Author: Cascade Policy Institute

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Energy Reform Is Needed to Combat Rising Energy Bills in Oregon

By Rachel Dawson

After 42 years, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) may be finally getting the update it has needed for years.

President Carter signed PURPA into law in 1978 when the U.S. was between the energy embargo of 1973 and the 1979 oil crisis, when the price of crude oil nearly doubled. Congress created this legislation with the aim of reducing the U.S.’s dependence on oil from international markets and encouraging fuel diversity.

PURPA requires electric utilities to purchase electricity from qualified facilities (QFs) such as small solar, wind, and biomass renewable resources at the utility’s “avoided costs.” A utility’s avoided cost is “the cost a utility would incur if it chose to generate the electricity itself or purchase it from another source.” The utility is locked into paying this cost for the contract’s length, which in Oregon is 20 years.

PURPA’s mandatory purchase obligation essentially forces utilities to purchase energy they do not need at rates that are higher than what is available on the market.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has proposed changes to PURPA that will help to decrease the law’s current purchase mandates and long contract terms. Included in the changes is the elimination of fixed rates currently afforded to QFs and the expansion of what is known as the “one-mile rule.”

Eliminating the fixed rates granted to QFs will give states more flexibility to account for time, dates, and market price fluctuations when calculating the avoided cost rate. A recent study from Concentric Energy Advisors shows that PURPA’s locked-in contracts now increase the cost of energy by as much as $216 million a year. The Oregon legislature isn’t forcing residents to purchase 42-inch plasma TVs at their average 2004 price of $4,000 when they can now buy them for under $500, but PURPA’s locked-in contracts with state utilities follow the same logic.

Under the current “one-mile rule,” QFs using the same energy resource and owned by the same entity are considered to be the same site if they are located within one mile of each other. Many renewable energy supplies have taken advantage of this rule by separating their facilities and forcing utilities to purchase their power at avoided costs. This PURPA rulemaking will expand that rule to ten miles.

The U.S. energy industry has come a long way since PURPA was created. American ingenuity has increased the production of renewables by over 115 percent since 1980, and solar costs have dropped in Oregon by 76 percent since 1999. Moreover, recent legislation passed in Oregon on renewable energy, such as our state’s community solar program, make PURPA obsolete.

Since energy rate increases are inherently regressive, Oregon’s low-income families suffer the most from PURPA’s added burdens. This is especially important now when ratepayers are finding it increasingly difficult to pay their energy bills due to COVID.

PURPA forces utilities to buy power at high prices, then locks them in for decades. Consequently, ratepayers are being overcharged. Since the renewable energy industry is now quite mature and market-competitive, we should get rid of those mandates so ratepayers can obtain the cheapest electricity possible. This effort led by FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee represents a significant step in the right direction to reducing ratepayer bills.

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

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Metro’s Transportation Package: Progressive Politics Mask Regressive Tax

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

While much of the region is stuck at home under the governor’s “stay home, stay safe” order, the Metro regional government is charging ahead with a $7 billion “T2020” transportation package focused on an expensive and unneeded light rail line. Unlike Metro’s recently passed taxes for housing services, T2020 will impose hundreds of dollars in new taxes on just about every working person in the region.

To fund its massive spending plan, Metro has settled on a new poll-driven tax: a payroll tax anticipated to cost about $250 million a year. Approximately 925,000 people work in Metro’s jurisdiction, so the payroll tax will be about $270 a year per employee. Where will that payroll tax money come from?

In most cases, the payroll tax will fall on the workers. A review of the research on payroll taxes concludes that workers tend to bear nearly all of the burden of payroll tax, even if the tax is levied on their employer: “virtually all applied incidence studies assume that both the employee share and the employer share are borne by the employee (through a fall in the net wage by the full amount of payroll tax).”

Research published earlier this year concludes “the employment effects of payroll taxes are concentrated among low-skilled workers and workers performing routine tasks.” In other words, payroll taxes are regressive and disproportionately burden low-wage workers. There are several ways workers would bear the full burden of the payroll tax.

Employers will reduce wages. They may not directly cut workers’ wages; instead, workers may find that they don’t get the annual pay raise they expected. Employers may cut workers’ hours. Wage reductions can come in the form of making workers pay more for employer provided benefits such as health insurance. Wage reductions can also come in the form of reduced benefits like less vacation pay. There are many ways to push the costs onto employees.

Employers will reduce the number of workers. Hiring plans can be put on hold, and retiring workers may not be replaced. Evidence indicates some firms replace low-skilled workers with higher-skilled workers. Other firms replace low-skilled workers with technology, as seen with restaurants replacing employees with computer ordering kiosks. With the pandemic, some firms have learned there’s no special benefit to doing business in the metro region. Why not move to Bend, Vancouver, or Boise?

Proponents of the payroll tax argue the money will come out of company profits. This is simply not true. Currently, Metro’s payroll tax would be assessed on all employers, including nonprofits and government agencies which have no profits to tax. Portland-area businesses have already had their profits extracted with Oregon’s Corporate Activities Tax, Portland and Multnomah County’s business income taxes, Portland’s Clean Energy Fund tax, and Metro’s new business income tax that goes into effect next year. There are no more profits to tax.

Unlike Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment payroll taxes, workers paying Metro’s payroll tax receive no direct benefit. Most of the tax will be used to build a light rail line from Portland to Bridgeport Village—a light rail line that will worsen road congestion. The project anticipates tearing up Barbur Boulevard and adding congestion to dozens of intersections and highway ramps. Workers will be handing over a chunk of their paycheck for projects that will make their lives worse, not better.

For years, TriMet has been violating its contractual obligations with the Federal Transit Administration regarding operations of the Yellow, Green, and Orange light rail lines. For example, TriMet promised both the Yellow Line and the Green Line would run 8 trains during peak hours in 2020. In contrast, before the pandemic TriMet was running only 4 trains an hour on these lines. TriMet promised the Orange Line would run 6 trains during peak hours in 2020; instead, before COVID-19 it had been running 23% below the promised levels.

Metro’s transportation package is a monument to misplaced priorities, and its reliance on regressive payroll taxes makes it an abomination. It’s time to tell Metro 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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Metro’s $700,000 Sentiment

By Helen Cook

On June 25th, Metro approved $700,000 in taxpayer money for what is best entitled a nice sentiment: Metro’s Nature in Neighborhoods program. The program hopes to improve water quality and wildlife habitats through grants to local organizations that promote racial and cultural equality.

But the program has a serious flaw: Success is not easily measured, despite the large amount of taxpayer dollars flowing into the grants.

Metro’s approved recipients for 2020 demonstrate the subjectivity of the program. Objectives include bringing “healing to the community and landscape through Traditional Indigenous healing practices” as well as building “youth of color’s relationship around the water and waterways.”

Perhaps an important question is whether our local government should be exploring these objectives with taxpayer dollars, especially during this time of economic instability. Ironically, Metro councilor Craig Dirkensen came close to this question when he asked whether Metro’s grant program was unique. The simple answer was “no.” Similar programs do exist, just not at taxpayers’ expense.

Metro should get out of the grant business and into the park-building business. The Nature in Neighborhoods program is yet another example of how Metro consumes taxpayer dollars without measurable benchmarks for success.

Helen Cook is a Program Assistant for External Affairs at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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The Big Jobs Squeeze of 2020

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

This is a terrible time to own and run a business. While the past three months have been dismal, the next few months could be even worse. Worse because no one knows what’s coming next. Even though many businesses have been allowed to reopen, many others have hesitated out of fear for the health of themselves, their employees, and their customers—and the fear of overbearing regulators and overeager plaintiff attorneys. No one should be surprised that so many businesses have decided to close permanently.

Reopening “the economy,” or even a single business, is a tough decision that can’t be boiled down to a FOX News or MSNBC talking point. It’s not as simple as, “We gotta open now!” or “You’re gonna kill grandma!” The world is much more complicated; and the coronavirus spread is so complex and uncertain that, put simply, no one knows what’s next. Anyone who says the science is settled one way or the other is gaslighting themselves and others.

Aside from the health and liability risks, CARES Act policies designed to protect family finances have made it especially challenging for firms to get back to work. Businesses that want to reopen have found it difficult to bring back their furloughed employees. Those employees who have successfully obtained unemployment benefits have also received a $600-a-week bonus provided by the CARES Act. When public health risks point to a policy of keeping people away from work, a government-funded bonus provides a financial incentive to stay away from work. That’s good policy, but there are side effects.

For millions of out-of-work Americans, the bonus has been a lifeline, allowing them to safely distance themselves without falling into destitution. For others, however, the bonus has been a windfall. For example, Portland Public Schools carefully structured its furlough program so that nearly every furloughed employee made more money being furloughed than they would if they continued working full time. Research from University of Chicago economists estimates 68% of unemployed workers eligible for CARES Act benefits would have lower incomes if they return to work.

This isn’t just theory or wild-brained economics estimates. Portland restaurateur Kurt Huffman has said he doesn’t plan on opening his restaurants any sooner than August 1, because the bonus payments have made it so difficult to bring back and hire employees. Kyle Freres, vice president of operations at Freres Lumber, says his company has 30 job openings that cannot be filled because of the pandemic and the CARES Act’s incentives to stay away from work. At Cascade Policy Institute, an intern turned down our summer job offer in part because she would make more money collecting unemployment.

The CARES Act’s $600-a-week bonus runs out at the end of July, and Congress is considering an extension to the program. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell predicted, “If there’s another [stimulus package], it will come together in July.” Some members want the extra benefits to expire as scheduled. Others want to extend the current provisions through the end of the year. A proposal from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) would pay people who return to work an extra $450-a-week “back-to-work” bonus.

Hoover Institution economist John Cochrane suggests Congress tighten restrictions on who qualifies for bonus payments. For example, if a laid-off employee is called back by her former employer, then the bonus payments dry up. Or, if a county or metro area has a sufficient number of job vacancies, then workers in that area would no longer qualify for bonus payments. Proposals such as these allow flexibility across regions roughly in line with how well those regions are recovering.

Every policy has its problems or unintended consequences. That’s a big reason why we should limit the number of government regulations, policies, and programs we have in place. It’s like squeezing Jello. Squeeze it one place, and it squirts out another. A lifeline to help out-of-work employees can squeeze the life out of struggling employers. Any unemployment benefits must be tied to incentives to return to work safely as soon as possible.

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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July Minimum Wage Increase Means Maximum Uncertainty

By Cooper Conway

On July 1st, the Portland area’s minimum wage will increase from $12.50 per hour to $13.25. This wage increase is part of a multi-year phase-in of Oregon’s three-tiered minimum wage law, passed by the State Legislature in 2016.

Andy Ricker, Michelin star chef and owner of Portland’s Pok Pok restaurant, foresaw the adverse effects of raising the minimum wage in 2016 when he told the Portland Business Journal that three of his restaurants would close partly due to the hikes in the minimum wage.

Four years later, his prophecy came true—and then some—with an Instagram post on June 15th announcing the closure of four of his restaurants based in Oregon. Sadly, Ricker’s former employees will join more than 41 million workers who have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus pandemic started.

Now is not the time to increase the costs of running businesses in Portland. Oregon lawmakers should extend a helping hand to those who are hurting and embrace free-market policies, not price job creators out of the market. Oregon should stop the economic bleeding and roll back regulations that were ill-conceived in the first place. Continuing to add to them when so many businesses are struggling to reopen their doors will only worsen the economic downturn and hurt Oregonians for years to come.

Cooper Conway is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Supreme Court Upholds Parents’ Right to Choose Religious Schools

By Kathryn Hickok

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 30 in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that states’ school choice laws may not discriminate against religiously affiliated schools.

Montana’s tax credit scholarship program, passed in 2015, enabled families to send their children to the private schools of their choice. The program was ruled unconstitutional by the Montana Supreme Court because some participating students wanted to apply their scholarships to religious schools, which the Department of Revenue argued violated the state’s Blaine Amendment. The Institute for Justice (IJ) appealed this decision on behalf of parents, arguing that the Court’s decision violated the Free Exercise, Equal Protection, and Establishment Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Montana parents, stating that “[a] State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

Reacting to the Court’s ruling, IJ’s president and general counsel Scott Bullock commented:

The Montana high court claimed, as [educational] choice opponents have for decades, that allowing parents like Kendra [Espinoza] to [use a tax credit scholarship at a religious school] violated the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment—which forbids state funding of so-called sectarian institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court made clear in its ruling today that it was wrong. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “Drawing on ‘enduring American tradition,’” the Court has long recognized the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children.

Back in 1926, another private school controversy made it all the way to the Supreme Court. With the goal of preventing students from choosing a Catholic education, the state of Oregon had outlawed all private schools. In the landmark ruling Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court wrote that “[t]he fundamental theory of liberty…excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.”

Parents have a right to direct the education of their children—they did in 1926 and they still do today. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Espinoza v. Montana upholds parental choice in education by ensuring that state-run school choice programs don’t discriminate on the basis of religion.

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 provides privately funded scholarships to lower-income Oregon children to help them attend the tuition-based schools of their choice.

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You can count on the “Every Mile Counts” plan to make life costlier for Oregonians

By Rachel Dawson

Governor Kate Brown took carbon policy into her own hands earlier this year after the failure of Oregon’s cap-and-trade bill by issuing Executive Order 20-04. This order creates new greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction goals and directs various agencies to take actions and exercise their authority to reduce GHG emissions.

Four agencies, the Department of Transportation (ODOT), Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLC), Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Department of Energy (ODOE), collaborated to develop a draft statewide work plan in response to the governor’s directive, known as the Every Mile Counts initiative.

The strategy is fundamentally flawed. On the one hand, it duplicates efforts already underway. On the other hand, it does so in a way that will impose additional costs on Oregonians without producing any measurable effects on global climate change.

Objective 1: Reduce VMT per capita

The work plan proposes a number of action items aimed at decreasing statewide vehicle miles traveled. In the 2004 Statewide Congestion Overview for Oregon report, ODOT predicted that we could expect an additional 15,500 vehicle miles traveled (VMT) annually for every job created in Oregon and 360 additional VMT for every $1,000 increase in total state personal income.

Traffic is tied to economic activity. Increased traffic is a sign of a growing economy, and VMT plummets during recessions. As the state’s economy came to a standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic volumes on Oregon roads steeply dropped. Stifling economic activity is the surest way to reduce VMT in state. Efforts to aggressively reduce VMT in Oregon go hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce employment and income growth.

Increasing VMT in Oregon is a sign that more people and businesses are moving to our state. More people are consuming goods and services; and thus, our economy is growing. Oregon is already experiencing record-high levels of unemployment due to COVID-19. The state should not actively be promoting a reduction in VMT.

This is especially important now with COVID-19. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has concluded that cars are a better option than transit during the crisis and has urged businesses to offer their employees incentives to “use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others,” such as driving alone or biking. This plan’s objective to reduce single-occupancy trips directly contradicts the CDC’s advice.

Business owners, and not state agencies, have a deeper knowledge of their firms’ transportation requirements. If trip reduction efforts, such as telecommuting and flexible work hours, will benefit their business and employees they should be willing to engage in such efforts without the need for government intervention.

Objective 2: Support use of cleaner vehicles and fuels

State agencies should not support a zero emission vehicle plan. This is redundant as Oregon utilities are already required by the PUC to support transportation electrification plans, which will invest ratepayer funds in statewide electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure and increase outreach efforts on EV adoption. Having four more agencies engage in the same type of investments would be an inefficient use of taxpayer funds.

Objective 3: Consider GHG in decision making

Finally, state agencies should not require local GHG reduction planning and related performance measures. One of the largest rulemaking efforts these agencies plan on engaging in an update to the Transportation Planning Rule (TPR) to require that local governments “plan for  transportation systems and land uses to reduce GHG emissions.”

However, the TPR already indirectly works towards reducing GHG emissions by promoting the development of transportation systems designed to reduce reliance on passenger vehicles. While explicitly adding GHG emissions reduction in the TPR may be a worthy endeavor, including it to an already lengthy list of objectives will make the planning process more complex and time-consuming for cities. According to ODOT, completing all elements of a TSP “typically takes 12-15 months, with additional time for public adoption.” This proposed change will simply add another layer of compliance.

It is not clear if the proposed actions derived from Brown’s EO are necessary given Oregon’s steady decrease in per capita emissions over the past few years. Oregon per capita emissions have decreased by 22.8% since 1990, and emissions per unit of GDP have dropped by 50.7%. According to ODOE, Oregon’s energy use per capita is the lowest it has been since 1960; and Oregonians have decreased energy consumption per capita by 37% since it peaked in 1972.

Oregon’s environmental goals need to consider the dramatic progress that has already been made in reducing emissions. For this reason, Governor Brown should suspend her costly Executive Order.

Policymakers also should acknowledge the truth about the vital role automobility plays in a strong statewide economy and rising personal incomes. The above state agencies should provide an explicit cost-benefit analysis demonstrating how the benefits of each action item will outweigh its costs. If they cannot clearly outline such an analysis, the plan should not move forward. During the midst of a financial recession and global pandemic Oregonians need stability and relief, not more costly government regulation with vague benefits.

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

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OLCC Provides a Silver Lining in COVID-19 Recovery

By Vlad Yurlov

Alcohol-lovers may have a reason for a toast. Oregon’s Liquor Control Commission is taking steps to decrease regulations on sellers, thereby expanding economic opportunity in the food and beverage industry, which was hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis.

Alcohol sales are tightly controlled by the OLCC, which imposes stringent rules on individuals and businesses before, during, and after alcohol purchases. When restaurants and bars had to close their doors to on-site service due to Oregon’s coronavirus response, the OLCC temporarily relaxed some rules regarding alcohol delivery. Because these rules are temporary, though, Oregonians’ easier access to wine and microbrews could once again be limited before this fall.

Recently, the OLCC has begun a process to make the temporary relaxation permanent. These changes would allow increased flexibility in how alcohol can be delivered to customers and increase the hours during which alcohol may be purchased. The changes raise the question of why such burdensome restrictions were imposed in the first place.

When Oregon has to close a door, we can open a window. Let’s keep economic freedom for Oregon businesses and customers at the forefront of Oregon’s rule-making process.

Vlad Yurlov is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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Supporting Students, Not Systems, Is Social Justice

By Cooper Conway

George Floyd’s tragic death has led to growing calls for changes to antiquated policing systems. The recent protests asking for police reform over these past few weeks have caused many families to question the systemic discrimination that is hardwired into the assignment of students to public schools.

Census data reports U.S. spending per student has nearly tripled since 1960—and that’s after accounting for inflation. Oregon now spends almost $15,000 per student per year. In Portland Public Schools, it’s $27,500 per student. Even so, Oregon ranks near the bottom of the states in graduation rates.

Despite this monumental increase in funding the government’s school system with no positive results to show, most Oregon students are assigned a school based on their street address. This isn’t an accident—it’s written into district policies. Kids from low-income neighborhoods are placed in low-income schools, while wealthy families have the option to move to neighborhoods with better schools.

School choice is social justice. There is nothing fair or equitable about forcing low-income students into failing public schools with few options to choose the school that meets their needs. Even better, let’s fund students, instead of schools. Put the funds in the student’s hands and let them choose the school that fits best.

Cooper Conway is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization.

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The Era of Permanent Prosperity Is Over: It’s Time for a Serious Budget Discussion

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The 2020 we’re living in is very different from the 2020 we rang in at the beginning of the year.

In January, there were about a dozen Democrats seeking the nomination for President. Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college tuition, and universal basic income were seriously debated as potential policies for a Democratic President.

State and local politicians in Oregon were eagerly awaiting the first payments from the billion-dollars-a-year Corporate Activities Tax (CAT), the money earmarked to finally pull Oregon out of its near-last in the nation ratings of K-12 achievement. Cap-and-trade would end climate change. More bike paths, sidewalks, and light rail—always more light rail—would put an end to traffic congestion. A booming stock market meant we’d never have to reform PERS.

Today, schools are shuttered, businesses are crushed by the CAT, and TriMet ridership has evaporated and may never come back. Climate change is the least of our worries, and PERS will likely sink the state.

We began the year with an illusion of permanent prosperity, a game of musical chairs in which the music never ends. There wasn’t a single problem that couldn’t be solved with more spending. Tax increases were sold as equal to the cost of a latte a day. But, there were a lot of lattes.

Little did we know the music would stop so soon. Never mind buying a latte a day, today half the state can’t get a haircut even if they could afford one. Not only is the state’s education system deeply flawed, we learned our unemployment system is completely broken and our health care system is way more fragile than we thought. Rather than ramping up testing, the state simply tells us to “Stay home. Save lives.” The myth of permanent prosperity has given way to a reality of endemic dysfunction.

The latest revenue forecast for the state should be a wakeup call for the governor and the legislature. With anticipated revenues down $2.7 billion from pre-COVID projections, there is no way to avoid big budget cuts. Tax increases must be ruled out—struggling households and businesses need the cash to pay their own bills. We can’t turn the public sector’s budget problems into a private sector bankruptcy crisis. It’s going to take strong political leadership.

Three program areas make up nearly 90% of the state budget: education, human services, and public safety. Employee compensation—salaries, PERS, and other benefits—are a huge portion of these costs. There is no way to balance the budget without cuts in these areas.

PERS must be reformed. The first step should be to move all new employees to a 401(k)-type defined contribution program. This small move won’t solve the impending pension catastrophe; it’s simply a crucial first step toward more meaningful reforms. The most meaningful would be an amendment to the state’s constitution specifying public sector employment agreements are not contracts.

Public school spending must be cut. Construction projects should be shelved, and the money used for planning these projects should be shifted to the classroom. Introducing an education savings account program could save the state money by encouraging students to pursue schooling outside of the public sector, thereby reducing public school enrollment and expenditures. The state’s university system must be streamlined. This means closing smaller, struggling public institutions that have demonstrated a low return on investment for their students.

The legislature should reconsider Oregon’s participation in Medicaid expansion. While the feds pick up 90% of the costs for the expansion population, the cost to the state for the other 10% is eye-popping. In the last budget cycle, the state faced a $1.7 billion budget shortfall. At the time, Governor Kate Brown claimed, “Three-fifths of this deficit is the cost of expanding health care to all Oregonians.” That was when the economy was going gangbusters. Today, Medicaid expansion is a luxury the state cannot afford.

The cynic says, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Nevertheless, a crisis is a time to re-evaluate priorities, and the best measure of politicians’ priorities are the budgets they pass. The era of permanent prosperity has ended, and we have entered an age where rational realism must rule.

: Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in urban economics and regulation. He can be reached at eric@cascadepolicy.org.

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Cars, not transit, are the COVID-19 transportation heroes

By Rachel Dawson

When it comes to commuting during COVID-19, private vehicles are coming out well ahead of mass transit.

The Center for Disease Control has stated that cars are a better option than transit during the crisis and has even suggested that businesses offer their employees incentives to “use forms of transportation that minimize close contact with others,” such as driving alone or biking.

TriMet is seeing the effects of this recommendation firsthand. Transit use is estimated to have dropped 68% between February and May of this year as Portlanders chose to either stay at home or opt for other means of transportation.

TriMet is planning for significant revenue losses in coming years due to lost funds from payroll taxes and passenger fares. It may be years before the transit agency sees pre-COVID passenger numbers, which had already been falling since 2012 despite the addition of the Orange line in 2015.

Falling ridership and revenues should come as a signal to officials to halt any further investments to the costly light rail system. Instead, Metro and TriMet continue to push for the $3 billion Southwest Corridor light rail project from Downtown Portland to the Bridgeport Village.

Businesses and workers are already struggling with lost revenues and wages due to the virus. Our region doesn’t need another boondoggle, it needs relief. Metro residents should vote “no” on Metro’s proposed transportation measure this fall.

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

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The hidden truth behind the Renewable Energy Certificate market

By Rachel Dawson

You may have noticed companies and public agencies using the words “renewable energy certificates” or RECs in regard to the alleged source of their electricity, but rarely do they explain what they are. Only that purchasing RECs on your behalf is a good thing.

But what exactly is a REC? And what benefits do we as voters and consumers reap from these entities’ continued investment in them?

As it turns out, they may not do as much “good” as you’re being told.

RECs are a tradable commodity sold by renewable energy facilities (such as wind and solar farms) to the wholesale market, that purport to represent the “environmental amenities” of certain renewable energy projects. By purchasing a REC, an entity has the legal right to claim it is using renewable energy; however, the group has not purchased any energy itself.

For example, the City of Portland has the objective of generating or purchasing “100 percent of all electricity for city operations from renewable resources.” However, the vast majority of the claimed “renewable energy sources” are actually RECs purchased on the market from wind farms. In fact, 14% of the renewable energy they claim to have comes from wind farms in Alaska. Since Portland is in no way connected to the Alaskan grid, the City of Portland is using taxpayers’ dollars to lay claim to wind energy that is actually being consumed by Alaskans.

Further, TriMet claims their electric buses run on 100% wind energy, however, TriMet’s buses are hooked up to the same utility grid as your home. This means that only 9% of the electricity they consume is actually wind, while 14% comes from coal. The only difference is TriMet spends $228.75 per month to claim their electricity is completely green.

Many private companies also purchase RECs, purely for public relations purposes. Buyers include Starbucks and General Mills. These costs are then passed on to consumers even though renewable energy was not actually used.

Fortunately one major company is pulling the curtain back on this practice, and ironically it’s the company Portland politicians love to hate: WalMart.

According to WalMart: (emphasis added)

“We want to do more than just shift around ownership (and marketing rights) of existing renewable energy…we prefer not to simply offset our non-renewable power by purchasing standalone renewable energy credits (RECs)…While REC purchasing may allow us to more quickly say we are supplied by 100% renewable energy…we do not have confidence that offsetting instruments alone are sufficient to drive new renewable projects, as opposed to simply shifting around ownership of existing renewable electrons.” (emphasis added)

WalMart’s analysis is backed up by leading academics. According to Daniel Press, a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, “RECs do little to reduce emissions in the real world because they have become too cheap to shift energy markets or incentivize businesses to build new turbines.”

Further, Michael Gillenwater, a Princeton researcher who helped to develop the EPA’s carbon emissions tracking system, admits that most renewable energy projects would have been developed without the help of consumer purchased RECs. It’s hard to verify claims made by utilities regarding the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that were avoided due to RECs and “you don’t have an overseeing regulator ensuring that the claims made are backed up.”

Private companies are free to spend their money as they please. However, Oregon should prohibit the purchase of RECs with tax dollars by government agencies. If the goal is more renewable energy, then like WalMart we should focus on generating actual electricity.

Certainly, it would be embarrassing for Oregon politicians to admit that they are wrong and WalMart is right. But the long path to moral redemption begins with the first steps.

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

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To Meet Kids’ Urgent Education Needs, Oregon Should Give Parents a “Money-Back Guarantee” Through School Choice

By Kathryn Hickok

School choice has been increasing in popularity with parents for years. Education policies that give parents more options for their kids have been trending positively across most demographics.

Now, a late-April poll conducted by Heart + Mind Strategies reports that a majority of parents are considering changing their children’s future school enrollment. Parents were asked: “Has the impact of coronavirus on your child’s education caused you to consider changing your child’s future schooling?” Among public school parents, 14% said they are considering homeschooling, 20% said they are considering a private school, and 26% said they are considering a different public school.

Education Savings Account programs are an education funding solution that addresses the needs of parents today. ESAs give parents a kind of “money-back guarantee” if they want to opt out of their zoned public schools and choose other options. ESA programs currently operating in five states deposit a portion of the state funding that would be spent for a student in a public school into an account associated with the child’s family. Families can use those funds to pay for tuition or other education expenses.

ESA legislation can be designed to be fiscally neutral, or even net-positive, for school districts while giving parents several thousand dollars per child to spend on the school options of their choice.

COVID-19 will change the way students attend school. Out of this situation can come a chance to improve kids’ options through flexible, personalized delivery of education.

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 worth more than $3.3 million to lower-income Oregon children to help them attend tuition-based elementary schools since 1999.

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Education Savings Accounts Are an Innovative Way to Provide Flexible, Safe K-12 Options

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrecked state and local budgets. Moreover, it’s looking more likely that school operations will not return to normal this fall. Social distancing guidelines will demand smaller class sizes. The days of 25-30 students per classroom are over for the foreseeable future. There is simply not enough space in our brick-and-mortar schools.

Some distancing can be achieved by staggering instruction across days or weeks. However, these arrangements will create scheduling havoc for families trying to return to work, especially for families with multiple children spanning several grades or schools.

We can also achieve the required social distancing by encouraging alternatives to existing brick-and-mortar schools. For example, online public charter schools have a long history of successful education outcomes while achieving social distancing. Many private schools had digital learning plans in place prior to the pandemic and were able to quickly adjust to Governor Kate Brown’s March 23 “stay home, save lives” order. For example, St. Mary’s Academy in Portland switched to digital learning the day after the order was issued. In contrast, Portland Public Schools took nearly a month to get its distance learning plans in place.

Education savings accounts are a readily available option to foster school choice and downsize public school enrollment to achieve class sizes consistent with social distancing guidelines. Moreover, a carefully crafted ESA program would reduce state spending on education while improving options and opportunities for thousands of Oregon students.

Five states currently operate ESA programs, in which the state deposits a percentage of the funds that otherwise would be spent to educate a student in a public school into an account associated with the student’s family. The family may use those funds for private school tuition, home-based learning, or other education expenses. Funds remaining in the account after expenses are paid may be “rolled over” for use in subsequent years.

Typically, the amount deposited in an ESA is less than the amount the state otherwise would pay for a student to attend a public school, with the state recouping the difference. In this way, ESAs can be designed to produce net cost savings to state and local government budgets.

The average General Purpose Grant per ADMw is about $8,600 for the 2020-21 school year. Even a modest ESA of $3,000 for children with a household income less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level and participating children with a disability (as defined in ORS 343.035) and $2,000 for other children would generate substantial savings to the state and local school districts.

  • Because the ESA amount is significantly less than the amount the state currently spends per student, the state would be making money from every student who participates in the ESA program.
  • Most local sources of funding, especially property taxes, will be mostly unaffected by the pandemic. These sources are not linked to public school enrollment. Thus, students with an ESA who choose to leave the public school system will be freeing up financial resources for those who choose to remain.

In the 2019 legislative session, SB 668 was introduced. The bill would have created an ESA program in Oregon. As introduced, the bill was designed for state and local governments to “break even” fiscally on the ESA program. SB 668 can be used as a template for future legislation, with present-day adjustments to ensure cost savings for the state as well as local school districts.

The COVID-19 crisis is a time to re-evaluate how education is provided and funded throughout the state. We are all learning that “business as usual” will not return anytime soon. Now is the time to develop innovative ways to provide education safely to our children while providing their struggling families with the flexibility to care for their kids while returning to work.

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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School Choice Can Help Solve K-12 Social Distancing Challenges

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrecked education budgets. And, it’s looking more likely that school operations will not return to normal this fall. Social distancing guidelines will demand smaller class sizes, and there is simply not enough space in our brick-and-mortar schools.

Some distancing can be achieved by staggering instruction across days or weeks. However, these arrangements will create scheduling havoc for families trying to return to work, especially for families with multiple children spanning several grades or schools.

We can also achieve the required social distancing by encouraging alternatives to existing brick-and-mortar schools. For example, online public charter schools have a long history of successful education outcomes while achieving social distancing.

Many private schools had digital learning plans in place prior to the pandemic and were able to adjust virtually overnight to Governor Kate Brown’s March 23 “stay home, save lives” order. In contrast, Portland Public Schools took nearly a month to get its plans in place.

Education savings accounts are a readily available option to foster school choice and downsize public school enrollment to achieve class sizes consistent with social distancing guidelines. It can also save the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

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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Metro has a history of breaking promises to voters. The housing bond measure is no exception.

By Rachel Dawson

Metro has a history of breaking promises to voters. This track record continues with the Metro Affordable Housing Bond measure that was passed in 2018.

At the time the measure was passed, the regional government said the cost of new projects will be around $253,000 per unit. They also warned the costs could be much higher.

That warning is already proving true. Metro recently released cost data on the first four projects the agency has approved and committed funds for.

The average total cost for the four developments is nearly $365,000 per unit, with the most expensive project coming in at more than $405,000 per unit. This is 44% higher than what Metro projected only two years ago.

Because these are private-public partnerships, the Metro bond is not funding the entirety of the developments. Even so, had Metro placed a cap on bond funds distributed per unit, or a cap on the cost per unit of qualifying projects, we would likely see lower development costs.

Metro must be held accountable for its low-ball projections and its budget-busting cost increases. Every dollar wasted on cost overruns is a dollar that’s not spent on providing the affordable housing voters were promised.

Good government is services delivered. Metro has over promised and under delivered.

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

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COVID-19 Is Killing the Economy; New Business Taxes Are Bayonetting the Wounded

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Many Oregon businesses are looking forward toward May 15. That’s the day the state expects to ease some of Governor Kate Brown’s COVID-19 “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order.

But, many businesses are considering whether they should they re-open at all. Dakine is closing its Hood River office and moving the outdoor gear company’s headquarters to Southern California. Nordstrom announced it is closing its Clackamas Town Center store. World of Speed motorsport museum in Wilsonville is permanently shutting down and sending its exhibits to schools and other museums.

As the state slowly re-opens, some businesses will be facing a seemingly insurmountable debt burden: delayed rent and utility payments will come due, Paycheck Protection Program loans may have to be repaid, lines of credit will have to be restored, and deferred taxes will have to be paid.

Coronavirus is only one of many new challenges facing Oregon businesses. Leading up to the pandemic, Oregon business owners were sweating the state’s new Corporate Activities Tax. Last year, in anticipation of the CAT and other new taxes, Stimson Lumber laid off 40% of its workforce in Forest Grove and moved some of the operations to Idaho and Montana.

While the rules governing this new gross receipts tax won’t be finalized until sometime in June, the first quarterly payments were due on April 30. Because it’s a tax on sales, the tax is due even if the business is losing money.

Portland’s Chown Hardware claims its first quarterly payment was approximately $30,000. Because of the combination of coronavirus and the new tax, the owner laid off 25 of his 100 employees. Facing a $10,000 quarterly tax bill, a pharmacist in the small town of Banks shut down his pharmacy and laid off his six employees.

In the middle of the pandemic, Multnomah County commissioners approved a steep increase in the county’s Business Income Tax, from 1.45% to 2%. The county expects the hike to increase business income tax revenues by one-third, or $900-$1,000 per affected business. These new taxes are on top of Portland’s 1% tax on the sales of large retailers which went into effect last year, with the money earmarked for so-called “clean energy” projects.

As if that’s not enough, the May 2020 ballot has Metro Measure 26-210. This measure imposes two new income taxes: one on businesses with more than $5 million in sales, and another on households with more than $125,000 in income ($200,000 if filing jointly). Business owners who earn pass-through income—many small and medium sized businesses—will be taxed twice under Metro’s measure.

Consider a pass-through business with income of $150,000 on just over $5 million in sales (that’s a 3% profit rate). The owner will be looking at more than $17,000 in new taxes this year:

Corporate Activities Tax $15,000
Multnomah County Business Income Tax 800
Metro business income tax 1,500
Metro personal income tax 75
Total $17,375

 

That’s the increase in taxes relative to last year, and it amounts to more than one month’s work—just to pay the new taxes.

As the economy slowly re-opens, business owners are going to go through the same calculus as Chown and the Banks pharmacist and ask themselves: “What’s the point?” Their businesses have been wiped out, they’ve racked up debt with unpaid rent and other bills, and to make matters worse they’re staring down steep new tax bills.

State and local politicians blandly remind us, “We’re all in this together.” But we’re not. You’re on your own. For business owners, your job is to toe the line on the state’s shutdown orders and cut checks to feed the government bureaucracies that got bloated during the boom times. No matter how much your taxes increase, they’ll keep saying your business doesn’t pay its fair share.

Someday, and that day may come soon, business owners will look at their financials and come to the conclusion that it’s easier to run a bookstore in Boise, open a restaurant in Reno, or a be financial adviser in Vancouver. Portland doesn’t have a monopoly on livability.

COVID is already killing the economy. We cannot let tax increases bayonet the wounded.

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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COVID-19 and New Business Taxes: Bayonetting the Wounded

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Many Oregon businesses are looking forward toward May 15. That’s the day the state expects to ease some of Governor Kate Brown’s COVID-19 “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order.

But, many businesses are considering whether they should re-open at all. And coronavirus is only one of many new challenges facing Oregon businesses.

Leading up to the pandemic, Oregon business owners were sweating the state’s new Corporate Activities Tax. While the rules governing this new gross receipts tax won’t be finalized until sometime in June, the first quarterly payments were due on April 30. Because it’s a tax on sales, the tax is due even if the business is losing money.

On top of that, in the middle of this pandemic, Multnomah County commissioners approved a steep increase in the county’s Business Income Tax.

As if that’s not enough, the May 2020 ballot has Metro Measure 26-210. This measure imposes two new income taxes: one on businesses with more than $5 million in sales, and another on households with more than $125,000 in income ($200,000 if filing jointly). Business owners who earn pass-through income—many small and medium sized businesses—will be taxed twice under Metro’s measure.

No matter how much your taxes increase, they’ll keep saying your business doesn’t pay its fair share.

COVID is already killing the economy. We cannot let tax increases bayonet the wounded.

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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Metro’s Housing Measure: Bad Policy, Terrible Timing

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Does Metro’s appetite for more money ever end? Last November, Metro raised property taxes by $475 million for parks and nature. Now, with Measure 26-210, Metro wants another $2.5 billion for housing services. In November, Metro will have a third ballot measure, asking for an additional $3.8 billion to expand light rail. That’s nearly $6.8 billion in new taxes for Metro—in one year alone.

COVID-19 has crushed the economy. Our region is in a recession. Businesses are closing, and many of them will never reopen. Even so, Metro’s charging full speed ahead with Measure 26-210. Many small and medium sized business owners will be taxed twice by Metro’s measure. First on their business income, then on their personal income. It’s bad policy coupled with terrible timing.

In its rush to get Measure 26-210 to the ballot, Metro has left many unanswered questions. Who’s going to collect the taxes? How will collections be enforced? Who gets the money? How many people get off the streets and into housing? When will the camps go away? How do we measure success? No one knows.

Metro claims the measure is designed to provide “homeless services.” To most people, this means helping the people sleeping on the streets, in parks, or in cars. But if Measure 26-210 passes, those people will only receive a small fraction of the money.

Close to 40% of the assessed tax will go toward collection costs, administration, and overhead. Setting up two complex tax schemes is going to cost millions of dollars. Then, there are the costs of collecting the taxes. After that, there’s Metro’s overhead. Metro then passes the money to counties, who have their own overhead. The counties then pass the money to nonprofit service providers who also have their own overhead. Every time the money passes, the pot shrinks.

Based on Metro staff calculations, about 45% of the money raised will be spent on rent assistance for households who are facing “severe rent burden,” rather than those who are actually homeless. The measure itself makes clear that tax revenues will be used for “affordable housing and rental assistance,” “eviction prevention,” “landlord tenant education,” “legal services,” and “fair housing advocacy.”

According to Metro staff, only 15% of the tax money is earmarked for support services for unsheltered individuals and families.

Metro’s original mission was land use and transportation planning. Measure 26-210 expands Metro’s mission to include homeless and housing services. At a February work session, Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen declared, “it’s clear to me that Metro does not have the expertise or experience, let alone the capacity, to actually administer, to provide these services.”

Metro is already overwhelmed trying to manage its park and natural areas, the Oregon Zoo, the Convention Center, the Expo Center, and serving as the landlord for Portland area arts organizations. Adding another massive program to Metro’s expanding portfolio is more likely to lead to failure than success.

The region has had a homeless problem for more than 30 years. In 1986, Portland mayor Bud Clark made national news with his homeless plan: reach out to those who want help, be firm with those who don’t, and create an environment in which residents can feel safe and businesses can flourish. It was never fully implemented.

People have had enough of the homeless crisis. They don’t want camps in their neighborhoods, needles in their parks, or more crime. Rather than an expensive program of rental vouchers and “wraparound” services, the region needs more emergency shelters to transition the unsheltered into temporary housing and off streets.

Measure 26-210 doesn’t have a plan for action. It’s just a framework to create a plan. If it passes, the only thing we know for sure is that families and businesses will face a hefty new tax burden, with no clear idea of where the money will be spent or who will be helped. That’s a risk we can’t afford to take.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in urban economics and regulation. He can be reached at eric@cascadepolicy.org.

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Think renewable energy is infallible? Michael Moore’s film “Planet of the Humans” says to think again

By Rachel Dawson

Despite the claims of environmentalists promoting wind and solar energy, there is no perfect energy source. Each alternative has its own unique benefits and costs.

So, it was certainly no surprise when a recent Michael Moore film criticizing renewable energy made headlines and caused panic in liberal circles. In his Earth Day film, Planet of the Humans, staunch environmentalist Moore discovered that renewable energy was not as infallible as he had been led to believe.

It is, he says, a “documentary that dares to say what no one else will this Earth Day…we are following leaders who have taken us down the wrong road.”

Through the film, Director Jeff Gibbs discovers, among other things, that:

  • Solar panels are created using coal and other rare earth minerals, leading to excessive mining in Third World countries and human rights issues.
  • Solar energy is intermittent, and many “green” events claiming to run on solar panels often must be backed up by reliable diesel generators when the sun stops shining.
  • “Renewable” biomass involves burning wood, emitting large amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere and leading to deforestation.
  • Electric vehicles are powered by the same resources that power the regional grid. Thus, EVs are powered primarily by fossil fuels.
  • Companies claiming to use 100% renewable energy are always hooked up to the electrical grid to ensure they have access to reliable power when the renewable sources fail to generate sufficient power.
  • Weather dependent, intermittent energy resources must be backed up by firm power such as nuclear, coal, hydropower, or natural gas at all times. Gibbs and Moore show that greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the Sierra Club began its “Beyond Coal” campaign. These retired coal plants are often being replaced by an even greater quantity of natural gas.
  • The renewable energy industry is just as susceptible to the incentive of increasing profits as the “money-hungry” fossil fuel industry that environmentalists criticize.

Environmentalists have decried Planet of the Humans and petitioned for it to be permanently removed from online film platforms. Because of this, it is currently available only on YouTube. But calls for censorship do little to refute the movie’s critiques of renewable energy and instead support Moore’s thesis that people with a stake in renewable resources are pressuring the United States to invest in an industry that is not as clean as it has been reported to be.

Similar to the renewable energy industry the film examines, Planet of the Humans has faults of its own that are important to recognize. For example, the movie refers to outdated solar panels that have an 8% annual capacity factor and last only 10 years. However, some solar panels today can last up to 20 years and have a capacity factor of 10-25%.

Of course, these numbers are still well below those of traditional non-renewable sources. Natural gas has an annual capacity factor of 60%, and a thermal power plant typically has a 50-year lifespan. The average age of hydroelectric facilities currently operating in the U.S. is 64 years, demonstrating their ability to last more than three times as long as the typical solar power farm.

This film demonstrates the importance of thinking critically about all energy resources. Michael Moore does not place fossil fuels on a pedestal, but rather admits that all energy resources have an impact on our planet.

It is vital that the sources we use to power our grid are affordable and reliable. Solar and wind power don’t do our communities any good if they can’t keep the lights on. This is especially true now in Oregon when officials are forecasting a 33% probability of blackouts in 2024 due to the early closure of our region’s reliable coal plants. To avoid a repeat of the 2001 energy crisis, we should replace our energy resources with firm, reliable power.

Oregon’s current requirement that large utilities procure at least 50% of their electricity from wind, solar, and biomass by 2040 can’t and won’t happen with current technology, because intermittency is fundamentally incompatible with grid operation. Legislators should face reality right now and end that requirement before the blackouts hit.

If they won’t repeal this mandate, they should at least define hydropower as “renewable.” Since hydroelectric dams provide 45% of Oregon’s electricity, that simple change would make it possible for Oregon to comply with the 50% mandate. They also should legalize nuclear power, which was outlawed by Oregon voters in 1980.

Like Moore and Gibbs, we must scrutinize the decisions being made by utilities and state regulators to ensure we have enough electric power when we need it. Otherwise, we may be at risk of spending hours in the dark.

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

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Flexibility and Students’ Needs Should Drive Education Options in 2020

By Kathryn Hickok

Oregon’s experience with COVID-19 will change the ways students in our state are educated. Out of this public health crisis can come a unique chance to improve educational opportunity for all children through a more personalized delivery of education.

Long before schools closed or switched to remote learning formats in March, the landscape of options to meet the needs of K-12 students was already more diverse than ever. Oregon children were receiving a quality education outside the traditional public school system through online schools (including public charters), private and parochial schools, homeschooling, tutoring and learning centers, magnet schools, and more.

Countless Oregon families are now being exposed to homeschooling and distance learning options for the first time. Many may choose to continue learning from home next fall due to their families’ personal circumstances, or because they are discovering that home learning is providing tremendous benefits for their students.

As Oregon leaders look for solutions to enable students to return to school, they shouldn’t ignore the potential of home-based learning options. Flexible, personalized education options already exist that deliver quality education to children in many environments besides brick-and-mortar public schools. All these options should be valued, and parents should have the knowledge and power to choose among them to find the best fit for their students.

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 worth more than $3.3 million to lower-income Oregon children to help them attend tuition-based elementary schools since 1999.

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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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Small Modular Reactors Are Not the 20th-Century Nuclear Plants We’re Familiar With

By Rachel Dawson

Oregon, it’s about time we talk about nuclear power.

No, I don’t mean major reactors like PGE’s decommissioned Trojan Nuclear Plant which shuttered in 1992. Rather, I’m talking about small modular reactors (SMRs) which are experiencing rapid development and receiving great international interest.

Countries around the world, such as Russia and Canada, are currently exploring this technology. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has completed its first SMR certification review for a company called NuScale Power, which expects final approval by 2020. As it so happens, NuScale is headquartered right here in Portland.

NuScale is developing a new type of nuclear reactor that it claims is safer, smaller, and more affordable than traditional nuclear reactors.

NuScale’s major advancement is related to the circulation of water for the reactor’s safety system. Traditional nuclear reactors circulate water by using electricity. NuScale SMRs use natural circulation and thus don’t rely on power to cool the reactor down. According to a NuScale representative, the Fukushima nuclear disaster could never happen with an SMR. In Fukushima, the plant lost power to its safety system during an earthquake and tsunami, which caused the plant to melt down. SMRs can cool themselves without any intervention in the case of a major natural disaster.

SMRs are significantly smaller than traditional nuclear reactors. Because of this, the modules can be produced in a factory and shipped onsite. Doing so allows costs to come down and ensures that quality control is more evenly managed.

SMRs also have a unique business model. Instead of operating a single large reactor, SMR plants will consist of a single or multiple smaller modules. This allows for flexible operation, and a region can add more modules as its population grows.

NuScale expects its first SMR to come online in Idaho Falls in 2026. The line item estimates for the first NuScale plant will be approximately $65 per MWh, though a NuScale representative stated that costs are expected to come down with increased production. This initial cost places SMRs within the estimated cost range of a gas combined cycle plant according to Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis.

Though SMRs are carbon free, they aren’t considered to be a substitute for other renewable resources, such as solar or wind, by their developers. Rather, NuScale has emphasized that SMRs are competing against natural gas as a baseload power that will keep the grid reliable during times when the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing.

Of course, there’s the issue of what to do with nuclear waste produced by the reactors. The most efficient way to deal with nuclear waste is to recycle it. NuScale has more modern recycling technology than France (where nuclear power accounts for 72% of total electricity production and nuclear waste is recycled), but NuScale cannot take any action as it’s currently illegal to recycle nuclear waste in the United States. In lieu of recycling, NuScale plans to create onsite storage for nuclear waste, though disposal is left up to utilities.

Unfortunately, NuScale is not able to construct an SMR plant in Oregon even though the company is located here. Oregon passed a moratorium in 1980 that effectively banned the construction of any new nuclear plants in the state.

Wind and solar plants are not currently able to power the grid by themselves given their intermittency, and battery technology is not developed enough to be implemented at utility scale. The grid needs some kind of baseload power that is capable of backing up renewables when they fail to produce power. Right now, that role is being filled by natural gas and coal plants. If Oregon officials are serious about operating the grid with 100% renewable power, they need to bring SMRs into the discussion. Otherwise the reliability—and affordability—of the grid could be at stake.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She can be reached at rachel@cascadepolicy.org.

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The Upcoming PERS Crisis: The system is facing a $30 billion shortfall—radical reform is needed

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Coronavirus has hit the economy hard. Nearly all the stock market gains from the past two or three years have been wiped out. While it’s painful for investors and retirees, it’s likely to fuel the third major PERS crisis since the dot-com bust.

PERS, the public employee retirement system, has two major sources of funds: investment returns and employer contributions. PERS investments are managed by the state treasurer, under guidance from the Oregon Investment Council. “Employers” are state and local governments whose employees are PERS members.

PERS charges these employers a rate equal to some percent of their payroll to fund the costs of their employees’ anticipated retirement benefits. Currently, the average rate is approximately 25% of payroll. For example, for a city employee with a salary of $60,000 a year, the city must pay an additional $15,000 to PERS.

One of the many factors that affect the employer rate is the unfunded actuarial liability, or UAL. The UAL is an estimate of how much money would be needed to pay off all existing beneficiaries if the system were liquidated. Think of it this way: If you sold everything you owned—house, car, checking, savings, retirement—would you have enough to pay everyone you owe? If you don’t, you have unfunded liabilities.

PERS currently has a UAL of $24.5 billion. If PERS liquidated all its assets to pay its existing members, the system would be $24.5 billion short. The employer rate is set to fill that gap over a period of approximately 20 years. So, if the UAL increases, the employer rate increases. Similarly, if the UAL decreases, so does the employer rate.

Here’s where investment returns come in.

Because of the way PERS benefits are calculated, the system’s investments must earn an average of at least 7.2% a year to stop the UAL from getting bigger. That’s a very aggressive, and optimistic, target.

In good times, when PERS investments earn above average returns, the money from the investments reduces the UAL, which in turn reduces the employer contribution rate. If, on the other hand, PERS investments tank, the UAL balloons, and state and local governments must make bigger contributions to fill the gap.

PERS investment returns are correlated with stock market returns. Generally speaking, in a bull market, PERS investments run with the bulls; when the market drops, PERS investments suffer as well.

The stock market is down more than 20% from the beginning of the year. That means PERS investments would be down by about 11%. Based on past experience, such a drop would add another $6 billion to PERS’ unfunded liabilities, for a total UAL of about $30 billion.

Let’s say the economy improves and the stock market recovers all its losses, ending the year unchanged from the beginning of the year. PERS investments would be up by about 5%, based on past experience. Even so, PERS unfunded liabilities would increase by about $3 billion for a total UAL of about $27 billion.

Based on these observations, it’s very possible that state and local governments would face an employer contribution rate for PERS of 30% or more. That $60,000 employee would now come with an $18,000 additional cost to pay for PERS.

Where will that additional money come from?

It’ll come from us. Legislators and local governments will be under tremendous pressure to raise taxes to pay for skyrocketing PERS costs. Along with that will come budget cuts, with fewer teachers, state police, foster care workers resulting in bigger class sizes, reduced law enforcement, and more children stranded in the foster system. It’s not just a financial crisis, it’s a human crisis.

PERS has been a ticking time bomb for two decades. Attempts at meaningful reform have been put off by timid politicians and thwarted by powerful public employee unions. In the first PERS crisis of 2002, the system’s unfunded liabilities were less than $4 billion. In the second crisis, beginning in 2008, the UAL ballooned to $16 billion. Today, we’re looking at a third crisis with a UAL of $30 billion or more, or nearly $19,000 per household.

We are entering an era in which PERS cannot be merely tweaked or reformed. We are entering a PERS crisis that will require a radical overhaul of the entire system. It can begin with some straightforward first steps:

  1. Move all new public employees into a 403(b) defined contribution plan. These are similar to the 401(k) plans held by many private sector employees. TriMet has already made the switch, and it saved the agency from insolvency.
  2. The PERS Board must change its assumed rate of return on PERS investments. Because of the mismatch between assumed and actual investment returns, PERS is accruing liabilities much faster than it’s growing its assets. Bad assumptions were unsustainable 20 years ago, and they’re disastrous now.

These are just first steps that can be handled quickly in an emergency session of the legislature and an emergency meeting of the PERS board. There’s never a good time to upset the public employee unions. Now that we’re in a crisis, it’s time for leadership and action to save the state from fiscal disaster.

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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Oregon Can Support Workers by Reducing Regulations

By Rachel Dawson

Businesses across Oregon are laying off employees and shuttering their doors, triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak and Kate Brown’s executive order requiring social distancing and closing specified businesses. Unemployment claims jumped by around 3,200% in Oregon last week and unemployment could reach 20% in the coming months.

Due to the outbreak and increased statewide demand, the state is relaxing requirements for some occupations. For example, the state will be expediting the licensing process for daycare providers and will “waive, suspend or amend existing administrative rules pertaining to child care while allowing for emergency child care to be established.”

Easing the burden and costs of licensing for daycare workers is a good first step, but the state can go farther to help more Oregonians access jobs they otherwise would be locked out of due to costly fees and lengthy processes. Oregon has the 8th most burdensome licensing laws in the nation and licenses 69 of 102 lower-income occupations identified by the Institute for Justice.

For instance, residents who are already certified as an EMT in another state must apply, pass a background check, and pay a fee to be granted a license in Oregon. Officials can reduce or waive these requirements to improve access to the health care industry, which may be especially important now if others fall ill while caring for sick Oregonians.

Oregon can support workers and help more people attain employment by cutting the red tape now and committing to reduced occupational regulations in the future.

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

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Tax Relief Can Slow the Spread of COVID-19 Financial Panic

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The coronavirus is already taking a toll on our pocketbooks. Families are facing layoffs. Businesses are closing—and some may never reopen. Our elected leaders are urging everyone to do their fair share. Property owners have been asked to give tenants a six-month grace period to pay their rents. They’re considering forcing small businesses to provide paid sick leave to their employees. That means property owners won’t have the money they need to pay their mortgages and property taxes. That means small businesses will be spending money on workers who aren’t working.

Oregon politicians have been silent on how government is going to do its fair share to relieve the burden of COVID-19. They need to do more than just promise more facemasks and testing kits.

People need cash, but they don’t want handouts. And that’s where state and local governments can help out. Now.

For years, Oregon politicians have been loading new and higher taxes on its people and businesses. They had a permanent prosperity mindset. They believed employment would always increase, wages would always grow, and the stock market would always rise. Year after year, more and more taxes were added—just the price of a latte a week, they’d tell us. But, it all adds up. Property taxes, gas taxes, business taxes, and payroll taxes are just a few of the nibbles that over time have added up to a big bite out of our wallets. It’s time to let us keep some of that money until this crisis passes.

First, the state and local governments must give everyone an automatic six-month extension to file—and pay—their income taxes. Families need that money more than the government.

Next, the Kicker. Oregonians are due for $1.5 billion in Kicker refunds this year. That’s about $350 for the average taxpayer. Instead of waiting to get a credit on this year’s tax return, the state should send out Kicker checks. That’s what the state used to do. Plus, it’s not new spending, it’s money that’s already owed to taxpayers.

As an emergency measure, the governor should order the Oregon Department of Revenue to delay implementation of the Corporate Activities Tax (CAT) for another year. The CAT’s implementation has been chaotic, and many businesses don’t know if they owe money or how much they owe. The first of the quarterly CAT payments are due April 30. Businesses struggling to survive the virus outbreak can’t afford to spend the time and money it takes to figure out this complex and uncertain tax.

Portland should suspend the Clean Energy Fund’s gross receipts tax on retailers. Portlanders need cash on hand now and businesses need to stay solvent. Solar panels can wait until the pandemic passes.

Now’s the time for Portland to kill its Arts Tax and stop its collection efforts. In this time of worry, the city can bring a small piece of relief to the region by ending its hated Arts Tax. The first mayoral candidate who promises to get rid of the Arts Tax has a good shot at being Portland’s next mayor.

Metro should pull its May 2020 ballot measure that would impose two new income taxes on families and businesses. Portland Public Schools should stop the clock on its $1.2 billion school construction bond. Multnomah County should realize the folly in raising taxes for free preschool when students across the state are on a near-permanent Spring Break.

The age of permanent prosperity has come to a quick and unexpected end. Who knows when prosperity will return? Our leaders need to adopt a crisis mentality and work hard to make sure citizens stay solvent and businesses survive. Providing tax relief isn’t “austerity;” it’s action. Action that informs voters that the politicians they vote for care about them when leadership is needed most.

Government is rarely the solution to a crisis, but it can take concrete steps to stop today’s health care scare from turning into a financial panic.

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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Kate Brown is out of touch if she thinks an executive order is needed to reduce emissions

By Rachel Dawson

Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown responded to the Republican walk-out and end of the 2020 legislative short session by saying that she “will be taking executive action to lower our greenhouse gas emissions.” Brown is also “open to calling a special session if we can ensure it will benefit Oregonians.”

Despite what Brown may believe, executive action is not necessary to lower our state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Oregon residents and businesses are way ahead of the governor and are already cutting emissions in their daily lives. And they’re doing it without heightened government regulation or a burdensome tax.

According to the Oregon Global Warming Commission, per capita emissions have decreased by 22.8% since 1990, and emissions per unit of GDP have dropped by 50.7%.

                      Source: Oregon Global Warming Commission, 2018 Biennial Report

Additionally, Oregon’s energy use per capita is the lowest it’s been since 1960; and Oregonians have decreased energy consumption per capita by 37% since it peaked in 1972.

                                Source: Oregon Department of Energy, 2018 Biennial Report

If these trends continue, aggregate GHG emissions will decrease in the future without placing an undue financial burden on rural and low-income residents.

Oregonians, and not Kate Brown, are doing what needs to be done to benefit Oregonians.

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

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Cascade Policy Institute Asks the Federal Transit Administration to Enforce Light Rail Contracts with TriMet

March 9, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
(503) 242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org

Portland, OR – Cascade Policy Institute has submitted a letter to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requesting that the agency enforce contracts with TriMet for three light rail projects: the Yellow Line, the Green Line, and the Orange Line. Each project received substantial federal funding, which came with contractual obligations to provide minimum levels of service. TriMet has not met those obligations.

For both the Yellow and Green Lines, TriMet is supposed to be providing 8 trains per hour during peak periods. Current service on those lines is 4 trains per hour.

For the Orange Line, TriMet is supposed to be providing 6 trains per peak-hour. Current service provides only 4.6 trains per hour.

All three lines are also traveling at slower speeds than promised, and ridership projections have been missed by large margins.

Under FTA policy, the agency is empowered to demand repayment of federal funding if grant recipients fail to meet the terms of funding contracts. In its letter, Cascade Policy Institute is asking that FTA require TriMet to begin operating light rail lines in accordance with grant agreements within six months or begin paying back the federal funding.

Cascade is also requesting that FTA embargo any future funding for the Southwest Corridor Project, until such time as previous light rail projects are in compliance with contracts.

According to John A. Charles, Jr., President of Cascade Policy Institute, “TriMet’s under-performance is not an aberration, it’s a pattern. Since FTA has funded more than half the cost of the total MAX system, FTA should hold TriMet accountable by requiring the district to provide the service that was promised.”

The letter can be read here.

About Cascade Policy Institute:

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. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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The Housing Crisis Isn’t a Portland Problem; It’s a UGB Problem

By Rachel Dawson

Portland’s housing crisis isn’t unique to the Metro region. Other areas of Oregon, such as Bend in Central Oregon, are also experiencing rising housing costs. But the high price of living isn’t the only similarity between these two areas: Both Portland and Bend have strict urban growth boundaries (UGB) and government regulations that artificially inflate the cost of building homes, and thus their prices to buyers.

Permits in Bend are low; twice as many building permits were pulled in 2005 compared to now. Given Bend’s population growth, this certainly isn’t due to a lack of demand.

So then why are homes in short supply when demand is only growing? There are two major factors driving this issue: land availability and regulatory fees.

Just like in Portland, Bend has a UGB and an influx of residents. This boundary restricts the amount of buildable land available for purchase, which in turn increases both the value and the cost of the land.

On top of artificially high land prices, regulatory fees to construct a home in Bend are around $30,000 before any shovel hits the dirt. Further, the new Corporate Activities Tax is “a huge devastating reality for the industry and will ultimately be passed on to the home buyer.”

To make housing more affordable, both Bend and Portland officials should make more land available to developers and cut back on regulatory fees. Doing so will help ease the housing crisis without increasing the burden placed on residents.

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

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Metro’s Housing Tax Requires Serious Oversight

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

At the first—and likely only—public hearing on Metro’s “supportive housing” tax measure, one resident asked a question on everyone’s mind: “Our money isn’t being spent the way it should be now, so what assurances do we have that this will be any different?”

The question highlights the fact that trust in local government is at a low point. Among Portland areas voters who have an opinion of their local government, approximately one-third have an unfavorable opinion of Metro or county government and more than 40% have an unfavorable opinion of their city government, according to a survey by FM3 Research.

With more than a billion dollars a year in new taxes heading to the ballot in 2020, voters deserve assurances their hard-earned money won’t be wasted or soaked up in administrative costs. If all the measures pass, some households will pay thousands, literally thousands, more in taxes. That means fewer meals out, reduced back-to-school shopping, and “staycations” instead of vacations. If taxpayers are working more to pay their tax bills, they should feel confident local governments will ensure that money is well and wisely spent. Our local governments, however, do not instill much confidence.

When asked how the regional government’s supportive housing measure could be set up to have more accountability, Metro Council President Lynn Peterson responded, “Well, we’re going to be setting up an oversight committee.” In some ways this is an admission that Metro Council can’t be bothered to oversee the program and instead intends to farm out oversight to a group of unelected and hand-picked volunteers.

In other words, “oversight committee” is a politician’s way of saying, “Nothing to see here, move along.” Voters envision a group of serious citizens scrutinizing spreadsheets, pushing back on smoke-blowing bureaucrats, finding fraud and waste, and dropping the hammer on malfeasance. The reality is different from the vision, as seen in Metro’s “Parks and Nature” oversight committee.

The committee has overseen more than $250 million of taxpayer money spent on Metro’s parks and nature program. It has 12 members, serious citizens who do, in fact, scrutinize spreadsheets. But this group has become less serious over time. At one meeting last year, only two of the 12 members attended; at another only five members showed up. At the most recent meeting, one member complained, “My eyes glass-over a bit when reviewing” the program’s spreadsheets.

While there have been attempts to see through the haze of smoke-blowing bureaucrats, the committee has been stymied more often than it’s been successful. For example, the committee has been repeatedly rebuffed in attempts to review pending land purchases. By withholding important information until a deal has closed, the committee cannot provide effective oversight.

More recently, the committee has raised questions about the administrative costs of the parks and nature program, which Metro promised would not exceed 10% of total costs. In recent years, administrative costs have skyrocketed to 20% or more of total costs; and “indirect” administrative costs have more than tripled relative to the program’s first years. In response to these questions, the committee and Metro staff decided that the 10% cap should be applied over the life of the program, rather than year-by-year. In other words, they hope overspending this year can be offset by underspending is some previous or future year.

Even worse, on at least two occasions, Metro’s “Parks and Nature” oversight committee held meetings in violation of Oregon Public Meetings Law. Metro provided no public notice of meetings in September 2019 and February 2020. At both of these meetings, the committee discussed the program’s administrative costs and other issues of public interest. By withholding public notice, these meetings were effectively conducted in secret. This is serious business. The public meetings law specifies 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 law.

As Metro is asking voters to approve $300 million a year in new taxes for supportive housing, oversight of spending must be transparent, energetic, and effective. Unfortunately, Metro’s experience with its parks and nature program calls into question how effective any oversight of the housing measure will be.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization. A version of this article was published by Pamplin Media on March 1, 2020.

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The Grid Is Not a Tinker Toy

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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Cap Taxes or You’ll Trade Business

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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TriMet Drops Ridership Estimate by 13% for Tigard Light Rail

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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Frustrated with Traffic? According to PBOT, That’s Your Problem

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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Cascade Policy Institute Raises Concerns Metro Is Flouting Oregon Public Meetings Law

Transparency is critical as Metro asks voters to trust the agency with billions in new taxes

February 11, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
503-242-0900
503-928-6635
eric@cascadepolicy.org

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.

A copy of the letter and documentation is available here.

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They Always Want More: Voters Face at Least a Half Dozen New Taxes in 2020

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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Supreme Court Espinoza Case Debates Parents’ Freedom to Choose Religious Schools

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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Oregon is meeting its 2020 GHG emissions goals, depending on how you measure it

By Rachel Dawson

Is Oregon meeting its 2020 greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction goals? It depends on how you measure emissions.

The Oregon Legislature established GHG reduction goals in 2007 through HB 3543. The law called for reducing GHGs to 10% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 75% below 1990 levels by 2050.

However, the statute does not say whether GHGs should be measured in the aggregate or on a per capita basis. This is an important distinction given Oregon’s population growth since 2007.

The Oregon Global Warming Commission (OGWC), a group created by HB 3543, insists on measuring total GHG emissions. Using this metric, Oregon produced 13% more total emissions in 2017 compared to 1990 levels, and thus appears to be failing.

When measured on a per capita basis, Oregon GHG emissions in 2017 were actually 21% lower than 1990 levels. We have more than doubled the 10% emissions reduction goal, three years ahead of the deadline.

In fact, Oregon has improved its energy efficiency so much that per capita energy use in 2016 was the lowest it’s been since 1960, declining 37% since it peaked in 1972. Oregon has the lowest per capita energy use in the entire Northwest.

Unfortunately, you won’t see any celebration from the Global Warming Commission, because good news doesn’t sell. More importantly, the Commission needs the perception of a crisis in order to justify Governor Brown’s climate change agenda. Oregon legislators should remember this when the Governor’s cap-and-trade bill is debated in February.

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

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Oregon and Washington Need to Think Bigger on I-5 Bridge Project

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

“It’s time to get this done!” Governor Kate Brown told the crowd at this year’s Oregon Leadership Summit, referring to a replacement for the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River. The statement ended with an exclamation point, but it should have ended with a question mark. Despite the urgency, it’s not clear what the governor means by “this” or when “this” should be completed.

Last month Governor Brown met with Washington Governor Jay Inslee and inked a deal to begin the process of replacing the I-5 bridge connecting the two states. The two states have allocated $44 million to open an office for the I-5 bridge project. Governors Brown and Inslee hope to pick up some of the pieces of the Columbia River Crossing project that fell apart in 2013 after a dozen years of planning, costing taxpayers more than $200 million.

But what is “this” bridge replacement? Will there be more lanes than we have now, or fewer? Will lanes be set aside for buses or light rail? Will bicyclists and pedestrians get their own lane? These are all different ways of asking the same question: Will the replacement have more lanes for cars and trucks?

If the answer is “yes,” there will be more lanes to relieve traffic congestion, then the governor should push to get as much done as possible before her term is over. If the answer is “no,” there won’t be new through-lane capacity, then she should admit the project is an expensive no-growth policy and be upfront with Oregonians about it.

Since the beginning of the original CRC planning in 2001, the region’s population has grown by nearly 30%. Over that time congestion has worsened, commuting times have lengthened, and the bridge has become one of the worst freight bottlenecks in the country, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.

At this point there are no clear plans for how the I-5 bridge replacement will relieve pressure on this key pinch point. The current bridge has three northbound and three southbound lanes. At the time the CRC project imploded, there were no clear plans to add through lanes for cars and trucks—just added lanes for bikes, pedestrians, and public transit.

Opponents of the bridge replacement come from all sides. Environmentalists and active transportation advocates argue that relieving traffic congestion will trigger “induced demand” for travel that will make congestion worse and increase carbon emissions. Commuters and freight haulers complain the set-aside for bikes, pedestrians, and public transit is a wasteful use of lane capacity. Good government folks question spending billions of dollars on a project that would do little or nothing to relieve one of the nation’s worst traffic bottlenecks. Another group of good government folks—mostly from Washington and Clark counties—are clamoring for a third bridge that would allow Westsiders to avoid slogging through US Highway 26 and I-5 through Portland.

Opponents of the original CRC noted that improving traffic flows crossing the Columbia on I-5 would not solve any congestion problems. Instead, they argued, the new bridge would shift the bottleneck further south to the Rose Quarter. Things have changed, and that argument will soon lose its relevance.

In particular, the Oregon Department of Transportation is in the middle of a project to widen I-5 through the Rose Quarter. The addition of lane capacity alone will do much to relieve congestion in this choke point. But, there’s more.

Along with the addition of lane capacity, the legislature directed ODOT to experiment with congestion pricing along the improved stretch—an experiment supported by Governor Brown. The money raised from congestion pricing should be used to improve and expand roads for the people paying the tolls. If the governor doesn’t want to use the funds to expand highway capacity, she owes the people of Oregon a clear vision of where she thinks it should go.

Transportation is a crucial element of economic development. With transportation improvements, trade between regions increases. With easier commutes, employment opportunities open up. Increased trade and improved employment drive economic growth and prosperity. An I-5 replacement that does nothing to improve the flow of goods and people is a waste of money. A replacement that adds capacity and reduces congestion is an investment in shared prosperity for Oregon, Washington, and the West Coast.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in urban economics and regulation. He can be reached at eric@cascadepolicy.org.

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Miss Virginia: A Trailblazer for Educational Opportunity for Today’s Kids

By Kathryn Hickok and Miranda Bonifield

Virginia Walden Ford is a Washington, D.C. mom whose extraordinary sacrifice and determination changed not just her own child’s life, but the lives of thousands of low-income and minority students. Her story is now told through the new movie Miss Virginia, starring Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba.

Virginia’s experience as an African American student integrating Little Rock high schools in the 1960s gave her a strong personal understanding of how important education is to a child’s success. When, years later, her own son William began slipping through the cracks of a D.C. public school where his teacher didn’t even know his name, she fought for a better option. Virginia’s answer came in the form of a private school scholarship. William went from skipping school to being a joyful, enthusiastic student known by friends and teachers.

Virginia Walden Ford believes every child should have that same chance to succeed in school and in life. Her persistent work on behalf of low-income students in Washington, D.C. led to the creation of the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). The OSP is a congressionally funded scholarship program which has given thousands of District kids the chance to attend private elementary and high schools chosen by their parents or guardians. Virginia says, “We knew that if we raised our voices, we could win for our children. We did. And now our kids are winning as a result.”

January 26-February 1 is National School Choice Week, the world’s largest celebration of parental choice and effective educational options for all children. To celebrate National School Choice Week, Cascade Policy Institute will host a special screening of the film Miss Virginia in Lake Oswego on Thursday evening, January 30, at 6:30 pm. (Admission is free, but reservations are required due to space limitations. For theater information and to reserve tickets, call Cascade Policy Institute at (503) 242-0900.)

As Virginia Walden Ford and her son William knew too well, choices in education are widespread in America, unless families are poor. Parents with the financial means to do so will buy homes near public schools they like, pay tuition for private schools, or supplement the classroom experience with enrichment opportunities. But low-income families generally find themselves trapped with only one option: a public school assigned to them based on their address, which too often fails to meet their children’s educational and personal needs.

All families deserve better.

The landscape of options to meet students’ unique learning needs is more diverse today than ever. These options include traditional public schools, charter schools, private and parochial schools, homeschooling, magnet schools, online learning, and more. Today, more than half the states in the U.S. provide parents with flexibility in their children’s learning options through 61 different educational choice programs such as privately or publicly funded scholarships, education tax credits, and Education Savings Accounts (which can function like restricted-use debit cards for a child’s education expenses).

Every child has one chance to grow up, and each year is precious. Parents know it: The right educational environment can change a student’s life. Empowering parents to give their children the education that’s right for their talents and needs unlocks the unique potential of every child. Virginia Walden Ford’s experiences and advocacy on behalf of Washington, D.C. students demonstrate how important school choice policies are to the future of low-income children in America. She also shows us what a difference one dedicated and courageous parent makes, not only for her own child, but for thousands of others as well.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute and director of Cascade’s Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program. Miranda Bonifield is CSF-Oregon’s Program Assistant. CSF-Oregon has provided scholarships worth more than $3.3 million to lower-income Oregon children to help them attend private or parochial elementary schools since 1999.

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Eric Fruits, Vice President of Research of Cascade Policy Institute submitted testimony to Metro Council regarding the lax oversight of Metro’s Parks and Nature Program

Press Release: Eric Fruits, Vice President of Research of Cascade Policy Institute submitted testimony to Metro Council regarding the lax oversight of Metro’s Parks and Nature Program.

January 23, 2020

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
(503) 242-0900
eric@cascadepolicy.org

Thursday, Metro Council will be receiving from staff an annual report on Metro’s Parks and Nature program. Cascade Policy Institute urges the Council reject the Annual Report and demand a revised report that includes details of the program’s skyrocketing administrative costs. In addition, the Council should replace the current members of the Oversight Committee with individuals who have the time, energy, and expertise to provide adequate oversight to the nearly billion dollar Parks and Nature program and Council should provide the new Oversight Committee with the information and staff support necessary for them monitor the Parks and Nature program.

REJECT THE PARKS & NATURE ANNUAL REPORT

In the last fiscal year, Metro spent $42 million on its Parks and Nature program. Yet the annual report provided to Metro Council is only four pages and runs less than 1,400 words with high-res photos making up about one-third of the report. What little information is presented raises more questions than it answers, in particular:

  • The Annual Report provides no explanation for skyrocketing administrative costs, which last year account for 30% of total program expenditures. Metro promised taxpayers that administrative costs would be no higher than 10%.
  • The Annual Report provides no useful information regarding how many acres were purchased in the past year, where they were purchased, or how much was paid. Previous annual reports provide at least some of this information. Metro Councilors and Metro voters deserve to know how much of their tax dollars are being used to buy land outside of Metro’s jurisdiction and/or outside the Urban Growth Boundary.
  • In April 2019, the Oversight Committee requested the Annual Report include information regarding “extra resources (bond proceeds and grants) that helped pay for capital projects at Chehalem, River Island, etc.” The only mention of capital projects in the Annual Report are forward looking promises regarding the proceeds from the 2019 bond measure. The Annual Report has no discussion of Chehalem Ridge nor River Island. The omission of these items specifically requested by the committee demonstrates the Oversight Committee has no sway over Metro staff.

REPLACE THE MEMBERS OF THE PARKS & NATURE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE

Metro council and staff frequently repeat the tired phrase “promises made, promises kept” with respect to their Parks and Nature program—it even makes its way into the most recent Annual Report. One promise made to voters in every Parks and Nature ballot measure since 2006 has been vigorous oversight of the program by a citizen Oversight Committee.

  • Beginning with their earliest meetings, Metro staff made clear the committee would be denied key information required and requested to provide oversight. For example, the committee has repeatedly been rebuffed in its efforts to provide oversight on pending land purchases.
  • Over the past year, the already weakened Oversight Committee has become a farce. The last time the Oversight Committee met was April 5, 2019, or nearly 10 months ago. This is the longest gap between meetings of the Oversight Committee. At the last meeting only 2 of the 12 committee members were in attendance.
  • The Oversight Committee was expected to meet in Summer 2019, with a discussion of the Annual Report to be an agenda item. That meeting was never held and there is no record of the Oversight Committee meeting to review the 2018-19 Annual Report.

The members of the current Oversight Committee should be replaced by individuals who have the time, enthusiasm, and expertise to serve. The newly formed committee must be provided the power—and support from Metro Council and staff—to exercise effective oversight of this billion dollar program.

For more details on Cascade Policy Institute’s recommendations to Metro Council, please read the complete letter below.

Click here for PDF version:

Testimony to Metro-Letter 200123a

 

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National School Choice Week Celebrates All the Ways Kids Learn

By Kathryn Hickok

January 26-February 1 is National School Choice Week, the world’s largest celebration of parental choice and effective education options for all children. Since 2011, more than 180,000 independent NSCW events and activities have been planned in local communities across the country.

The landscape of options to meet the learning needs of today’s students is more diverse than ever. These options include traditional public schools, charter schools, private and parochial schools, homeschooling, magnet schools, online learning, and more.

Empowering parents to choose among these options can unlock the unique potential of every child. More than half the states in the U.S. now help families to have more flexibility with their children’s education through educational choice programs like privately or publicly funded scholarships, education tax credits, and Education Savings Accounts.

To celebrate National School Choice Week, Cascade Policy Institute will host a screening of the new feature film Miss Virginia in Lake Oswego on Thursday evening, January 30, at 6:30 pm. Admission is free, but reservations are required due to space limitations. For more information about the event and to reserve tickets, call Cascade Policy Institute at (503) 242-0900.

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 worth more than $3.3 million to lower-income Oregon children to help them attend tuition-based elementary schools since 1999.

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Why are rural, low-income residents subsidizing Teslas for Oregon’s urban elite?

By Rachel Dawson

Oregon state officials recently celebrated helping the state reach 25,000 registered electric vehicles (EVs) through local incentives and the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program. This celebration, however, is a punch in the gut to the state’s low-income and rural residents whose taxes fund the rebates and incentives used to purchase the EVs by predominantly wealthy and urban Oregon residents.

Programs include two rebate programs through the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, a federal tax credit, and local utility rebates (though local utility rebates generally tend to target businesses and the 2019 Nissan LEAF). For example, a consumer could use between $7,500 and $10,000 taxpayer dollars to purchase a new 2020 Tesla Model 3, which currently sells for $39,999. In fact, 24% of the EVs registered in Oregon are Teslas.

These incentive programs may shave a couple thousand dollars off the consumer cost of EVs and plug-in hybrids, but their prices will likely still be too high for those with lower incomes. Purchasing an EV also isn’t a viable option for many residents living in rural counties due to a lack of EV infrastructure.

The three counties with the largest number of EV purchases, Washington, Multnomah, and Clackamas, are all coincidentally located in the Portland metro area. They also happen to be the three most wealthy counties in the state, so it’s no wonder their residents purchase 75% of the state’s registered EVs.

David Larson, Jaguar Land Rover’s general manager of product development, told ABC news that EVs “still cost a lot more than ICE [internal combustion engine] cars and charging takes a long time … For a rancher in Montana, EVs are not the solution. These cars are for people who live in urban areas and don’t travel more than 100 miles or more a week.” The same logic could be applied to people living in Eastern and Southern Oregon.

EVs are being promoted due to their supposed environmental benefits, but in reality, the emissions are simply being shifted from urban cities to rural areas. The electricity powering the vehicles comes from a mix of coal, hydro, wind, solar, and gas power plants. You won’t see any of these plants in Portland as most of them are located in other areas of the state, such as Eastern Oregon, where utilities can purchase and construct facilities on large plots of land.

Oregon officials are very vocal when it comes to “environmental benefits,” but seem to have tight lips when it comes to the range of issues EVs experience.

The vehicles use lithium ion batteries which are sensitive to temperature changes. Larson says that cold weather can cut range by up to one third. These issues make EVs a suitable option for warm, urban areas—a big reason why the largest markets for EVs in the US are located in California, Texas, and Florida. This may not be an issue in warmer climates, but EVs will experience a variety of problems during Oregon’s cold winters. The battery can also be significantly drained depending on how fast one drives, heating or cooling the vehicle, and radio usage.

Portland also has one of the milder climates in the state, so it is no surprise that the state has seen a surge of EV purchases in the urban metro area.

But even in an urban environment, relying on an EV can prove costly and inefficient. Recent electricity blackouts in California have left thousands without power, leaving EV owners stranded unless they own a gasoline powered generator to charge their vehicle or have access to other means of transportation.

Officials’ environmental concerns should be eased by the fact that vehicle emissions in Oregon are decreasing despite a growing population and are projected by ODOT to decrease to 20% below 1990 levels by 2050. This is due in part to older vehicles being retired and replaced by more efficient cars.

Multiple legislative concepts related to EV infrastructure will be discussed in the legislative short session this year. LC 222 would amend building code requirements to create an EV infrastructure requirement for the construction of certain buildings, such as privately-owned commercial buildings and residential and mixed-use buildings with five or more “dwelling units.” LC 224 would authorize the Public Utility Commission to allow utilities to recover the costs of EV infrastructure from all ratepayers.

The passage of these potential bills would further disperse the cost of EVs to those who do not own one through increased power bills and housing prices. Oregon taxpayers from across various counties and income levels should not be subsidizing EV purchases that tend to be used by wealthier residents living in urban environments. Given that EVs are already decreasing in price as new vehicles enter the market and technology improves, state officials should not move forward with the above legislative concepts and should eliminate the unjust EV rebates.

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

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New Year, New Tax: What You Need to Know About Oregon’s Gross Receipts Tax

By Katie Eyre, CPA

The 2019 Oregon Legislature established a new tax affecting all firms that do business in Oregon. While it is called by its misnomer the “Corporate Activity Tax,” the CAT actually applies to most types of organizational entities such as partnerships, individuals, limited liability companies, and trusts that have commercial activity generated in Oregon in the regular course of their trade or business. It is a tax paid annually for the privilege of doing business in Oregon. Initial expectations are that it will raise about $1 billion in new revenue annually. These funds are to be set aside for exclusive use for education and school purposes.

By now, every business in Oregon should have received a generic letter from the Oregon Department of Revenue alerting them to this new tax. This letter is a helpful primer on the CAT, but is not incredibly useful in figuring out the impact on each business’s specific situation. As is usual with all tax law, the devil is in the details.

How did the Corporate Activity Tax come about? In May 2019, the Oregon Legislature passed HB 3427. In this bill, it established the CAT as the primary mechanism to fund the new Fund for Student Success. Then in June 2019, the Legislature passed HB 2164 which provided technical corrections to HB 3427. As a follow up, the Department of Revenue held informational and listening sessions around the state through the last half of 2019. In December 2019, the Department of Revenue issued 12 temporary rules related to this new tax. The agency intends to release additional temporary guidance through March 2020. Any time there is a new tax put in place, there is much ambiguity, and so as a tax practitioner, we appreciate any guidance that is issued, especially since the effective date is January 1, 2020 and the first estimated tax payment is due April 30, 2020 (more on that later).

Who is subject to the CAT? That tax is imposed upon enterprises with a trade or business and “substantial nexus” in Oregon, who also meet certain specific thresholds. We’ll drill down on some of the definitions, but here is a quick threshold listing:

  • Any business with Oregon “commercial activity” in excess of $750,000 will need to register,
  • Any business with Oregon “commercial activity” in excess of $1,000,000 will need to file, and
  • Any business with Oregon taxable “commercial activity” in excess of $1,000,000 will need to pay the CAT.

How much is the CAT? It is 0.57% of a firm’s Oregon taxable commercial activity in excess of $1,000,000 plus $250. If a business does not have Oregon taxable commercial activity in excess of $1,000,000, then it will not owe any tax, including the $250 minimum tax.

What is a “substantial nexus”? HB 3427 states that a business has a substantial nexus if it:

  • Owns or uses a part or all of its capital in this state,
  • Holds a certificate of existence or authorization issued by the Secretary of State’s office,
  • Has a “brightline presence” in Oregon, defined as:
    • Owns property in Oregon with an aggregate value of at least $50,000, or
    • Has Oregon payroll of at least $50,000, or
    • Has commercial activity in the state of at least $750,000, or
    • At least 25% of the total property, payroll, or commercial activity is in Oregon, or
    • Is a resident or domiciled in Oregon for commercial, corporate, or other business purposes.

The Department of Revenue provides an example of a hypothetical out-of-state firm that would be subject to CAT regulations:

Atlas Company (Atlas Co.), headquartered in Maryland, operates a website supporting internet sales, primarily to European country customers. Atlas Co. made approximately 10,000 sales at $99.00 per sale, to residents of Oregon during the year, realizing $990,000 of commercial activity. Atlas Co. contracts with an Oregon mailing service to deliver the merchandise in Oregon. While the amount of commercial activity realized by Atlas Co. is below the threshold to file a corporate activity tax return and pay tax, Atlas Co. does have substantial nexus in Oregon, and must register with the department when commercial activity exceeds $750,000.

What is commercial activity? HB 3427 introduced many new terms that require definitions. Fortunately, the law provided some definitions that will add partial clarity. The definition of commercial activity is the total amount realized by a subject taxpayer, arising from transactions and activity in the regular course of the taxpayer’s trade or business, without deduction for expenses incurred by the trade or business. For the most part, many businesses will think of this as their gross sales. For the most part, that is accurate. However, HB 3427 and HB 2164, list 47 exceptions to the calculation of commercial activity. They fall in to two categories:

  • “Excluded persons” like non-profits and some health care providers, for example. There are many others.
  • “Gross receipt exemptions” like non-trade interest income, excise taxes collected from customers, or wages received as an employee, for example. There are many others.

The CAT also introduces a “use tax” concept which will be unfamiliar to most Oregon businesses. If a business purchased equipment/property out of state, then brings it in to Oregon within one year of purchase, the value of the property is included in “commercial activity” unless the buyer can show that it wasn’t purchased out of state to avoid the CAT. This now requires the taxpayer and the state of Oregon to consider an Oregon business’s motivation in purchasing equipment/property from out of state suppliers and puts the CAT burden of the “gross receipts” tax on the buyer rather than the seller for this transaction.

What is Oregon taxable commercial activity income? We have discussed what “commercial activity” is, but not what the Oregon taxable commercial activity is. The CAT is only assessed against the Oregon taxable commercial activity. It is broken down as follows:

Commercial activity apportioned to Oregon

minus

35% of the greater of

  • Oregon cost inputs (as defined by the Internal Revenue Code Sec 471) or
  • Oregon labor costs
  • Note: This subtraction is limited to 95% of the Oregon commercial activity

What this means is that of the included commercial activity, only Oregon commercial activity is included. Non-Oregon activity is excluded. From there, a taxpayer can subtract out 35% of certain costs that are apportioned or sourced to Oregon.

What if a taxpayer has more than one business? The Oregon CAT requires a taxpayer to look at their businesses as a “unitary business” rather than separate businesses. This concept was designed for the situation where on a separate business basis, some of the businesses would not be subject to the CAT. But if aggregated into a unitary business, then they would meet the thresholds and therefore be subject to the CAT. A unitary business must file their CAT returns on a unitary basis, even though they are separate taxpayers for other purposes. This is one of the most complicated areas of the new law. The draft regulations provide the general rule that “if the activities of one business either contribute to the activities of another business, or are dependent upon the activities of another business, those businesses are part of a unitary business.” HB 3427 also discusses common ownership, centralized management, common executive force, among other things.

What are some of the administration aspects of the CAT? The Department of Revenue is still working out some kinks, but here in a nutshell is what we know to date:

  • The effect start date is January 1, 2020.
  • All CAT filings must be done on a calendar year basis, regardless of any fiscal year end for the taxpayer.
  • A taxpayer must register if their commercial activity is at least $750,000. (If not previously required to register, the taxpayer must register within 30 days of reaching the $750,000 threshold or face per month penalties).
  • Estimated taxes are required to be paid quarterly if the CAT will be greater than $5,000 for the year.
    • Due April 30, July 31, October 31, and January 31 for the previous quarter.
    • Note the first quarterly estimated payment will be due April 30, 2020.
    • All estimated tax payments must be paid electronically.
  • The annual tax return is due April 15 of the following year.
    • Note the first annual return filing will not be due until April 15, 2021 for the 2020 tax year.
    • A 6-month filing extension may be granted only for “good cause.” Extensions do not appear to be automatically granted.
  • Unitary groups must file as a single taxpayer. Each member will be jointly and severally liable for the filing and payment of the estimated taxes and the annual filing and taxes.

What can a business do now? This is just a general discussion of the new CAT and should not be relied upon for your unique situation. Because this is a new and complex tax, both the Oregon Department of Revenue and tax advisors are trying to understand as much as possible. The information is still evolving. Any Oregon business should consult with their tax advisor immediately so that they can understand how this new tax will impact their specific business. If subject to the tax, the business will need to budget for it and be prepared to register, as well as be prepared to file and pay the quarterly estimated tax. If you have a financial review or audit, talk with your certified public accountant to find out if it should be included in your tax provision analysis. And because of the definition of “cost inputs” for subtractions, you may want to talk with your tax advisor to see if you can enhance what is currently put into your cost of goods sold.

What kind of money are we talking about? Per the revenue impact of HB 3427, each of the next biennia will generate $1.6 billion to $3.1 billion for the Fund for Student Success. However, $423 million to $762 million will be sent to the general fund, an amount totaling approximately 25% of the new tax. In addition to collected taxes from businesses, the government will also add employees. Per the fiscal impact statement of HB 3427, government will also grow. In the first biennium, 87.62 FTEs will be needed to administer the various accounts within the Fund for Student Success and for the Department of Revenue to administer the CAT.

In addition to discussing with your tax advisor, you can find more information online at:

Oregon.gov/DOR/programs/businesses/pages/corporate-activity-tax.aspx

Katie Eyre, a Certified Public Accountant, is a Tax Partner at Fordham & Co LLP in Hillsboro. She is a former Oregon state legislator and served on the Hillsboro Planning Commission for more than ten years. She is a board member of Cascade Policy Institute.

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Espinoza and Equal Opportunity in Education

By Miranda Bonifield

In 1926, an Oregon school controversy made it all the way to the nation’s Supreme Court. But the issue on the table wasn’t teacher pay, proper curriculum, or student safety. Oregon had outlawed private schools in a discriminatory effort to remove Catholic education. But in the landmark ruling Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Court recognized that “The fundamental theory of liberty… excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” Families have a right to choose how they educate their children.

Later this month, the Court will consider another landmark education case, Espinoza v. Montana. Montana’s tax credit scholarship program, which enabled families to send children to the private schools of their choice, was struck down because some participating students attended religious schools. That decision removed options for all children, but disproportionately affects the children of low income families for whom private school tuition is at best a major sacrifice and at worst an impossibility.

A favorable ruling in Espinoza vs. Montana could help empower rather than exclude families who would otherwise be unable to attend private school—a boon to both the public schools which would benefit from increased competition and the 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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New Portland Design Guideline Will Place Responsibility for Homeless Crisis on Private Property Owners

By Rachel Dawson

There is a homeless crisis in Portland. According to a recent count by Portland State University, the number of people found living in “unfit” conditions, such as in a tent outdoors, under a bridge or overpass, or in their car, has increased by 20% between 2017 and 2019.

Instead of providing sound and beneficial policies to help get homeless individuals on their feet and off the streets, Portland officials are pushing the issue onto private businesses.

The Portland Planning Commission recently affirmed a proposal submitted by Commissioner Oriana Magnera that would require new private downtown buildings, including stores and apartment complexes, to have a space where Portlanders can “rest,” including pitching tents and sleeping. She stated in a November meeting that current buildings may have “benches but not a lot of place to pitch a tent.”

Magnera blames the current homeless crisis in part on a housing shortage. It would thus make sense to provide shelter to those living on the streets and reduce restrictive city codes and laws that make it difficult to build homes in the Metro region. One such change could include enlarging the current Urban Growth Boundary that limits the amount of land available for new homes and artificially raises prices.

Portland officials should not place the responsibility for the homeless crisis on developers and private property owners. They should remove this new design guideline language and create policies that will tackle the root of the homeless crisis.

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

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Press Release: Report shows possible benefits to workers, employers, and unions from increased competition in representation

December 30, 2019

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
(503) 242-0900
eric@cascadepolicy.org

PORTLAND, Ore. – Research published by Cascade Policy Institute concludes workers, employers, and unions could benefit from increased competition among labor unions. Competition among unions and workplace freedom would lead to improved choice and representation for workers, reduce costs for employers, and may lead to increased union membership.

Introducing competition among unions can be accomplished in several ways. States, such as Oregon, could pass legislation allowing for competing bargaining units and forbidding “no raiding” pacts among unions. In addition, litigation challenging exclusive representation on First Amendment grounds would present a logical next step after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision.

Inter-Union Competition and Workplace Freedom: Ending Exclusive Representation was authored by Eric Fruits, Ph.D., a Portland-based economist. Fruits is president and chief economist at Economics International Corp., a consulting firm specializing in economics, finance, and statistics. He is also Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University.

Fruits says, “First principles of freedom of association dictate that workers should be allowed to choose whether to be represented by a union and should be allowed to choose which union represents them. Aside from first principles, workplace freedom provides individual employees the opportunities to negotiate the wages, benefits, and working conditions that work best for him or her as an individual.”

Labor unions exist to improve compensation and working conditions for their members. While unions themselves benefit from increased membership, individual workers see varied levels of benefit from the services provided by a union. In particular, the one-size-fits-all nature of most collective bargaining agreements—along with the take-it-or-leave-it vote to approve the agreement—means that many employees are covered by contracts that do not reflect their preferences.

Under current collective bargaining practices, employment arrangements are negotiated between an employer and a union with the union acting as the exclusive representative for the workers. As a condition of this exclusive representation, the union has a duty to fairly represent all workers subject to the agreement it negotiates.

Because all employees presumably benefit from the duty of fair representation, this duty has been invoked to justify the imposition of union fees on non-union employees whom unions deride as “free riders.” At the same time, exclusive representation by a single union unjustly reduces freedom of speech and association for workers and stifles individuals’ ability to negotiate employment agreements in both parties’ economic interests. The U.S. Supreme Court in Janus highlights this tension between the unions’ view of a “free rider on a bus headed for a destination that he wishes to reach” versus an employee’s opinion that he or she is “a person shanghaied for an unwanted voyage.”

Unions could avoid the duty and costs associated with representing members and non-members alike by giving up exclusive representation and allowing additional unions to compete for members. Since each union would represent its own members’ interests, individual unions would escape the obligation to represent the differing interests of other unions’ members or of non-union employees. Individual workers would have the freedom to join any one of several competing unions or to negotiate directly with his or her employer.

Empirical analysis indicates states with compulsory collective bargaining in the public sector have higher per-person government spending. This suggests that mandatory collective bargaining may drive up the costs of government. Thus, the elimination of mandatory collective bargaining and the introduction of inter-union competition and freedom of association for public employees may slow the growth of state and local spending.

Inter-union competition and workplace freedom can be implemented via several avenues, including lawsuits challenging exclusive representation on First Amendment grounds, the voiding of “no raiding” pacts, or the implementation of state-level legislation allowing for competing bargaining units.

The full report, Inter-Union Competition and Workplace Freedom: Ending Exclusive Representation, can be downloaded here.

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Contact Eric Fruits by email at eric@cascadepolicy.org for more information or to schedule an interview.

About Cascade Policy Institute:

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free-market public policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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Inter-Union Competition and Workplace Freedom: Ending Exclusive Representation

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Labor unions exist to improve compensation and working conditions for union membership. Consequently, unions act to increase their own members’ wages and benefits. While unions benefit from increased membership, workers themselves see varied levels of benefit from the services provided by a union. Workers recognize the tradeoff between wage gains, benefits, employment opportunities, working conditions, and the nature of the political activities in which the union engages. The one-size-fits-all nature of a collective bargaining agreement, along with the take-it-or-leave-it vote to approve the agreement, means that many employees are covered by contracts that do not reflect their preferences. The exclusive representation by a single union in collective bargaining unjustly reduces freedom of speech and association for workers and stifles individuals’ ability to negotiate employment agreements in both parties’ economic interests.

Under current collective bargaining practices, employment arrangements are negotiated between an employer and a union acting as exclusive representative for the workers. As a condition of exclusive representation, the union has a duty to fairly represent all workers subject to the collective bargaining agreement. The benefit all employees theoretically gain from this duty of fair representation has been invoked to justify the imposition of agency fees on non-union employees. Janus, however, prohibits public sector unions and employers from collecting agency fees from non-union employees.

Unions could avoid the duty and costs associated with representing members and non-members alike by giving up exclusive representation and allowing additional unions to compete for members. Since each union would represent its own members’ interests, individual unions would escape the obligation to represent the varied interests of other unions’ members or non-union employees. Individual workers would have the freedom to join any one of several competing unions or negotiate directly with his or her employer.

  • Research indicates unions exert greater effort to attract and retain members when they are competing with other unions. Competition and the threat of membership “raids” provides an incentive for union leadership to be more responsive to its members’ demands.
  • Because of the moderating effect on wages, inter-union competition is expected to be associated with increased employment.
  • Evidence points to ambiguous effect of inter-union competition on union membership. In the United States, competition was associated with increased union membership. In New Zealand, the introduction of competition along with the ability for workers to negotiate directly with their employers was associated with decreased union membership.

Empirical analysis indicates states with compulsory collective bargaining in the public sector have higher per-person government spending. This suggests that mandatory collective bargaining may drive up the costs of government. Thus, the elimination of mandatory collective bargaining and the introduction of inter-union competition and freedom of association for public employees may slow the growth of state and local spending.

Inter-union competition and workplace freedom of choice can be implemented via several avenues, including lawsuits challenging exclusive representation on First Amendment grounds, the voiding of “no raiding” pacts, or the implementation of state-level legislation such as Tennessee’s Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act.

READ THE FULL REPORT

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is president and chief economist at Economics International Corp., a consulting firm specializing in economics, finance, and statistics. He is also Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches in the economics department and school of business.

 

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Don’t Pop the Champagne on Oregon’s Job Numbers

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Oregon is at near full employment. That’s good news, but don’t break out the champagne just yet. Our fizz may soon go flat. Job growth is slowing. And this year, the number of working-age people moving to the state was lower than predicted. In addition, Oregon is the state with the third highest level of people who want to work full-time but are forced to work part-time because they can’t find full-time work.

All of this is troubling. And we’re running the risk that our policymakers will make things worse.

Over and over, I’m hearing politicians tell us that because we have full employment, we can afford to load businesses with ever-higher taxes. They say we can afford to mandate expensive paid time off policies. They say we can afford a costly cap-and-trade program. They act as if full employment gives them the freedom to ignore the consequences of their policies.

These reckless policies assume the party will never end. But the party will end someday, and we will wake up with a nasty hangover in the next recession when an army of unemployed struggle to find work in a state that spent the boom years snuffing out employers.

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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Why Wapato Is the Right Facility for Portland’s Homeless Crisis

By Rachel Dawson

On December 2, I had the opportunity to tour the Wapato Corrections Facility, along with about 100 others. It sits at the heart of a debate raging between the owner, who wants to transform it into a homeless facility, and elected officials who would rather see it destroyed.

 

I previously conducted research on criminal justice reform and have toured correctional facilities around the world, most of which were not inviting spaces. Bolstering my skepticism were criticisms from Multnomah County commissioners who claimed this was inappropriate for a shelter because it contained cells, lacked Wi-Fi, and was too isolated.

 

After the tour concluded, I was confident that every critique I’ve heard about the facility was absolutely baseless. The overwhelming opinion from others on the tour was that demolishing this structure was absurd. It was not like any jail I’d ever visited; the building had nine dorm-like wings with gyms and showers instead of cells, a large kitchen, a theater room, and a medical wing. Bruce Warner, TriMet’s board president, also raised the prospect of TriMet providing bus service between Wapato and downtown Portland.

 

We have a crisis. We have a facility. Now all we need are elected leaders to put the two together.

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

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T2020 is the transportation measure that Metro wants—not Portland residents

By Rachel Dawson

Is it possible to spend billions of dollars on transportation to make congestion worse? According to Metro, the answer is “yes.”

More than 75% of residents in the Portland tri-county region commute to work by car. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that a similar percentage of voters surveyed by Metro consider traffic congestion a serious problem (73%) and say that improving roads, bridges, and highways to ease traffic should be a regional goal (78%).

Share of respondents who answered each issue is an “extremely” or “very serious” problem.

Next year, Metro wants to raise at least $3 billion in taxes for its transportation package (informally known as “T2020”). That $3 billion is just for what Metro calls its “Tier 1” projects; it still has a long list of “Tier 2” projects that could significantly increase the price. To pay for all that, Metro is considering bonds that would increase property taxes, an additional vehicle registration fee of up to $59, an income tax, or possibly a sales tax. Conservatively, Metro’s transportation package would cost the average household an additional $530 a year in taxes and fees and would be the largest proposed tax increase in Metro’s history.

But, Metro’s T2020 tax package is not the proposal residents in the region want. Close to $2 billion from the plan have been earmarked for transit. Of that amount, nearly $1 billion would go toward a light rail line to Bridgeport Village. Another $50 million would be spent on planning for a MAX light rail tunnel under the Willamette River—planning that most survey respondents did not support. Millions more will be spent devising potential MAX light rail expansions along Powell Blvd to I-205 and 99E from the Orange line’s last stop in Milwaukie to Oregon City.

In contrast, when voters were surveyed regarding the goals for additional transportation funding, more than twice as many people indicated that widening roads and highways to address bottlenecks (31%) was their first choice, compared with only 13% of respondents who preferred providing more frequent and faster bus and MAX service. Widening roads was by far the most popular choice, beating out retrofitting bridges to be earthquake resilient and improving pedestrian safety on streets.

Finally, when asked about specific types of projects that could be funded by a transportation ballot measure, repairing potholes had the highest percentage of support (86%), while upgrading MAX to run underground at a cost of $5 billion dollars was the only potential project mentioned to have support from less than half of respondents (only 44%).

Portland residents were clear about what they want: better roads and less congestion on roadways. They were equally clear about not supporting MAX upgrades.

Instead of crafting a measure that reflects what people want, Metro has chosen to allocate the majority of funds in their 2020 transportation measure to areas that received the lowest amount of support, such as public transportation and biking/walking infrastructure improvements. It is clear these are projects that Metro staff, not voters, want for the region.

Based on respondents’ answers, officials should consider adding auxiliary lanes on freeways and major arterials to address congestion in bottlenecks. For example, a new auxiliary lane on I-5 southbound from OR 217 to I-205 brought congestion levels down from five hours a day to only one; and an auxiliary lane added to 217 between 99W and I-5 S improved congestion from four hours to zero. Adding auxiliary lanes decreases the number of merges that occur at a given section. This in turn would lead to fewer vehicle emissions, as cars idling in congestion produce more emissions than driving in free-flowing traffic. Also, merging onto a freeway is a major cause of accidents, so decreasing the number of merges also improves safety.

Metro staff seem to forget their job is to serve the public. They are attempting to force their own transportation agenda on the region instead of providing the improvements residents say are most important. Portland metro residents should stand up to this bullying by voting “no” on Metro’s transportation bond measure next year. We need improved transportation, not more low-use government pet projects.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article was published by Pamplin Media Group on November 27, 2019.

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Oregon’s population growth: Slow and steady may not win the race

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Oregon’s population grew by more than 41,000 residents last year, according to Portland State University’s Population Research Center. That may sound like a boom and lead some to conclude the state is doing great: “Look! People are still flocking to Oregon.”

But, in fact, the state’s population grew by about 1%, which is the slowest growth in the last six years. In contrast, Washington’s population has grown at a pace that’s about 50% higher than Oregon’s. Idaho’s and Nevada’s population growth have been about double the rate of Oregon’s. We may no longer be the first choice for people heading Out West.

Because job and population growth go hand-in-hand, employment growth tells a similar story. While the Oregon Employment Department says the state’s economy is in a “sweet spot,” Oregon’s employment growth has been eclipsed by Washington, Idaho, and Nevada. Indeed, it can be argued that Oregon’s employment growth is looking more like lackluster California than the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

Some might cheer Oregon’s slower growth. With the state’s land use and tenant laws constraining housing supply and sluggish residential construction driving up housing prices, slower population growth relieves some of the upward pressure. Although the state’s housing prices have rapidly increased, over the past five years Oregon home price increases (49%) have been much smaller than neighboring Washington (56%), Idaho (56%), and Nevada (64%). For the second month in a row, Portland-area rents have declined.

Slower employment growth means fewer commuters, thereby delaying the day of reckoning for Oregon’s no-more-roads policies. Even so, Portland is rated the tenth most congested city in the U.S.

However, no one should cheer slower growth. A growing population and growing employment are signs of a healthy economy. Over time, when Oregonians’ incomes were growing, so was its population. When job opportunity grew, so did population. The reverse is true, too.

Oregon politicians and policymakers tend to take population and employment growth for granted. Or, even worse, they ignore Oregon’s performance relative to other states. By their way of thinking, so long as employment is up and people are moving in, everything is A-OK. They see high-income Californians moving to Oregon and see the dollar signs of more tax revenue.

It’s not A-OK. Looking around the Northwest, Oregonians should ask: “Why are Washington and Idaho growing so much faster?” It’s not an accident. Over the years, state and local policies have made it harder to live and work in the state; and it’s showing up in sluggish growth and fewer job opportunities. Rather than micromanaging to “control” growth, the state should enact policies to foster growth: lower taxes, fewer regulations, and investments that benefit the people who live and work here—or want to live and work here.

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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Early Coal Closures Could Spell Trouble for Grid Reliability

By Rachel Dawson

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council regularly assesses the adequacy of our region’s power supply using a loss of load probability (LOLP). This measure informs us that power supply is not adequate if 5% or more modeled simulations show insufficient generating capacity at any time in a given year.

Due to the early closure of Boardman and Centralia 1 coal plants in 2020, the Northwest is projected to not meet this standard by 2021. The probability of a future inadequate load capacity increases to as high as 26% if Wyoming’s Jim Bridger 1 coal plant closes in 2023. To put this in perspective, the loss of load probability was expected to climb to 24% by 2003 after the 2001 energy crisis occurred.

This crisis was due in part to an unexpected decrease in hydroelectric power. It seems that utilities in the region have not learned their lesson, as they plan on replacing the coal plants with even more unreliable wind power and costly storage systems.

Advocates for these plants’ early closures must demonstrate that doing so will not damage grid reliability or increase ratepayers’ power bills. So far, they have not met that test.

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

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Deal With It—Commuters Need Cars

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

How did you get to work today? If you’re like 80% of Portland-area commuters, you rode in a car. And, on your way to and from work, you probably grumbled about how much worse your commute has gotten.

Over the past five years, the region has added nearly 180,000 more commuters. Most of them drive to work and they’re congesting our roads.

In normal times, transportation authorities would add capacity to the road network and improve streets for safe and speedy commutes.

But, we don’t live in normal times. Last week, Portland commissioner Chloe Eudaly declared to a packed council meeting that the city was not going to build more roads. This is nothing new; it was the same no-new-roads promise Mayor Ted Wheeler made early in his term.

Their solution is to pack more people on public transit and get more people to bike or walk to work. But their solution is doomed to fail. Despite a surging growth in commuters, TriMet ridership is down while so-called “active transportation” has stagnated. The most recent data show only a little over 5% of commuters bike or walk.

After decades of trying to get people to abandon their cars, our leaders need to understand the automobile is an amazing technology of freedom and improve our roads to support that freedom.

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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Why Cap-and-Trade Can’t Be “Tweaked”

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Oregon is less than three months away from the next meeting of the Legislature and cap-and-trade is coming back.

While California is setting the cap-and-trade example with sky-high power rates and rolling blackouts, Oregon’s State Senator Michael Dembrow is reworking the bill that failed to get enough Democratic votes earlier this year.

Last summer’s attempt at imposing cap-and-trade gave rise to the Timber Unity movement, who descended on the capitol with hundreds of log trucks and whose Facebook group has more than 53,000 members.

The latest tweaks are aimed at bringing skeptical Democrats on board and stifling Republican dissent.

But, here’s the thing…. Cap-and-trade can’t be tweaked. The proposal is fundamentally flawed. It’s all pain and no gain. In fact, the only way cap-and-trade “works” is if the pain is bigger than the gain.

The state itself estimates gas prices will increase by more than 20 cents a gallon in the first year alone, which would give Oregon the third highest prices in the country—below California and Hawaii. No amount of tweaking will make that go away.

Put simply, cap-and-trade won’t work in Oregon. And no amount of reworking will make it work. Our legislators can avoid log trucks rolling through Salem and rolling blackouts throughout the state by shelving their plans for cap-and-trade.

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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Miss Virginia

By Miranda Bonifield

Virginia Walden Ford is a mom whose extraordinary sacrifice and determination changed not just her own child’s life, but the lives of thousands of American students. Her story is now the subject of the new movie Miss Virginia, starring Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba.

Virginia’s experience as a black student integrating Little Rock high schools in the 1960s gave her a strong personal understanding of how important education is to a child’s success. When, years later, her own son William began slipping through the cracks of a Washington, D.C. public school where his teacher didn’t even know his name, she fought for a better option. Virginia’s answer came in the form of a scholarship and a second job working nights. William went from skipping school to being a joyful, enthusiastic student known by friends and teachers. Virginia believed every child should have that chance.

Virginia Walden Ford’s persistent work on behalf of low-income students in Washington, D.C. led to the creation of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives thousands of low-income kids the chance to attend a private school. Virginia says, “We knew that if we raised our voices, we could win for our children. We did. And now our kids are winning as a result.”

You can watch Miss Virginia on Amazon Video, Google Play, and in select theaters around the country.

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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Voters Should Reject Ballot Measure 26-203

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

By now, Oregon voters have received their ballots for the November 5 election. One of the items is Measure 26-203: a $475 million bond measure by Metro, the regional government for the Portland area.

Metro wants the money so it can buy more land for its so-called parks and nature program, a program that has shifted from providing parks for people to more vague and speculative objectives.

In Metro’s own words, the initial promise in 1995 was to “provide areas for walking, picnicking and other outdoor recreation.” This year’s measure now gives only passing mention to parks. And, it makes no promises of new parks, only preservation and maintenance of existing parks. In terms of bang for the buck, that’s a lot of bucks but not much bang.

Despite Metro’s earlier promises to provide parks for people, the agency has opened only seven parks and natural areas to the public over the last quarter-century. In some cases, promised parks never arrived.

Metro has about $30 million still sitting in its parks and nature bond funds, and it has an operating levy that runs through 2023. Voters should reject Measure 26-203 and urge Metro to use the money it already has to turn some of the land it’s already acquired into the parks that people demand.

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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Enough Is Enough: Voters Should Reject Metro’s Bond Measure

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

By now Oregon voters have received their ballots for the November 5 election. One of the items in the Portland region is Measure 26-203: a $475 million bond measure by Metro, the regional government for the Portland area. Adding in interest and other costs, Measure 26-203 will raise the region’s property taxes by about $60 million a year. Voters should say no to this measure.

Metro wants the money so it can buy more land for its so-called parks and nature program, a program that has shifted from providing parks for people to more vague and wide-ranging objectives.

Metro’s initial promise in 1995 to “provide areas for walking, picnicking, and other outdoor recreation” has changed to 2019’s bond measure promise to “protect water quality, fish, wildlife habitat, natural areas.” The 1995 ballot title mentioned parks eight times. The measure before voters now gives four passing mentions to parks. And, it makes no promises of new parks, only preservation and maintenance of existing parks.

Hidden lands, missing parks

Technically speaking, many of the natural areas are open to the public. More realistically, Metro makes great efforts to discourage public access. For example, a Metro attorney indicated to Cascade Policy Institute staff that many of Metro’s lands are not listed on its website specifically to prevent or discourage public access.

Even supporters of Measure 26-203 complain that most of Metro’s properties are out-of-reach. In three different languages in this year’s Voters’ Pamphlet, they conclude Metro’s acquisitions “exist as places on a map but not places you can actually go.”

In fact, Metro itself reports that more than 80% of the acres purchased with earlier bond funds are outside the region’s urban growth boundary. Because the UGB defines where most of the region’s population lives, much of this publicly owned land is far away from the public. For example, Metro’s much anticipated Chehalem Ridge nature park is located down a narrow, winding, gravel road more than seven miles from the nearest TriMet stop.

Despite Metro’s earlier promises to provide parks for people, the agency has opened only seven parks and natural areas to the public over the last quarter century. In some cases, promised parks never arrived. In 2005, Metro promised “at least four future public access points” for canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and picnicking. Since then—14 years later—only the Farmington Paddle Launch has been opened.

Over the years, Metro has spent more than $7 million to acquire 680 acres in the Clear Creek area, 20 minutes east of Oregon City. In 2007, Metro concluded the holdings have “such potential as a park.” Despite Clear Creek’s potential as a park, this year Metro indicated it did not have “any public access plans developed for Clear Creek Natural Area.” The site is now virtually off-limits to the public and does not appear on Metro’s parks and nature maps.

Vague promises, little accountability

Protection, preservation, and restoration of natural areas, watersheds, rivers, and streams for wildlife and fish are key components of Measure 26-203. These were also key components of the 1995 and 2006 bond measures.

Even so, Metro has provided scant information documenting its protection, preservation, and restoration efforts. While tree planting, weed removal, and volunteer efforts are mentioned in some Metro publications since 1995, the voter-approved operating levies were earmarked for restoration efforts. Metro reports that by 2018, only about 14% of the land it has acquired has been restored.

Enough is enough, vote no on Measure 26-203

Metro’s parks and nature bonds have been in place for nearly a quarter century. Over that time the agency has spent about half a billion dollars and acquired more than 14,000 acres of land. Metro has clear challenges managing the land it already holds. Promised parks have not been built, and some have been wiped off the map. Restoration efforts have not kept pace with property acquisitions.

Metro has about $30 million still sitting in its parks and nature bond funds, and it has an operating levy that runs through 2023. Voters should reject Measure 26-203 and urge Metro to use the money it already has to turn some of the land it’s already acquired into the parks that people demand.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on October 22, 2019.

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Metro’s Housing Philosophy is Political, Not Practical

By Miranda Bonifield

Metro’s attempts to provide low-income public housing since last year’s $653 million bond measure passed have been stymied by the same problem encountered by cities from Portland to Stockholm: Metro’s preferred way of building housing is too expensive to be sustainable.

But instead of addressing the overwhelming costs of its projects, Metro is doubling down on ineffective practices which neither accomplish its goals nor increase the supply of so-called affordable housing.

For instance, Metro’s interest in “leading with racial equity” means they prioritize firms certified to be owned by minorities, women, or “emerging small businesses.” Members of Metro’s housing bond oversight committee recounted multiple stories in early meetings of contractors who circumvent the certification’s requirements by outsourcing their government work to other, non-certified contractors—rendering the certification nearly meaningless.

A local contractor pointed out that small businesses with limited capital avoid government contracts because the government doesn’t pay on time and requires mountains of time-consuming paperwork. Cutting red tape out of the process could improve the chances of small businesses bidding for contracts. But instead of emphasizing these practical considerations, the committee recommended local governments increase the number of meaninglessly certified contractors they hire. That’s not helping our community– it’s just virtue signaling.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market policy research organization.

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Press Release: Cascade Policy Institute Publishes Comprehensive Study of Metro’s Parks and Nature Program

October 15, 2019

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contacts:
John A. Charles, Jr.
Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

PORTLAND, OR – In the next week or so, Portland area voters will receive their November ballots. One of the items is Measure 26-203: a $475 million bond measure by Metro, the regional government for the Portland area. Metro wants the money so it can buy more land for its so-called parks and nature program. Measure 26-203 will raise the region’s property taxes by about $60 million a year. The $475 million request is larger than the two previous Metro natural areas bonds combined, which were $135.6 million dollars in 1995 and $227.4 million dollars in 2006.

Cascade Policy Institute has published a comprehensive study of Metro’s parks and nature program, with the following conclusions:

  • Metro’s natural areas program began as a vision to increase and preserve parks and natural areas to a region facing increased population growth and density.
  • As the program evolved, the mission moved from providing parks for people to locking land away from the community that paid for it. The initial promise in 1995 to “provide areas for walking, picnicking, and other outdoor recreation” has shifted to the 2019 bond measure promise to “protect water quality, fish, wildlife habitat, natural areas.”
  • Over the nearly two decades since the first parks and nature bond measure, Metro has made, broken, and delayed its promises to voters.
    • In 2002, Metro imposed a solid waste tax enacted to pay for the operating costs of new parks. In 2006, Metro diverted the parks money into Metro’s general fund. In subsequent years, Metro put two operating levies on the ballot, increasing property taxes.
    • Chehalem Ridge was pitched as a regional park for Metro’s west side, but current plans are for a few miles of walking trails and a small picnic area. The park is more than seven miles from the nearest TriMet stop.
  • After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and acquiring more than 14,000 acres of land, less than 12 percent of Metro’s acquisitions are accessible to the public.
  • More than 80 percent of the acquisitions are outside the UGB.
  • Much of the land acquired by Metro was never at risk of development because Metro manages the region’s Urban Growth Boundary.
  • Metro’s restoration objectives, efforts, and results have been opaque and uncertain. Metro has provided no measurable documentation of changes to water quality or fish and wildlife populations.

Information was obtained from publicly available resources, interviews, and on-site visits to every natural area and nature park identified by Metro. Cascade paid thousands of dollars in public records requests to Metro.

Cascade’s report is available for download.

For more information on Measure 26-203 and Metro’s parks program, contact Cascade Policy Institute at 503-242-0900.

# # #

Contact Eric Fruits or John Charles at 503-242-0900 or by email at eric@cascadepolicy.org or john@cascadepolicy.org for more information or to schedule an interview.

About Cascade Policy Institute:

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. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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Like Other MAX Projects, TriMet’s Green Line Underdelivers at 10th Anniversary

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet has proven time and again that it is unable to live up to past promises. The MAX Green Line, which first opened 10 years ago, is no exception.

The Green Line is fifteen miles long and runs along I-205 from Portland State University to the Clackamas Town Center (CTC). It began as a portion of the North-South light rail alignment, which was canceled in 1988 after failing to secure voter funding. TriMet attempted to scale the alignment down to run from North Portland to the CTC, but the project was again rejected by voters in 1996 and 1998.

The plan for light rail to the CTC was later resurrected in 2001, and planning for the Green Line commenced in concert with the more recently implemented Orange Line to Milwaukie.

The alignment eventually earned federal approval in 2006. Of the total $575.7 million price tag, $478.2 million came from the federal government, $23 million came from the state, and $74.5 million came from local jurisdictions.

Of the local match, $69 million came from the City of Portland, $39.3 million from Clackamas County (the majority of which came from the county’s urban renewal funds), $23 million from the Oregon Department of Transportation, $20.5 million from TriMet, and $6.2 million from land donation and other funds.

The Green Line has failed to live up to these promised expectations:

Ridership is lower than projected. When the Federal Transit Administration completed its 2015 “Before and After Study” on the line, there was an average 24,000 daily weekday boarding rides. This is well below the 30,400 riders that TriMet predicted at entry into preliminary engineering for the line’s opening year. That number has continued to decrease to just over 16,000 average daily riders in August 2019, making up only 34% of the FEIS’s predicted ridership levels for 2025. With five years to go until 2025, it seems unlikely that the Green Line will garner the 30,500 riders needed to hit TriMet’s promised level of 46,500 boarding rides.

The line has lower frequency than promised. Trains arrive at stations every 15 minutes during peak periods and every 35 minutes at other times of the day. TriMet promised trains would arrive every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 15 during other times. TriMet attempted to blame this low level of service on a decline in tax revenues during the recession, but train frequency has not increased since the economy has recovered. Furthermore, TriMet’s total operating and non-operating revenues increased from 2009 to 2018 by 54%, and revenue from payroll and other taxes increased by 71%. The payroll tax rate will continue to go up every year until 2024, although it appears the Green Line’s level of service won’t increase with it.

Instead of the promised passengers, light rail brought increased crime to the CTC area. Clackamas County experienced heightened crime in the corridor from 2009-2012 after the Green Line opened and an increase in graffiti around MAX stops, according to a survey by the Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program sent to the Clackamas County Sheriff.

Unsurprisingly, the line’s cost was higher than TriMet originally anticipated. The final price tag of $576 million was 14% greater than the anticipated cost in preliminary engineering, a difference of about $70 million.

TriMet is now planning for a 12-mile line from downtown Portland to Tigard. Elected officials from Tualatin, Tigard, Durham, and Washington County should take a sobering look at TriMet’s track record on the Green Line, the Yellow Line, and WES. It shows a consistent pattern of over-promising and under-performing. Given this history, TriMet’s projections for the SW Corridor project should not be trusted.

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

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Hidden Lands, Unknown Plans: A Quarter Century of Metro’s Natural Areas Program

By Vladislav Yurlov, Helen Cook, and Micah Perry with Eric Fruits, Ph.D., research advisor

  1. Executive summary 

In June 2019, Metro’s Council referred to voters a $475 million bond measure for the acquisition and restoration of natural areas as well as future recreational opportunities. If passed, the measure will cost the region’s taxpayers approximately $60 million a year in property taxes. The $475 million request is larger than the two previous Metro natural areas bonds combined, which were $135.6 million dollars in 1995 and $227.4 million dollars in 2006. 

Cascade Policy Institute researched Metro’s management of its natural areas program. Information was obtained from publicly available resources, public records requests, interviews, and on-site visits to every natural area and nature park identified by Metro. Several areas were more thoroughly examined as case studies because of their location, size, acquisition price, and length of time owned by Metro. These case study areas comprise about 20 percent of the land acquired by Metro in the 1995 and 2006 bond measures. 

Cascade’s findings lead to the following conclusions: 

  • Metro’s natural areas program began as a vision to increase and preserve parks and natural areas to a region facing increased population growth and density. With increasing population density, local governments would offset the loss of backyards with more parks to meet, play, and offer “nature in neighborhoods.” It was an expensive vision that would require hundreds of millions of dollars. 
  • As the program evolved, the mission moved from providing parks for people to locking land away from the community that paid for it. The initial promise in 1995 to “provide areas for walking, picnicking, and other outdoor recreation” has shifted to the 2019 bond measure promise to “protect water quality, fish, wildlife habitat, natural areas.” Parks are to be “maintained” rather than built, expanded, or improved. 
  • Over the nearly two decades since the first parks and nature bond measure, Metro has made, broken, and delayed its promises to voters.  
  • Metro promised that a solid waste tax enacted to pay for the operating costs of new parks would protect residents from additional taxes for the same purpose. Nevertheless, it swept that money into Metro’s general fund and put two operating levies—increasing property taxes—on the ballot.  
  • Metro assured the region that Clear Creek would become a regional park. More than a decade later, it has no plans to make the area publicly accessible and has removed it from its maps of parks and natural areas. 
  • Chehalem Ridge was pitched as a regional park for Metro’s west side, but current plans are for a few miles of walking trails and a small picnic area.  
  • After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and acquiring more than 14,000 acres of land, less than 12 percent of the acquisitions are accessible to the public.  
  • Even the land that is open to the public is out of reach of many Portland residents.  
  • Seventy percent of Metro’s acquisitions have been outside Metro’s jurisdiction.  
  • More than 80 percent of the acquisitions are outside the Urban Growth Boundary 
  • A statement in the 2019 Voters’ Pamphlet from a group of bond supporters admits that many of Metro’s acquisitions “exist as places on a map but not places you can actually go.”  
  • Much of the land acquired by Metro was never at risk of development because Metro manages the region’s UGB 
  • Metro’s restoration objectives, efforts, and results have been opaque and uncertain. Metro has provided no measurable documentation of changes to water quality or fish and wildlife populations.  
  • Metro has promised a strategy focused on racial equity. Even so, minority communities’ desire for parks that serve as “gathering places, places to eat, security, and places for kids to play, exercise and cool off during the summer” have been overlooked in favor of natural areas amenable only to “passive recreation.” 

Metro has acquired more land than it can manage. The focus for the next decade should be on making current lands available for public use. Metro’s largest planned park—Chehalem Ridge near Gaston—has been in Metro ownership for nine years, and there is still no public access. Metro also owns about 1,400 acres in the Sandy River Gorge. These holdings are not shown on any of Metro’s parks and nature maps and Metro has no plans at all to make these properties available for swimming, boating, hiking, or family cookouts. Metro needs to turn these and other areas into parks its residents actually use before seeking more money to acquire more land.

Vladislav Yurlov, Helen Cook, and Micah Perry are Research Associates at Cascade Policy Institute. Eric Fruits, Ph.D., is Vice President of Research at Cascade.

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TriMet Broke Key Promises About MAX

Published in Portland Tribune

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet’s payroll tax has been increasing since 2005 and will continue to go up every year until 2024. There is no issue with revenue; rather, the issue lies with light rail.

TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line first opened 15 years ago in May 2004. The Yellow Line’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) made a myriad of predictions for the year 2020, which makes now the perfect time to reflect on what officials promised and what taxpayers and transit riders since have received.

The Yellow Line originated in 1988 as a 21-mile project connecting Vancouver, Washington, with downtown Portland and Clackamas Town Center. This plan was scrapped after Clark County voters defeated a proposal to raise $236.5 million in 1995 and Oregon voters turned down a $475 million regional ballot measure in 1998.

Read the full article here

Content credit to Portland Tribune

 

 

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Oregon Distilleries Deserve Better

By Helen Cook

Oregon has a booming craft distilling industry. That’s why it’s so surprising that one popular distiller is calling it quits. Mike Selberg, owner of Cannon Beach Distillery, announced in June that he was forced to close up shop. This is largely because of Oregon’s tax structure on distilleries.

I decided to reach out to other Oregon distilleries for their situations. The resounding message was that something needs to change. Local distillers are taxed on the dollar value of their tasting room sales rather than on alcohol content. This ultimately punishes small-volume, high-price distillers and discourages small distillers from thriving as local businesses.

Oregon is a “Liquor Control State.” This means that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) is the sole distributor of spirits. Distillers can sell spirits in Oregon liquor stores through the OLCC’s distribution network as well as out of their own tasting rooms, but the distillers’ products are owned by the state of Oregon.

Similarly to licensed liquor stores, tasting room owners are commissioned by the state to sell their spirits. This means that a certain percentage of each liquor sale from a tasting room goes to the OLCC every week. This percentage can be detrimental to distilleries.

While several distilleries, such as Stone Barn Brandyworks, value the distribution network that the OLCC offers, the majority acknowledge that this overall structure does not benefit tasting rooms. Sebastian Deegan at Stone Barn Brandyworks stated that 38-40% of his distillery’s gross income goes to the state because of the “tax” on his tasting room. “I don’t think there is a business in the country that can operate with that overhead.” On average, Oregon distillers currently pay 33% of gross retail sales.

Tom Burkleaux runs New Deal Distillery and serves as Vice-President for Oregon’s Distillery Guild. “The state of Oregon takes more than we take,” he said. “Everyone is frustrated. The cards are definitely stacked against a small distillery.”

Larger distilleries have an advantage because they generally produce cheaper spirits in higher volume. Since money is collected based on the retail price, distilleries that produce high volumes of lower priced spirits are not adversely affected by the system. However, smaller distilleries hoping to produce high-end goods are discouraged from this craft since manufacturing and the retail price cost significantly more.

Some distillers might take a similar approach to Mike Selberg’s at Cannon Beach Distillery: move to a distiller-friendly state. But Tom doesn’t think many will follow in Mike’s footsteps. “Most people would close up shop rather than move. You want to start your business in your home.”

Michelle Ly from Vinn Distillers noted this, stating: “I would say that we do really pride ourselves on wanting to be here. Oregon is known for supporting local business and being a tight-knit community, so I think if we were given that flexibility, we would all be doing much better and contributing to the economy of Oregon.” Vinn Distillery will have to close its tasting room this summer largely because of this tax burden.

Distillers hoped that legislation could be passed to remove distillery tasting rooms from this structure. But such legislation has already been suggested without much success or interest from legislators. Tad Seestedt from Ransom Spirits noted that “there are few legislators that really would like to see parity and want to help the Oregon’s distilling community.” Other distillers shared the same sentiment.

Ultimately, tasting room sales would barely make a dent if removed from OLCC’s $1.22 billion yearly revenue. Distilleries remitted $2,775,462 to the state as net profit from their sales in 2018. While this is pocket change for the OLCC, this remittance is significant for small distilleries.

Oregonians shouldn’t have to choose between their home, their business, and the quality of their product, especially when their craft is a point of pride for Oregon residents. Our local distilleries deserve better from our legislature and the state of Oregon.

Helen Cook is a Research Associate at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She can be reached at info@cascadepolicy.org.

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Shrinking Roads and Rising Fatalities Don’t Bode Well for Portland’s Vision Zero

By Rachel Dawson

Portland hasn’t seen 50 road fatalities since 1996. With 43 fatalities already, it looks like 2019 will be a record-breaking year, with no thanks to Portland’s Vision Zero Action Plan.

Placing concrete pedestrian islands in the middle of the road, giving little to no room to turn onto side streets, installing plastic pylons against the roadway, and using confusing signage and lines—all Vision Zero road changes implemented to decrease road fatalities—don’t seem to be making streets safer.

While many factors are involved, perhaps distracted and dangerous walking, driving, and biking habits play a greater role in traffic accidents than the number of car lanes or crosswalks on a given street.

As a pedestrian, I’ve walked across a street with my eyes glued to my phone. Luckily, I haven’t been hit by a car. But if I had, it would’ve been due to my inability to separate my attention from my mobile device. The same goes for distracted drivers. I’ve watched drivers on the Sellwood Bridge pull out their phones when traffic slowed. Our failure to pay attention to the road and take safety precautions, especially at night, is putting ourselves and others at risk.

Portland’s approach of downsizing roads is punitive and counterproductive. Instead, everyone on the road system should take responsibility for their own behavior, regardless of what mode of travel is being used.

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

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Where Is Our Metro Park at Chehalem Ridge?

By Helen Cook

This summer, I was walking on an old logging road in the middle of thick forest, not a person in sight. The only sign of human activity were signs nailed to the trees prohibiting fungus-collecting. A tattered strand of red tape displaying the print, “Invasive Species,” waved in the wind.

You wouldn’t know it since no signage exists, but I was hiking through Metro’s biggest natural area: Chehalem Ridge. In fact, you wouldn’t know this was public property. The trailhead is on the side of a gravel road after driving miles through rural countryside. A gated fence blocks the entrance alongside a sign forbidding a long list of activities, including dog-walking. (Ironically, later in the day, I observed a couple walking their dog in Chehalem. There was no one there to stop them.)

Metro bought Chehalem Ridge Natural Area in 2010. The land is nestled between Forest Grove and Gaston, about a 20-minute drive to Hillsboro. The size of the parcel is actually bigger than Central Park in New York. In other words, this land’s potential is not that of a typical neighborhood park.

But where is our park? Metro likened the area to the future “Oxbow Regional Park,” whose popularity is due in part to its camping sites, twelve miles of trails, and picnic areas.

The regional government is in no hurry to fulfill this promise. The land has purportedly undergone restoration for nine years. Yet when I asked Metro for evidence, few numbers were given. The only indication of restoration on the website are whimsical “field notes” by a Metro Senior Scientist. Some mentions of thinning forest and planting shrubs are sporadically found in updates. But I was unable to find proof of water quality restoration, which is one of the most important reason cited for acquiring the land.

So if Chehalem Ridge is really Metro’s next big success story, why hasn’t it become a reality? It’s unclear why we don’t see a park since Metro had several opportunities to develop the area.

Voters approved a $226 million dollar bond for parks and nature in 2006. This was supplemented by a $50 million dollar levy for maintenance in 2013 and another levy in 2016. But Metro is asking for $475 million dollars more in a 2019 bond, some of which is promised to Chehalem Ridge. All of this money comes from taxpayers, but Metro seems in no rush to return the favor.

Even when Metro eventually breaks ground on Chehalem, none of this money will go to the biggest obstacle: the roads. The winding roads leading to the park are extremely difficult to drive with traffic. But Metro has no jurisdiction to repave the roads. Washington County, which does have this authority, certainly has no intention of improving roads in the area. Just to be sure, I asked them. A definitive no was the immediate answer, despite the fact that Metro will be charged an estimated $2 million Transportation Impact Fee by Washington County when construction permits are issued.

During the next several years, you will not see campsites, twelve miles of trails, playgrounds, or access for low-income individuals who can’t drive to the park. What Chehalem’s master plan does promise you is three miles of multi-use trails, a trailhead, parking, and restrooms. To put it bluntly, you are promised a remote trail that’s less useable than your average neighborhood park.

I suggest taxpayers contact Metro to ask that it live up to the promise of an “Oxbow Regional Park.” If Metro wants voters to maintain a higher tax rate with this proposed bond, voters should demand that original promises be kept.

Maybe with more accountability, Metro would live up to its slogan, “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” But as of now, I’m skeptical. That’s why I plan to vote “No” this November on Metro’s newest $475 million bond. Metro needs more transparency, not more money.

Helen Cook is a Research Associate at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She can be reached at info@cascadepolicy.org. A version of this article appeared in the Portland Tribune on October 4, 2019.

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Dumbing Down Voters

By John A. Charles, Jr.

In 2016 Val Hoyle, then a legislator from Eugene, introduced a bill to guarantee postage-paid envelopes for Oregon’s vote-by-mail system. She argued that having to find and apply a stamp was a barrier to voter participation, especially to young people.

That idea was widely ridiculed, and the bill died.

Unfortunately, the political culture has changed. In March the Oregon legislature quietly passed SB 861, which requires the state to pay for ballot envelopes that can be returned by business reply mail. It will go into effect on or after January 1, 2020.

Implementation will cost an estimated $1.6 million to the state General Fund for the first 18 months. There will be an additional cost to Counties of $84,000 to destroy obsolete ballot return envelopes.

Is Oregon really so wealthy that we should spend $1.6 million just to ensure that voters don’t have to find a first class stamp? I don’t think so. Instead of treating postage as a voting barrier, perhaps we should treat it as an entrance exam.

The test would be simple: If you can’t figure out how to use stamps, or you are incapable of hand-delivering your ballot to the county elections office, you are not qualified to vote.

We might get better results.

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

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Portland’s Rising Bills are Purposeful Accidents

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Portland City Council has just learned that what it thought was a $500 million water filtration plant will now be an $850 million project–and may go as high as $1.2 billion. The reason for the 70% spike: The water bureau did not include the cost of the pipes leading to and from the plant. Those forgotten pipes are going to add more than $130 a year to the average water bill.

Truth is, those pipes weren’t forgotten. They were omitted so the bureau could low-ball the cost of the project. This isn’t a first. The Portland Aerial Tram was three times over budget in part because the city “forgot” to include soft costs. If they included these costs, the eye-popping prices for the tram would have given even a spendthrift city council some pause. Portland Public Schools intentionally low-balled the cost of school construction so voters would approve a school bond measure.

These are not accidents or mistakes. This is intentional malfeasance by the bureaucracy. Our elected officials are so busy with photo ops and posturing that they forget their jobs are to scrutinize their staff and serve the people who put them in office. Voters can’t fire the bureaucrats, but we can fire the politicians who hired them.

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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Press Release: Cascade Policy Institute Urges a NO Vote on Measure 26-203

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:

John A. Charles, Jr.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

503-242-0900

Cascade Policy Institute Urges a NO Vote on Measure 26-203

Voters should reject Metro’s tax increase and land grab

In approximately four weeks Portland area voters will receive their November ballots. One of the items is Measure 26-203: a $475 million bond measure by Metro, the regional government for the Portland area. Metro wants the money so it can buy more land for its so-called parks and nature program. Measure 26-203 will raise the region’s property taxes by about $60 million a year.

Cascade Policy Institute urges a vote NO on Measure 26-203. Voters have already approved two such measures—one for $135 million in 1995, and another for $227 million in 2006. Most of that money has been spent to buy up more than 14,000 acres of land. Yet, less than 12% of these lands are available for public use.

Metro has made it clear that many of the parcels purchased since 1995 will never be open for use. In fact, if you try to find a list of all properties bought by Metro with bond money, you won’t be able to. A Metro lawyer told Cascade staff in a meeting this summer that they don’t want the public to know where the park land is because they don’t want the public to visit it

Eric Fruits, Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, said, “Most of Metro’s nature properties are Oregon’s own Area 51—they’re owned by the government, they don’t show up on maps, and no one knows what’s going on there.”

In addition, more than two-thirds of the land bought with bond money is outside Metro’s jurisdiction, and nearly 80% is outside the Portland Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). That means most voters will never use Metro parks because they are so far away—even if the areas were open to the public. 

Measure 26-203 is on the ballot largely to ensure tax dollars keep flowing to Metro. The measure brings in so much money, the Metro Council can’t figure out how to spend it all. That’s why Metro has earmarked $50 million of the bond funds for “advancing large-scale community visions.” Metro itself says the earmark is “not well-defined” and a leader of 1,000 Friends of Oregon called it a “slush fund.”

For more information on Measure 26-203 and Metro’s parks program, contact Cascade Policy Institute at 503-242-0900.

# # #

Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free market public policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

Contact Eric Fruits or John Charles at 503-242-0900 or by email at eric@cascadepolicy.org or john@cascadepolicy.org for more information or to schedule an interview.


Why Voters Should Vote NO on Measure 26-203

Here are the top five arguments against Measure 26-203:

  1. Metro already has more land than it can manage. The focus for the next decade should be on making current lands available for public use. Metro’s largest planned park—Chehalem Ridge near Gaston—has been in Metro ownership for nine years, and there is still no public access. Metro also owns about 1,400 acres in the Sandy River Gorge. These holdings are not shown on any of Metro’s parks and nature maps and Metro has no plans at all to make these properties available for swimming, boating, hiking, or family cookouts. Metro needs to turn these and other areas into parks its residents actually use before voters give Metro a blank check for $475 million.
  2. Last year Metro spent nearly 25% of all bond expenditures on “administration.” For the past five years, Metro has failed to meet its commitment to keep administrative costs below 10%.
  3. Metro claims that it has to buy up more land to save it from development, but most properties purchased to date were never threatened because they are outside the UGB. There is no imminent threat of sensitive lands being “paved over” – precisely because the UGB prohibits development and Metro has no plans to expand the UGB to these areas.
  4. Metro is the only parks manager in the entire tri-county region that won’t allow dogs, even if leashed. For many park users, especially women, that means they won’t use Metro parks at all, because they don’t feel safe walking alone. Metro’s no dog policy is a frequent complaint at community meetings about Metro’s parks program.
  5. The primary reason for the bond measure is to prevent property tax rates from dropping. At a Metro Council retreat in July 2017, Metro’s Chief Operating Officer explained, “Debt service on the 2006 bonds is expiring. If we wait past 2020 for another bond measure, the current tax rate of 19 cents per thousand of assessed value would drop to zero, and then we would have to admit that our bond measure raises taxes.” 

    Press Coverage of Metro’s Parks and Nature Program

    Nick Budnick, “Green Acres,” Willamette Week, February 2, 2000.

    “But a five-week WW review, including dozens of interviews and stacks of real-estate files, found an agency so anxious to secure land that it has streamlined fiscal controls, creating a process that allows even overpriced land to look like a good deal. In 16 out of 32 real-estate acquisitions reviewed by WW, the land values determined by Metro appear inflated, and the combined cost to taxpayers could easily run in the millions.”

    Body Politic,” Willamette Week, October 18, 2006.

    “Conceptually, who could argue with the desire to have Metro, the regional government, buy land for green spaces? We do, for the following reasons. First of all, there are several money measures on the ballot deserving your support, and this is the least pressing among them. Second, critics have pointed to the fact that part of the land Metro seeks to buy is so far outside the urban growth boundary that it’s not only beyond Metro’s jurisdiction but is unnecessary, at least for the next several decades. Others have pointed out that some of the targeted land is farmland, which would be taken out of cultivation.”

    Nicholas Deshais, “Field of Schemes,” Willamette Week, March 27, 2007.

    “The plan would try to return the park’s entire 25 acres back to nature. That includes removing most artificial structures, non-native plants and anything else that smacks of humanity, such as the two baseball fields used by Lakeside Little League. Eventually, the city wants to see a wetland prairie instead of a pitcher’s mound. … ‘The fact that the ball fields are there is an accident of history,’ said Mike Houck, director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute and a member of the master plan’s advisory committee. ‘You wouldn’t put a ball field in the middle of Oaks Bottom.’”

    Tim Curran, “Headwaters work gives neighbors headaches,” Mid-County Memo, October 29, 2011.

    “Steve Lynch, who has lived next to the property for 12 years, said his experience with city and Metro officials has been frustrating. ‘They’ve done the most possible damage in the least amount of time I’ve ever seen any neighbor do,’ Lynch said.  ‘They will look you right in the eye and tell you what you want to hear, and tomorrow the trucks are in. I’m not going to be nice anymore.’”

    Nigel Jaquiss, “Mayors Urge Metro to Delay Planned May Bond Measure,” Willamette Week, December 6, 2012. Quoting letter from mayors.

    “In addition to concerns regarding compression, the plan for the remaining natural area’s bond purchases and impacts on long term maintenance needs are still unclear to our group. Without further information and clarity regarding the plan for past voters’approved investments, it is hard for us to see the value in asking voters for additional resources.”

    Dana Tims, “Metro’s bargain land becomes a burden to restore, maintain,” Oregonian, April 13, 2013.

    “‘We were rejecting more real estate deals than any private development team in the city,’ Metro Council President Tom Hughes said. ‘The ones we accepted let us stretch those bond dollars a lot further than we thought we could.’ All that stretching, however, came at a cost. Since the bond money can only be used to buy land, Metro’s been stockpiling acreage for years with scant means of maintaining or restoring it.”

    Rob Manning, “Metro Has The Land, But Needs Money To Make It Parks,” OPB, May 15, 2013.

    “Thousands of people drive past these creeks every day – on Highway 213. But the forest along the creeks can be hard to get to. There are no signs. You have to know the way in – past power lines and thickets of scotch broom and blackberry bushes. Metro land manager, Dan Moeller says the gate in is narrow – on purpose. ‘To manage what’s able to get in and out of here, we had to create some fencing, and we actually had to design this little post system to stop shopping carts from coming into this site.’ Moeller says the gate keeps shopping carts out — but it also blocks kids’ strollers and visitors in wheelchairs. Officials say homeless camps crop up often.”

    Peter Wong, “Metro Council seeks extension of park levy,” Portland Tribune, July 5, 2016.

    “Metro Councilor Bob Stacey said the North Tualatin Mountains plan, which the council approved April 21, calls for opening only about 25 percent of its 1,400 acres to trails for walking, cycling and horseback riding and putting most of the rest off-limits.”

    Howl, no: Metro seeks more money for anti-dog park network,” Oregonian, July 5, 2016.

    “It may surprise many people in the Portland area to know that Metro is, among other things, the owner of vast swaths of park land. Its holdings, at about 17,000 acres, were amassed largely as a result of two voter-approved funding measures totaling more than $363 million. Metro officials swept up this property for a number of conservation-related purposes, from preserving wildlife habitat to improving water quality. But that’s not all. Improving access to people — who are, after all, paying for all of this — was a goal as well.”

    Voters should say no to Metro’s bid to renew parks levy,” Oregonian, October 19, 2016.

    “Most of [Metro’s] efforts are large and expensive, such as committing $60 million in bonding capacity to an otherwise private hotel project at the Oregon Convention Center, which it also oversees. Pockets of rancor about the agency’s reach and influence nest in some suburban and rural venues, where folks have argued Metro has grown too large and operates without sufficient accountability.”

    Rachel Monahan, “Portland Begs for Bond Money to Finish Park Work It Started,” Willamette Week, June 5, 2019.

    “Behind closed doors, the city of Portland has been lobbying for more money—because the last Metro parks bond, in 2006, helped buy properties for Portland, but City Hall lacks the money to finish restoring or improving them.”

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The MAX Yellow Line: A Look Back After 15 Years

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line first opened 15 years ago in May 2004. The Yellow Line’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) made a myriad of predictions for the year 2020, which makes now the perfect time to reflect on what officials promised and what taxpayers and transit riders have since received.

Yellow Line History

The Yellow Line originated in 1988 as a 21-mile project connecting Vancouver, Washington with Downtown Portland and Clackamas Town Center. This plan was scrapped after Clark County voters defeated a proposal to raise $236.5 million in 1995 and Oregon voters turned down a $475 million regional ballot measure in 1998.

Not to be deterred by a lack of voter support, officials developed a shorter alternative in 1999 that would run from the Expo Center to Downtown Portland along Interstate Avenue. This alternative cost $350 million, 74% of which came from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

The construction of the new alternative was not put to a public vote. Portland officials instead expanded an urban renewal district to include the Interstate Avenue Corridor. Doing so allowed them to appropriate $30 million in tax increment funds to finance the rail that otherwise would have gone to other tax-collecting jurisdictions, including Multnomah County. The county commissioners opposed expansion of the urban renewal district, but the Portland City Council approved it anyway.

Looking back after fifteen years, we find that key promises made in the FEIS were never kept:

1.  Frequency of Service

What We Were Promised: TriMet promised FTA in their Full-Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) that peak-hour trains would arrive every ten minutes and off-peak trains every 15 minutes. The promised service according to the FEIS was supposed to reach eight trains during peak hours in 2020.

What We Received: Instead of having 10-15-minute headways between trains, the Yellow Line runs every 15 minutes during peak-periods and every 30 minutes during other parts of the day.

2.  Travel Times

What We Were Promised: TriMet predicted travel times to be 24 minutes from Downtown Portland to the Expo Center and 19 minutes from Downtown Portland to N Lombard.[1] Light rail speeds were projected to reach 15.3 miles per hour (mph), and bus speeds were projected to be 13.2 mph in 2005.[2]

What We Received: Actual travel times are slower than predicted. It takes 35 minutes to take light rail from Downtown Portland to the Expo Center and 28 minutes from Downtown Portland to N Lombard, even though light rail has its own exclusive right of way. Actual travel times are 45.8% greater to the Expo Center and 47.4% greater to N Lombard. Actual light rail speeds in the corridor only hit 14.1 mph in 2005 while bus speeds averaged 16.1 mph—significantly faster than predicted.

3.  High ridership

What We Were Promised: The FEIS forecasted ridership in the corridor to dramatically increase with the building of the Yellow Line. By 2020 the line’s ridership was expected to have 18,100 average weekday riders.

What We Received: At no point since the Yellow Line opened has ridership met projected levels. In April 2019 ridership only reached 13,270, 26.7% less than projected. This number will not meet 2020 projected levels based upon the negative trend observed over the past three years. From March 2016 to March 2019 ridership levels decreased by 3.6%.

Lower than promised ridership isn’t unique to the Yellow Line; every TriMet rail forecast has been wrong, and always wrong on the high side.

Light Rail Is Not Superior to Bus Transit

The Yellow Line was expected to provide superior service compared to the no-build bus alternative. This forecast hasn’t panned out. The Yellow Line replaced Line #5, which if it were still operating, would have seven-minute headways between Vancouver and Downtown Portland. C-Tran express service was forecasted to have three-minute headways.[3]

Light rail does not reach any more people or businesses than Line #5 did. In fact, Line #5 had more stops along Interstate Avenue, meaning some riders now have a longer walking commute to the MAX stations.

TriMet bus service from Vancouver to Downtown Portland continues to be an option even after the Yellow Line’s construction. Line #6 was changed to pick up the link between Jantzen Beach and the Yellow Line’s Delta Park stop that Line #5 had previously serviced. It then continues down MLK Boulevard to the Portland City Center.

In Spring 2019, Line #6 saw 665 average weekday on/offs at Jantzen Beach and only 190 total on/offs at Delta Park. This means that the vast majority of Vancouver commuters on Line #6 opt to stay on the bus to Portland instead of transferring to the Yellow Line.

Given the Yellow Line’s history, we can expect the prospective SW Corridor light rail project to increase traffic, have fewer trains than promised, and have lower ridership than predicted. If ridership levels are 26.7% below forecast 15 years into service, why should the SW Corridor ridership estimate of 43,000 daily boardings be taken seriously? The FTA should not offer TriMet additional light rail funding in the future if TriMet is unable to honor its past promises.

TriMet may argue that service levels are below EIS forecasted levels due to a lack of funds. However, TriMet’s revenue increase in recent years tells otherwise. Between 1998 and 2018, passenger fares increased by 116% and tax revenue increased by 64%. TriMet’s payroll tax has been increasing since 2005 and will continue to go up every year until 2024. There is no issue with revenue; rather, the issue lies with light rail.

Moving forward, Metro and TriMet should focus on creating a more reliable bus network that runs on an already built road system. Doing so will benefit riders and taxpayers alike.

__________________________

[1] Federal Transportation Authority, Interstate MAX Before and After Study, 2005, 2-5.

[2] Id, 2-10.

[3] North Corridor Instate MAX Light Rail Project, Final Environmental Impact Statement Executive Summary, October 1999, S-17.

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

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Cascade Policy Institute Presents a Special Event with Economist Stephen Moore

Join Cascade Policy Institute for a conversation with economist Stephen Moore. This special event will be held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Portland-Lake Oswego, Sunday, September 22, at 7 pm.

Steve Moore co-founded and served as president of the Club for Growth from 1999 to 2004, is a former member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board, and is an economic advisor to President Donald Trump. As Distinguished Visiting Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, Moore focuses on advancing public policies that increase the rate of economic growth to help the United States retain its position as the global economic superpower. He also works on budget, fiscal, and monetary policy and showcases states that get fiscal houses in order.

With Arthur B. Laffer, Moore is the author of Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive Our Economy.

Dessert and coffee will be served. Tickets are $25 per person and must be purchased in advance.

Reservations and pre-payment are required by September 20.

For more information about the event and to purchase tickets, click here or call Janet Van Gilder at (503) 242-0900.

Don’t miss this special opportunity to see Steve Moore in Portland!

Sunday, September 22, 2019
7:00pm – 9:00pm
Crowne Plaza Hotel Portland-Lake Oswego
14811 Kruse Oaks Drive (just off I-5 and 217)
Lake Oswego, OR 97035

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free-market public policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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Better Buses May Be the Transit Solution the SW Corridor Needs

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet may have found a better alternative to the proposed SW Corridor light rail project without realizing it.

TriMet is planning a 15-mile-long transit project on Division Street that will run 60-foot buses from downtown Portland to Gresham. The project is estimated to cost $150 million and will include expanded bus stations that offer protection from the weather and signal priority for buses to cut down on travel times by 20%. Each bus is equipped with three doors and can hold 60% more passengers than the typical TriMet bus.

TriMet discarded the idea of continuing buses along the proposed SW Corridor route in favor of light rail despite decreasing transit ridership and increasing light rail costs. Instead of spending nearly $3 billion on a new light rail line, TriMet could mimic the Division Transit Project and run high capacity buses along the route with upgraded stations for just 5% of light rail’s cost. Running buses on an already built system will save hundreds of residents and employees from being displaced. TriMet can also decrease bus emissions by trading diesel for renewable or compressed natural gas for a cleaner ride.

It’s time for TriMet to stop making excuses for light rail and do what is best for both taxpayers and commuters in Portland.

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

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Portland’s Temporary Gas Tax Should Stay Just That

By Rachel Dawson

Portland’s temporary gas tax should stay just that: temporary.

Portland voters approved the 10 cent per gallon gas tax three years ago to fund a road repair and traffic safety program. Since its implementation, the program has failed to live up to all expectations.

Gasoline-using vehicles pay for 100% of the tax but only receive a little over half the benefits. Only 56% of tax revenues go to street maintenance projects, while 44% is spent on pedestrian and bicycle safety.

The program is also poorly managed. A 2019 audit on the tax found that program oversight has been ineffective, many projects have not been completed on time, revenue goals have not been met, and completed projects have cost $900,000 more than what was told to voters.

City staff admitted that project schedules were not realistic and took longer to begin “because the scopes of individual projects were not yet well-defined.” This lackadaisical approach to project planning would never fly in the private sector, so why is the city getting a pass?

Portland commissioner Chloe Eudaly will send the expiring gas tax back to voters in May 2020. The region needs better roads, not another poorly managed tax. For these reasons, Portlanders should vote “no” on extending the gas tax in 2020.

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

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Residents Say Portland is Not the City that Works

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

What if the self-proclaimed “City that Works” isn’t working? That’s what Portland residents are saying.

Last week the City of Portland published its most recent survey of city residents. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed are dissatisfied with the city’s response to homelessness and almost two-thirds are dissatisfied with traffic congestion on their daily commutes.

This outrage comes after voters approved hundreds of millions of dollars for affordable housing projects and steep hikes in gas taxes to improve roads. Clearly, more money is not the answer: The more the city spends, the worse things get.

Council’s renter relocation payments, inclusionary zoning, and renter screening rules are shrinking the supply of affordable housing. While the city’s population is growing, it’s reducing its road infrastructure through road diets and replacing automobile lanes with dedicated bus and bike lanes.

Instead of punishing property owners for renting apartments, let’s loosen regulations on building and renting truly affordable housing. Instead of bringing traffic to a standstill, let’s add traffic lanes to foster a safe and speedy flow of auto and truck traffic. These aren’t radical ideas. In fact, these were Portland’s policies when it really was “The City that Worked.”

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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Stop Raising Rents in Portland

By Micah Perry

On Wednesday, August 7, 2019, the Portland City Council passed yet another ordinance that will harm the housing market in the city. Landlords will now be required to register all their rental units with the city and pay a $60 yearly registration fee for each unit.

Any economist, or even a student who has taken Econ 101, can tell you that countries with more regulations are less prosperous than nations that enjoy greater economic freedom. Entrepreneurship, from the opening of a small bakery to the development of an apartment complex, is seriously disincentivized by regulations.

Rules and fees placed on the housing industry cause any would-be entrepreneurs and developers—individuals who could provide a solution to Portland’s housing problem—to think twice and reconsider investment in housing rentals. This new ordinance joins a slew of deterrent regulations on rental housing within Portland.

Over the past few years, Portland’s City Council has approved policies that restrict or complicate a landlord’s ability to reject a rental applicant for reasons such as criminal background or ability to pay rent, and that require landlords to help pay for a renter’s relocation costs. Those who have already built rental housing may find it more lucrative and safer simply to sell the property they own rather than continue to rent it. Those considering building new rentals may now balk at the opportunity altogether.

Proponents of the new ordinance will argue that the fee is critical because it funds the city’s Rental Services Office, but the necessity of the office itself is questionable. Most of the office’s responsibilities seem to involve explaining the complex landlord-tenant laws passed by the city in recent years, a self-induced problem that could be solved by simply repealing them. In addition, while the office is portrayed as a resource for tenants to utilize when being treated unfairly, the office’s website notes that it often refers those in need of help to previously existing nonprofits and advocacy groups, who would help without the city’s intervention.

There are also at least two clear structural problems with the ordinance. First, mobile homes, which provided an affordable housing solution long before the city stepped in, will be subject to the tax and almost certainly see rents rise. Second, the fee’s structure makes it an especially steep price to pay for landlords managing large complexes throughout the city, even though city bureaucrats claim that it is a moderate price.

To use an example from the testimony of one landlord, Seattle, which has a similar program, charges landlords a base rate of $175, plus two dollars for every additional unit they own. So, the owner of a 200-unit apartment in Seattle would pay $575 a year, but an identical building in Portland would be charged $12,000 a year. Landlords most likely will pass along the costs to tenants in the form of higher rent.

This new ordinance will do more harm than good. It will raise rents on most people and, more importantly, further constrict the supply of rental housing in the city.

Micah Perry is a Research Associate at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He can be reached at info@cascadepolicy.org. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on August 20, 2019.

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The Government-Sanctioned Cat-And-Mouse Game

By Vlad Yurlov

Governments often try to pat themselves on the back. The minimum wage has long been a tool for this. As I began my trek from Foster Road to Oaks Park Way in 2015, I couldn’t wait to earn my own money! The minimum wage was $9.25 at the time, school was out, and I began working.

Starting off at about twenty hours a week, I was having a productive summer. A year later, I came back to an early Christmas present, the Portland Metro area received a minimum wage hike up to $9.75 on July 1st of 2016, which was just fine with me.

Then the hours shortened. New hires arrived. Overtime was a dirty word. The cotton candy I was making went up twenty-five cents! What happened?

As business-owners may tell you, these reactions were just a logical response to the pressure of the minimum wage. You get more wages, but you also work fewer hours, benefits are cut, and price increases are inevitable.

While contradictory studies continue to be published, simple logic dictates what employers do when the minimum wage rises. They try to find ways to keep their wages in step with the amount of profit workers create, and forcing fifteen dollars an hour won’t change that.

Vlad Yurlov is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Congestion Pricing in Portland: Good in Theory, Bad in Practice

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

“Good in theory, bad in practice.” Sure, it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché because so often it’s true. It looks to be especially true regarding congestion pricing in the Pacific Northwest.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is pursuing plans to impose tolls on parts of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205. Portland recently announced the formation of an “equitable mobility” task force, with “congestion pricing” as a key component. Not to be outdone, Metro, the Portland area’s regional government, is launching a study it hopes will lead to region-wide congestion pricing.

One would expect that something as big and complex as congestion pricing would require substantial public input. However, Metro has made clear that, at least for its technical evaluation of scenarios, its process does “not anticipate significant public outreach.” This is likely because a key takeaway from a survey by DHM Research concludes tolling “is not a popular idea and residents are skeptical that it will be effective at reducing congestion.”

Done properly, congestion pricing reduces congestion. It increases traffic flow while reducing travel time and greenhouse gas emissions. Who knows, it many even reduce blood pressure and road rage. It also raises money. And, done properly, the money would be used to improve and increase road capacity, which in turn further reduces congestion. In theory, congestion pricing is a near-perfect solution to congestion.

But, it’s a long and winding road from theory to implementation. By the end of the trip, the plan that’s put in place often looks very different from the near perfection seen in textbooks. Along the way, policymakers see the dollar signs and shift the goals from minimizing congestion to maximizing revenues to feed their never-ending need for spending on policy priorities and pet projects. In the Portland region, there appears to be little appetite for using money raised from tolls to expand or improve the road network.

As plans progress, interest groups shift the focus from willingness to pay to ability to pay. If they get their way, the pricing scheme becomes less about reducing congestion and more about income redistribution. The way things are going, it’s likely the tolling schemes under consideration will look like nothing seen in a textbook, and roadway users will be worse off.

Recent research by ECONorthwest provides an indication of how much worse off Portland-area residents could be. The study, commissioned by Uber, estimates the costs and benefits of a tolling scheme under consideration in Seattle. The scheme would draw a line around the city of Seattle and charge every vehicle entering the cordon. The tolls would vary by time of day, based on projected congestion at those times.

The study estimates the time-saving benefits of reduced congestion against the costs of the tolls. It concludes that Seattle-area drivers would be almost $40 million a year worse off under the scheme they studied. In other words, the amount paid in tolls would be about $40 million more than the value of time saved from reduced congestion, not including rebates or benefits that could be funded by toll revenue.

While Portland-area policymakers give lip service to reducing congestion, the transportation policies they’ve put in place can only be described as congestion by design. “Road diets” such as lane reductions have choked off major arterials and sent drivers scurrying through side streets. Reduced speed limits have slowed traffic to a crawl in many areas. Speed bumps seem to be popping up faster than dandelions in spring.

Politics has a way of turning good ideas into bad policies. It’s very likely Portland-area politics will turn the good theory of congestion pricing into the bad practice of punishing drivers.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article appeared in The Oregonian on August 14, 2019.

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Metro: Where Temporary Means Forever

By Rachel Dawson

Milton Friedman once famously said that “nothing is more permanent than a temporary government program.” If Friedman were currently living in Portland, Oregon, it is likely he would instead be saying “nothing is more permanent than a temporary Metro tax.” The Metro Council unanimously voted in July to approve funding for planning and development grants supported by the regional government’s construction excise tax (CET) in the 2019-20 fiscal year. This CET is riddled with problems, including the removal of its sunset date and mission creep.

The CET was originally adopted by the region in 2006 as a temporary tax to support development planning for areas newly brought into the urban growth boundary (UGB). The tax is paid by anyone applying for a building permit for construction within the UGB, with some exceptions.

Its original sunset date was slated for 2009 or until Metro collected a certain amount of money. When asked if this was a permanent tax in 2006, Metro responded by saying, “No. This tax takes effect July 1, 2006, and will remain in effect until $6.3 million is collected.” This fund threshold was met and the original sunset date was passed, however, the CET was not allowed to die.

The CET was extended another five years until 2014, and again extended in 2014 until 2020. Instead of extending the CET once more, Metro voted to eliminate the tax’s sunset date in 2019, using its powers to create a continuous revenue stream. The resolution approved by the Metro Council states, “Collection of the excise tax will continue into the future until such a time as the Metro Council determines it is no longer necessary or effective.” Based on this language, the tax will never end, because Metro will never find such a flow of cash unnecessary.

It now appears that Metro has taken the liberty of shifting the scope and purpose of the tax, leading to mission creep. By the end of the CET’s original sunset date, the vast majority of the planning work the tax was established to carry out was completed. Metro no longer had enough projects to justify the tax’s existence.

Therefore, Metro expanded the scope of projects eligible for funding in 2009 so that tax revenue could be used for planning in existing urban areas in addition to the newly added territory. The purpose of the CET has again changed in recent years to prioritize “equitable development” projects within the UGB.

For example, Albina Vision Trust was awarded $375,000 for its community investment prospectus as part of Metro’s new equitable development category. Albina Vision Trust does not own any of the land referenced in its proposal. Rather, the project focuses on “community-based programming” and the “investment potential” of the lower Albina area. The desired project outcome is to pre-develop scenarios of what the community could look like and how the organization could maintain “social values” in Albina. The CET was originally created to plan development of land incorporated into the UGB, not to think about how a nonprofit can maintain social values in a neighborhood it does not own.

Metro’s approval of the Albina Vision Trust prospectus highlights another problematic change that has been made to the CET: Metro now has the authority to approve grants to private organizations instead of only to public entities. Metro should not be picking winners and losers by investing tax funds in ideas which may not be successful at the expense of other potential players.

Concerns regarding the CET do not stop there. Metro’s auditor concluded in a 2016 report that Metro has poorly managed use of CET funds. Administrative costs have increased since 2009, the program is becoming less aligned with regional planning priorities, and its regional impact is unknown. Furthermore, no performance measures were in place when the program was reviewed, and project monitoring was weak. For example, Metro amended funding of a project that was already largely completed and approved two different contracts that likely funded the same project.

Most area residents are unaware of Metro’s CET and its troubling history. This lack of regional oversight has allowed Metro to manipulate the CET to accommodate its wishes without regional approval or knowledge. The CET should have expired in 2009 when it raised the original amount of funding and completed the work it was created to support. If Metro wants to pay for other projects with CET revenue, it should go through the process of winning voter approval to create a new revenue stream.

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

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Portland’s City Council Wants Rent to Go Up

By Micah Perry

The Portland City Council recently passed a new ordinance that will require landlords to register all of their rental units with the city and pay a $60 yearly registration fee per unit.

While regulated affordable housing will be exempt, other types of rentals, like mobile homes, will still be subject to the fee. It is almost certain that landlords will pass on the increased costs to their tenants.

During one council meeting, current landlords noted that the registration fees will siphon money away that could be used for maintenance. They also said that increased housing regulations will discourage potential developers and landlords from wanting to build new rental units in the city. Many landlords are incentivized to sell their units, rather than rent them, because of the increased regulation.

The money raised by the fee will fund the Rental Services Office, a new, needless expansion of Portland’s bureaucracy that will only serve to grow the number of rules placed on housing in the city.

This ordinance adds to the long list of policies that disincentivize the operation and construction of rental units in Portland. If the Portland City Council keeps pursuing policies like these, rents will continue to go up and rental housing will continue to disappear.

Micah Perry is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Oregon Distilleries Deserve Better

By Helen Cook

How much would you be willing to pay in taxes for your local business?

Thirty-three percent of total sales from Oregon distilleries currently goes to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. This means, on average, that the state makes a greater profit from tasting room sales than the distillers making the product. In comparison, beer and wine crafters remit 0% of tasting room sales to the state.

Oregon is a “Liquor Control State.” This means that all liquor is owned by the state, entitling it to a certain percentage of each liquor sale. The revenue that distillers do receive from tasting room sales is actually a commission for selling the state’s liquor.

Distilleries are struggling to stay afloat because of this control system. In fact, Cannon Beach Distillery recently decided to close rather than pay remittance to the state. Others are worried they might have to do likewise.

Granting distillery tasting rooms the same privileges as the beer and wine industries could be what keeps craft distilleries in Oregon from disappearing. Oregon distilleries deserve better.

Helen Cook is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Think TriMet’s New Electric Buses Run on Wind Power? Think Again.

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet unveiled five new battery-electric buses (BEBs) in April 2019, the sides of which all donned images of windmills and sweeping gusts of wind. The BEBs each cost around $1 million, nearly twice as much as a traditional diesel bus. And these buses are just the beginning: The TriMet board voted last year to replace the entire fleet with battery-electric buses for $1.18 billion by 2040, a $500 million premium over a diesel fleet.

TriMet has been hailed an environmental hero for “riding the winds of change.” TriMet Spokesperson Roberta Altstadt claimed that TriMet was the first in the United States to “operate an electric bus on 100% renewable energy.” Without further research, it would be easy to think that TriMet’s new buses ran on clean wind energy. And that is exactly what TriMet is hoping you would think. But you would be wrong.

If the buses don’t run on 100% wind power, how is TriMet able to get away with saying they do?

TriMet spends $228.75 per month on what are known as renewable energy certificates (RECs) from PGE. RECs are a tradable commodity sold by renewable energy facilities (such as wind farms) to the wholesale market, that purport to represent the “environmental amenities” of certain renewable energy projects. By purchasing the RECs, TriMet has bought the legal right to claim it is using renewable energy; however, the agency has not purchased any energy itself.

This would be like my paying someone else to exercise at the gym for me, and then telling my family and friends I go to the gym. The person I pay reaps both financial and physical benefits while I merely get to pretend I have them.

Supporters of RECs claim the certificates offset fossil fuels and pay for the generation of new renewable energy. However, these claims are not entirely accurate. According to Daniel Press, a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, “RECs do little to reduce emissions in the real world because they have become too cheap to shift energy markets or incentivize businesses to build new turbines.” The income generated from RECs does not come close to the millions needed to construct more wind turbines, which means that RECs themselves don’t offset fossil fuels.

Despite its claims, it would be impossible for TriMet to run on 100% wind power unless it disconnected from the regional mixed grid and hooked up to its own personal wind farm. Even then, TriMet would be forced to rely on other backup power sources due to the volatility of wind generation.

While a wind turbine may be available to produce energy around 90% of the time, the average wind farm in the United States in 2018 had a capacity factor of only 37.4%. The capacity factor refers to the amount of energy produced in a year as a fraction of the farm’s maximum capacity. Wind farms produce electricity when winds reach about nine miles per hour and stop at roughly 55 mph to prevent equipment damage. If the wind isn’t blowing (or isn’t blowing strongly enough), little to no power can be generated.

This poses problems, as the electrical grid requires constant equilibrium or blackouts will result—power supply must meet energy demand. Every megawatt of wind power has to be backed up by an equal amount of traditional, “non-green” sources like coal and natural gas to account for times when wind energy isn’t generated. This would be like keeping a car constantly running at home in case the one you’re driving on the road fails.

Instead of a wind farm, TriMet receives its electricity from Portland General Electric, the same mixed grid your home is likely powered by. In 2020, this mixed grid will be made up of 37% natural gas, 28% coal, 18% hydro, 15% renewables, and 2% purchased power (power purchased on the wholesale market). Since wind only makes up a portion of renewables used by PGE, less than 15% of the electricity used by the “wind” buses is powered by wind. A greater percentage of the electricity used by TriMet’s BEBs comes from coal plants than wind farms.

If TriMet were honest with its riders, it would replace the windmills on the sides of the new buses with coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric power plants. In the name of accuracy, TriMet could place a windmill in the corner, demonstrating the small percentage of power generated by wind farms.

So instead of riding the “winds of change,” keep in mind that you’re just riding a really expensive bus.

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

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Charter Schools Create Diverse Choices for Students with Different Needs

By Miranda Bonifield

Parents know the educational needs of their children are as diverse as they are. As Lance Izumi notes in his new book Choosing Diversity, families use the flexibility of charter schools to cater to their students’ unique needs. Some choose classical schools rooted in the Socratic method, while others seek out technical schools which cater to students’ individual learning styles. And for some kids experiencing homelessness, charter schools can provide a point of stability and hope.

Transient housing may have a lifelong impact on educational outcomes for the estimated 22,000 students in Oregon who statistically fall behind in grades and graduation rates. When a student’s address is constantly shifting, it is difficult to feel secure enough to keep learning.

Enter charter schools like Life Learning Academy in San Francisco. Instead of falling through the cracks as they might in a traditional public school, at-risk students are given the specialized attention and consistency they need. Students come to Life Learning Academy with low grade point averages and low self-confidence. They leave not only prepared for college, but with the skills they need to succeed as independent adults. As one student put it, “a little bit of care and positivity can change your life.”

School choice helps students from all backgrounds to find successful educational paths to a healthy and bright future.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Why Is Oregon Centrally Planning the Cannabis Industry?

By Vlad Yurlov

Does the cannabis industry need central planning? The Oregon legislature thinks so.

On June 17, Governor Kate Brown signed a bill allowing the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to limit the number of marijuana production licenses, “based on the supply and demand for marijuana.” Senate Bill 218 actually declares the production of large amounts of cannabis an “emergency”—a legislative convention suggesting the issue at hand deserves immediate government intervention.

As cannabis businesses have increased in number, the price of legal weed has decreased. Lawmakers’ concern is that when marijuana supply is greater than demand, Oregon growers will turn to the black market and illegal interstate trade.

But the existence of a greater supply than demand for a product is not an emergency. A local cannabis grower recently stated that large supply has created “an intense pressure to come up with a really great product, to set yourself apart.”

Law enforcement should be responsible for ensuring growers comply with laws governing marijuana sales. Oregon already has statutes governing Cannabis Regulation, so why is the legislature turning to Soviet-style economic planning?

The government shouldn’t centrally plan business activities. Let law enforcement do its job, and let businesses succeed or fail on their own merits.

Vlad Yurlov is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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WES at 10: Time to Admit Failure

By John A. Charles, Jr.

TriMet recently marked the ten-year anniversary of the Westside Express Service (WES), the 14.7-mile commuter rail line that runs from Wilsonville to Beaverton. Sadly, there was little to celebrate. WES ridership has been falling steadily since 2014, and there is no prospect that the line will ever meet the opening year forecast of 2,500 average daily boardings.

At the groundbreaking for WES in March 2007, then-Sen. Rod Monroe (D-Portland) gushed, “Wilsonville is jobs rich…the train will be full both ways…morning and afternoon. That is absolutely unique.”

It might have been unique if it had happened, but it had no connection to reality. Average daily ridership peaked in 2014 at 1,964 daily boardings, then dropped in each successive year. During Fiscal Year 2019, WES daily ridership has averaged only 1,505.

A central problem is that WES never had a clear mission; it was always a project in search of a purpose. At various times the train was promoted as: (1) a congestion relief tool for HWY 217; or (2) a catalyst for so-called “Transit-Oriented Development.” Neither of these arguments made sense.

During legislative hearings in Salem, representatives from Washington County claimed that WES would take 5,000 motor vehicles per day off nearby highways. But WES is not even capable of doing that because it only runs eight times (each direction) in the morning, and eight more times in the afternoon. And unlike traditional commuter trains pulling eight or nine passenger cars, WES travels only in one-car or two-car configurations. The train stations themselves are so short that even if TriMet started running eight-car trains, most passengers would have no way to get on or off.

Moreover, WES crosses more than 18 east-west suburban arterials four times each hour. On busy commuter routes, such as HWY 10, each train crossing delays dozens of vehicles for 40 seconds or more. Since the train itself typically only carries 50-60 passengers per run, this means that WES has made Washington County congestion worse than it was before the train opened.

WES has not been a catalyst for “transit-oriented development” and never will be. Train stations are noisy, and zoning restrictions would limit residential parking—even though new residents would need automobiles because it would be almost impossible to travel entirely by commuter rail.

WES was originally projected to cost $65 million and open in 2000. It actually cost $161.2 million and opened in 2009. The WES operating cost per ride in May 2019 was $18.21, roughly 4.5 times the cost of average TriMet bus service.

In June 2016, TriMet staff persuaded the Board to approve the purchase of two used rail cars to expand the WES fleet. The estimated cost for the purchase was $1.5 million, plus $500,000 more for retrofitting. At the time, TriMet claimed that this purchase was necessary to satisfy the “expected demands for growing WES service.” That demand was a fantasy.

When passenger rail forecasts fail to materialize, government planners tend to complain that “we just need more time.” After ten years, the clock has run out on WES. There are no more plausible excuses; it is simply a planning failure.

Taxpayers would be better served if we canceled WES, sold off the train cars, and moved the few commuter rail customers back to buses.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 18, 2019.

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You and Your Car: Portland Public Enemy No. 1

By Micah Perry

Driving around Portland could get a lot more expensive. The Portland City Council just passed a resolution to create an “equitable mobility task force” to study how imposing steep new fees on city drivers could reduce congestion.

Proponents say the fees will help Portland meet its carbon reduction goals. They also claim that, by increasing the cost of driving and parking, low-income residents and people of color will be better off. Ironically, the city itself noted that “65% of peak car commuters in Portland are medium or low income,” meaning any new fees will actually hurt the communities they seek to help.

Fees being considered include increased parking prices, Uber or Lyft surcharges, a mileage tax, and tolls to enter certain areas of the city. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to most, as Portland frequently pursues anti-car policies, such as a citywide gasoline tax, a reduction in street parking downtown, and the city’s notorious “road diets,” which essentially create congestion by design.

If Portland truly cared about easing congestion amid a growing population, it would add lanes wherever possible. And, rather than try to tax people out of their cars, the city should reevaluate its approach to transit and create a public transportation system that can be attractive to commuters without having to resort to coercion.

Micah Perry is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Congestion by Design on the New Sellwood Bridge

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland-area motorists who have to regularly cross the Sellwood Bridge may wonder why the new structure is twice as wide as the 1925 bridge, yet has the same number of travel lanes. The answer is simple. Portland transportation planners don’t want to solve traffic congestion problems; they prefer to make them worse.

We know this because 20 years ago, Metro published a report entitled the “South Willamette River Crossing Study” (SWRCS), which examined the long-term bridge needs in the stretch of the Willamette River from the Marquam Bridge down to Oregon City. The study found that by 2015, levels of traffic congestion on those bridges would be at “unacceptable or grossly unacceptable levels” if new capacity wasn’t provided.

The study also looked at numerous potential sites for a new bridge but ultimately recommended that no new crossings be constructed. The Metro Council decided instead to focus on “transportation demand management” (TDM) to address the growing congestion.  TDM is an amorphous concept utilizing public relations campaigns and regulatory mandates to encourage drivers to shift to other modes of travel.

Once the decision by Metro was made to place a freeze on new bridge capacity, it was easy for the City of Portland to implement a new policy downsizing Tacoma Street in Sellwood from a four-lane arterial to a two-lane “Main Street,” with lower speed limits. That made it politically impossible for Multnomah County, owner of the Sellwood Bridge, to replace the aging structure with a four-lane bridge.

The decision to build a new bridge was made in 2006, and construction began in 2012. The design featured two 12-foot-wide travel lanes for motor vehicles, two 12-foot-wide sidewalks, and two bike lanes. All the proponents claimed that dedicating more through-capacity for cyclists and pedestrians than vehicles would create a world-class, multi-modal showpiece that would finally tame the automobile and shift drivers to other modes.

In fact, when a USDOT official spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony while presenting an oversized check for $17 million, she told the audience, “We looked all over the country for the best projects, and I have to say, the application for the Sellwood Bridge project knocked it out of the park!”

Unfortunately, all of the hype turned out to be wrong. Extensive monitoring by Cascade Policy Institute over the past three years shows that on a typical day, motor vehicles account for 95% of all passenger-trips. Transit gets about 2%, and walking/cycling combined garner the final 3%. Traffic congestion is growing worse by the month because regional population is growing and the bridge infrastructure has not kept pace.

With a price tag of $328 million, the new bridge is 43 times more expensive than the original; but it’s not 43 times more useful. In fact, it’s less useful, because trucks are not allowed and TriMet never restored the promised transit service.

Metro’s no-growth policy was a predictable failure. It’s time for the Metro Council to admit the mistake, and begin a new planning process with the goal of building at least one new bridge for motorists in the South Willamette River Corridor.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research institute. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 11, 2019.

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Fresh Spinach for Indifferent Students: Oregon’s Costly Farm-to-School Program

By Helen Cook

When did you last hear a child profess his love for spinach?

Oregon’s Farm-to-School program awards grants to school districts across Oregon to give them the funds needed to purchase fresh foods from local farms and vendors. Advocates hope that by using the words “fresh” and “local,” K-12 students will nurture a healthier taste for fruits and veggies. This hope prompted legislators to budget almost $15 million for the program at the end of the 2019 session.

This is a significant increase from the program’s $200,000 budget in 2012, largely because legislators rephrased the bill to allow entities separate from Oregon school districts to accept grants. This technical rewording allows for summer meal programs, nonprofits, and even the local vendors selling food to the districts to accept grant money.

But frozen foods benefit students more than local produce does. Frozen fruits and veggies have equal or superior nutritional value and lower costs. This is important for school districts who prepare meals by the thousands.

Since the program’s main benefit is not Oregon’s students, I suggest the state reevaluate the expensive Farm-to-School program to be more cost-effective and call this current grant program what it is: a subsidy for local vendors.

Helen Cook is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Portland’s Clean Energy Tax: A High Cost with Low Benefit

By Rachel Dawson

In January 2019 the City of Portland implemented a voter-approved a 1% tax on certain “retail sales” within Portland to fund clean energy projects and jobs training. This tax will be applied to retailers with $1 billion or more in total sales, $500,000 of which must be from within Portland city limits. Retailers can pass the cost of the tax along to the purchaser of the good or service. Thus, it is likely consumers—not retailers—will ultimately be paying for it. Once collected, these funds will be administered by the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

Despite claims that the Portland Clean Energy Fund is unique, the energy efficiency projects funded by this tax are already being completed by the Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO) and Oregon Housing and Community Services through a surcharge on ratepayers’ utility bills. In some cases, the Portland Clean Energy Fund will be triple-taxing Portland utility ratepayers.

Approximately 40-60% of funds will be allocated to clean energy projects including renewable energy, conservation, and green infrastructure for residential, commercial, and public school projects. At least one half of clean energy project funds must benefit low-income residents and minorities. The Portland Clean Energy Fund will also be used to help Portland meet its goal of using 100% community-wide electricity from renewable sources by 2035.

Many voters believed this tax would only affect large retailers. However, senior deputy city attorney Kenneth McGair admits the tax will affect public works projects and construction equipment wholesalers, as well as disability insurance plans and insurance policies. The only exempt transactions will be groceries, medicine, and health care services. Due to its impact on construction, this tax will increase the cost of taxpayer funded projects such as affordable housing.

While 1% may seem like a small amount, it will add up to millions of dollars when applied to high-cost construction projects. For example, the tax will add an estimated $2 million to Lincoln High School’s $200 million renovation costs.

Voters may be unaware that they are already paying for similar clean energy projects through a surcharge on their utility bills known as the Public Purpose Charge (PPC). The tax rate from the PPC has grown to over 6% for many electric utility customers and up to 5.8% for ratepayers who consume natural gas.

ETO uses funds from the surcharge to support energy efficiency projects for low-income families (low-income weatherization), rehabilitation and construction of low-income housing, above-market renewable energy, and energy conservation and market transformation. Not only will the Portland Clean Energy Fund be completing similar projects to ETO’s, but ETO projects that involve construction, such as their affordable housing and school green infrastructure projects, will now be further taxed to support energy efficiency. Some ETO ratepayer-funded clean energy projects will be taxed to further fund clean energy projects. And many Portland area residents will be caught paying for both.

In addition to the ETO, the Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) agency also benefits from the PPC surcharge to fund additional low-income weatherization projects, arguably the same demographic the Portland Clean Energy Fund aims to help.

One of these tax programs should be repealed: either the Portland Clean Energy Fund or the Public Purpose Charge. Doing so will ensure that Portland residents are not double- or triple-taxed for multiple programs that provide the same services.

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

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Public Debt for Public Housing

By Vlad Yurlov

In the 2018 general election, voters approved a bond measure that enabled Metro to borrow about $652 million for low-income public housing in the tri-county area. This money will be given out to localities within Metro. With the minimum of 3,900 housing units to be built, the price-tag would be more than $165,000 per unit.

When pressed for completion times for this project, a high-level Metro staffer stated new units can be expected to be used in eight to ten years. This schedule should not surprise anyone who has dealt with government bureaucracies, but a decade is a long time to wait for a crisis we’re having today.

For comparison, more than 6,700 housing units were constructed per year between 2010 and 2018 in the tri-county area, based on the U.S. Census Annual Housing Estimates. This means that even a target of 3,900 units would be roughly 60% of just one year’s worth of private construction. In addition, if Metro does build homes, private companies have less incentive to build, thereby compounding the current crisis.

A good government delivers public services on time and on budget. Right now, Metro is taking the bucks, without making much of a bang.

Vlad Yurlov is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Portland’s Ill-Considered Climate Action Tax

By Micah Perry

Last fall, Portland voters approved a new 1% tax on large retailers to help the city achieve the goals of its Climate Action Plan. This measure has had serious consequences for Portland businesses.

Before the vote, proponents of the new tax described large retailers as places like Walmart or Fred Meyer. But, according to Dan Drinkward of Hoffman Construction, the city’s implementation of the measure “has gone beyond the clear intent of the measure as it was communicated to voters.”

Because of the measure’s broad language, many construction companies are defined as retailers and will have to pay the tax. Their clients will ultimately bear the cost increases—clients like Portland Public Schools, low-income housing developers, and the City of Portland itself.

Portland’s schools will especially suffer. The district’s projects have already increased in price because of the tax, with the Lincoln High School rebuild now costing an extra $2 million.

While certain foods, medicines, and health care services are exempt, other necessities like clothing and toiletries are subject to the tax, making Portland’s cost of living even higher, especially for low-income residents.

It would only take three commissioners from the Portland City Council to revise or repeal this poorly-thought-out tax. For the sake of the city, Portland’s voters must call on them to do so.

Micah Perry is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Metro Wants More Money—For Parks You May Never See

By Helen Cook

How much would you be willing to spend to buy parkland that would ban your dog?

Metro hopes Portland area taxpayers will spend $475 million to buy land kept from public use for many years. That’s the purpose of a Metro bond measure on the ballot in November.

Much of the new tax money would go to acquiring natural areas that will be unusable by the public for an unspecified amount of time. If this feels like déjà vu, that’s because Metro passed a similar bond measure in 2006.

Rather than let the previous tax increases sunset, Metro wants more money, ostensibly to create parks for historically underserved communities. But much of the land Metro plans to buy is located far from the communities it’s intended to serve.

Metro also claims the new bond measure won’t increase taxes. This is not true. If the bond measure fails, property owners’ tax bills will go down. A “yes” vote is a vote for higher taxes. A “no” vote will save the average homeowner about $48 a year.

Metro’s new bond is neither the beginning nor the end of a cycle of buying remote natural areas that won’t allow recreational uses. Make sure to look for this measure on your ballot in November and vote no.

Helen Cook is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Oregon Legislator to Oregon Business: “Let ‘em Leave!”

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

“Let ’em leave. Someone else’ll come in.” That was Oregon state senator James Manning’s response when told that new business taxes will cause some firms to leave the state.

Unfortunately, the senator is not alone with the let-them-leave attitude. That seems to be the attitude of the supermajority in the legislature as well as the city of Portland, who have both recently passed massive business taxes.

The legislature just passed a billion dollar a year “corporate activities tax.” The new tax is triggered once a business hits one million dollars in sales. This may seem like a lot to a legislator; but many small businesses such as restaurants, retailers, and consulting firms can easily generate a million dollars in sales. In fact, the Census Bureau reports about a quarter of Oregon employers have sales of a million or more a year. Thousands small firms will be subject to thousands of dollars in new sales taxes on top the income taxes they already pay.

Last year, Portland voters approved their own tax on business revenues, with money earmarked for so-called clean energy projects. Firms who thought they were exempt are now learning that they, too, will face a steep tax bill.

These new taxes will be a good test of Senator Manning’s let-them-leave theory, as owners look to other states for a better business environment. However, I’m not confident someone else will come in to replace the ones that leave.

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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SW Corridor Project: A Net Negative for the Environment

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland politicians claim to be concerned about carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. That’s why so many of them support TriMet’s proposed 12-mile light rail line from Portland to Bridgeport Village near Tigard. They think it will reduce fossil fuel use.

Their assumptions are wrong.

According to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project, energy used during construction of the rail project will equal 5.9 trillion Btu. Much of this will be in the form of fossil fuels needed to power the heavy equipment. Additional energy will be used to manufacture the rail cars, tracks, and overhead wires.

The EIS claims that the negative environmental consequences of construction will be made up by energy saved from operations of the train. However, the operational savings are so small it would take 61 years to mitigate the carbon dioxide emissions of construction.

2035 Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled and Energy Consumption 

Vehicle Type Daily VMT – No build option Million Btu/Day – No build option Daily VMT

With Light Rail

Million Btu/Day

With Light Rail

Passenger vehicle 51,474,286 249,084 51,415,071 248,798
Heavy-duty trucks 3,389,982 73,132 3,389,288 73,117
Transit bus 100,122 3,546 97,501 3,453
Light rail 19,189 1,247 21,200 1,377
TOTAL 54,983,579 327,009 54,923,060 326,745

                                          Source: Draft EIS, SW Corridor Project

Unfortunately, all of the light rail cars will need to be replaced before then. Building new cars will require more energy, resulting in additional CO2 emissions and a longer payback period.

Light rail is not a solution to a perceived climate change problem; it IS a climate change problem. Any further planning for the SW Corridor project should be terminated.

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

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