Selling Bonds to Buy the Elliott State Forest Would Be a Breach of Fiduciary Trust
By John A. Charles, Jr.
State Treasurer Tobias Read has announced that he is now prepared to support a plan being developed by Gov. Kate Brown to sell bonds that would “buy out” the Elliott State Forest from the Common School Trust Land portfolio and keep it in public ownership.
Unfortunately, this would saddle taxpayers with debt service on the bonds, thereby reducing or even eliminating the financial benefits of adding the bond proceeds to the corpus of the Common School Fund. This would be a breach of fiduciary trust on the part of the State Land Board.
Members of the public may not understand that bond sales don’t create “free” money; the face amount must be repaid over some designated period of time, with interest.
For example, if the legislature authorizes the sale of $100 million in general obligation bonds, total principal and interest will likely exceed $150 million over several decades. All Oregon taxpayers will be legally obligated to pay off that debt.
Another option might be the sale of bonds backed by future earnings on the Oregon Lottery. But lottery revenues are essentially the same as General Fund revenues. Paying debt service on lottery-backed bonds will inevitably take money from public schools.
The Governor’s proposal to have the public buy a forest it already owns is akin to someone losing money in an IRA, then transferring funds into the account from a 401(k) to make up for the loss. If both accounts are owned by the same individual, there is no net gain; the loss is just disguised.
As the state’s elected Treasurer, Tobias Read should know better. The only way to decouple the Elliott State Forest from the Common School Fund is to sell it to private parties with no taxpayer financing involved.
Such an offer is sitting in front of the Board today. The Board should accept the offer of $220.8 million from the Lone Rock Timber consortium, place the net proceeds into the Common School Fund, and let the money begin immediately working for public school students.
John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.