three of the company’s meat processing plants. Other companies planning to use scanners include Goldman Sachs, UPS, Ford, and Carnival Cruise Lines.
  • Fred Meyer is limiting the number of customers in each of its stores to half the occupancy allowed under international building codes. Kroger will use infrared sensors and predictive analytics to monitor the new capacity limits. The policy will be somewhat straightforward to implement as Fred Meyer already uses the technology to estimate how many checkout lanes are needed at any given time.
  • Trader Joe’s limits occupancy in its stores. Customers waiting to enter are asked to stand six feet apart using marked off Trader Joe’s logos on the sidewalk. Shopping carts are separated into groups of “sanitized” and “to be cleaned.” Each cart is thoroughly sprayed with disinfectant and wiped down with a clean cloth.
  • In Portland, a small paint-your-own ceramics shop, Mimosa Studios, had to stop offering painting parties because of government mandated social distancing. One way it’s stanching the loss of business is with a paint-at-home package. Customers place an order online, and the studio delivers the ceramic piece, paints, and loaner brushes. When the customer is finished painting, Mimosa picks up the piece, fires it, and delivers the finished product. The approach doesn’t solve the problem, but it helps mitigate the losses.

In some cases, however, there is no simple or straightforward way to balance the economic and health risks. These businesses are thus left with no option other than temporarily suspending their activities. For example, in Portland, ChefStable a restaurant group behind some of the city’s best-known restaurants, closed all 20 of its bars and restaurants for at least four weeks. In what he called a “crisis of conscience,” owner Kurt Huffman concluded it would be impossible to maintain safe social distancing for customers and staff. McMenamins made a similar decision early in the coronavirus crisis.

Many businesses and consumers are working within the broad outlines of lockdowns deemed necessary by policymakers. As Oregon emerges from the crisis, the best policy would allow properly motivated firms and households themselves to balance the benefits, costs, and risks of transitioning to “business as usual.” Government may have a monopoly on power, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on knowledge.

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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Nature 1, Lockdown 0

John A. Charles, Jr.

Public officials are angry that thousands of Oregonians have been enjoying the good weather by engaging in outdoor recreation. They can’t understand why people are ignoring the government closure of parks, trails and beaches.

There is a simple reason: the closures are extreme and unnecessary.

People need exercise, and not everyone has a private backyard. While there are health risks associated with using public parks right now, individuals have strong incentives to maintain safe distances from each other.

Public officials would be better off focusing scarce resources on the most vulnerable segment of the population – people over the age of 70 living in crowded environments, such as nursing homes and retirement communities.

At her April 14th press conference, Gov. Brown stated that all decisions about re-opening the economy will be based on science.  If that’s the case, she can start by modifying the “stay at home” order she issued three weeks ago. Why are fitness centers and beaches closed, but liquor stores and cannabis shops still open? There’s not a lot of science behind that policy.

Oregonians love their parks, and right now they need them more than ever.

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

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As more people work remotely, a reliable grid is needed now more than ever

By Rachel Dawson

“The vast disparity between the rich and the poor is, in large part, designed by the disparity between those who have electricity and those who scrape by on small quantities of juice or none at all.”
– Robert Bryce

Electricity is at the epicenter of modern life, yet rarely does the average person consider the complexities behind the power grid when a light is turned on. The advent of technology, fueled by electricity, has created an era of human prosperity unseen throughout the history of mankind. We can pick up our smartphones and call friends from across the world, cook meals on a stovetop, and pay for goods and services with electronic banking without a second thought.

Electricity has proven to be especially important during the COVID-19 outbreak. Governor Kate Brown issued an executive order on March 23, 2020 that directs Oregonians to stay at home, closing many businesses and requiring social distancing measures. Many who did not suddenly find themselves out of a job were forced to work remotely. These workers rely on the grid to power their computers and connect them to distant coworkers via video conferencing websites. If communities in Oregon were to face a major electricity blackout that lasted 3-4 days, the state would be paralyzed.

We take for granted the access we have to the cheap and abundant electricity available here in the United States, especially in the Northwest with hydroelectric dams. While we can study, work, and play at all hours of the day, millions around the world continue to live in the dark. Their lack of electricity inhibits children’s abilities to study at night and further their education. It threatens people’s health due to unclean water and cooking on open fires in homes.

Unfortunately, our access to cheap and reliable energy in the Northwest is at risk. Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant, located at Boardman, will be decommissioned at the end of 2020 due to an environmental lawsuit settled a decade ago. A second coal plant located in Centralia, Washington will also go dark this year; and a total of 4,800 MW of coal power will be taken off the Western Interconnection (the power grid that connects most western states with British Columbia and Alberta) over the next several years. Unfortunately, utilities seem to have no real plans for replacing those megawatts with firm power.

Former Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) Administrator Steve Wright stated that this “is pretty much unprecedented” and that “we are quite concerned about whether we have enough time to address this issue.”

Wright himself has experience dealing with inadequate electricity resources. He was in charge of BPA during the 2001 energy crisis when a drought significantly reduced power from hydroelectric dams and threatened rolling blackouts in the Northwest. To conserve power, BPA took back electricity previously sold to the aluminum industry. In doing so, BPA essentially shut down the aluminum industry in Oregon, putting 5,000 aluminum employees out of work.

This isn’t a future problem for our region: Oregon’s grid is at risk right now. Frank Afranji, the President of the Northwest Power Pool, stated in an Oregon House Interim Committee on Energy and Environment that brownouts in Oregon could occur starting in 2020 and “we have an urgent situation because of the capacity deficit. We really need to move expeditiously and come up with a solution.”

Afranji also stated that battery storage technology cannot bridge the gap between supply and demand.

The Power Pool is a voluntary organization that includes electric utilities from the Pacific Northwest, Alberta, and British Columbia, and it is focused on power planning in the Northwest. The Power Pool published a report on resource adequacy in 2019 that concluded:

  1. The region may begin to experience power shortages as soon as this year.
  2. By the mid-2020s, the region may face a capacity deficit of thousands of megawatts which may result in both extreme price volatility and unacceptable loss-of-load, or blackouts.

With more employees currently working from home and communicating electronically, utilities must ensure that our region has enough reliable electricity to meet current and future demand. State policymakers and utilities can, and should, do a number of things to prevent another crisis, including:

  • Delaying the decommissioning of the Boardman Coal Plant until its principal owner, PGE, can replace the lost megawatts with reliable power; and
  • Removing the state moratorium on nuclear power to allow Oregon to invest in reliable and carbon-free power.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council stated that the 2001 crisis developed largely unnoticed over a number of years before striking the region. It is imperative that we are not caught flat-footed again.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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ODOT Must Move Forward on the Rose Quarter I-5 Bottleneck

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Last week, the Oregon Transportation Commission took a significant step in the process of widening I-5 through the Rose Quarter.

This stretch of freeway has been named one of the worst bottlenecks in the country by the American Transportation Research Institute.

ODOT forecasts the improvements will save more than 2.5 million hours of travel time each year and reduce crashes by up to 50 percent.

Despite these clear benefits, a small but noisy coalition calling themselves “No More Freeways” has tried to stymie the project at every step. Their spokesman, Metro Council candidate Chris Smith, is so upset that he has demanded the legislature strip the transportation commission of its power and hand it over to Metro, the regional government for which he is seeking a seat.

He points to Metro’s so-called success in planning for the SW Corridor light rail project. But, Metro’s light rail project will add to traffic congestion at more than 30 intersections and several freeway ramps. Ridership estimates are already down nearly 15% from earlier projections. And, the project has no guarantee of state, local, or federal funding to cover the costs. This isn’t success, it’s fumbling toward failure.

The Rose Quarter project has a plan, it has the money, and it’ll play a crucial role in relieving congestion at one of the country’s worst bottlenecks. It’s time to move forward on I-5 improvements.

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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Online charter school students were learning at home just fine, so why have their schools been taken away from them?

By Kathryn Hickok

If Oregon charter school students can stay at home and stay in school at the same time, shouldn’t they be able to?

Governor Kate Brown’s Executive Order 20-08, which closed all Oregon public schools due to COVID-19, has been interpreted to also close Oregon’s online charter schools. This means students who were enrolled as online charter students before COVID-19 have had their online schools closed, even though these students already learn at home and can safely comply with Oregon’s social distancing and stay-at-home norms. Like other public schools, online charter schools are permitted to offer “supplemental” educational materials, but not their full curriculum, according to Willamette Week.

Apparently, this decision isn’t about students; it’s about school funding. A memo from the Oregon Department of Education suggests that because online charter schools already have a curriculum for students to learn remotely, more parents may want to enroll their students in those programs now. And that would “impact school funding for districts across Oregon.”

The ODE’s logic in closing online charters seems to be that because all students can’t enroll in online charters, then no students should. So, thousands of kids who were learning online just fine three weeks ago have lost access to their programs.

Online charter school students should not be at a disadvantage compared with other children who are continuing to learn at home—those who are enrolled in private schools and home schools. The Oregon Department of Education should reverse its guidance and allow students who were already enrolled in virtual charter schools to stay in school.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President 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 has provided private scholarships to lower-income Oregon children to help them attend tuition-based elementary schools since 1999.

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