Tag: COVID-19

2021 - The Year of Wishful Thinking-cm

2021: The Year of Wishful Thinking

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

With the clock ticking down to midnight on December 31, my family was looking forward to putting 2020 behind us. The New Year held at least a small hope that the pandemic would subside, vaccines would be distributed, schools would re-open, and the chaos and violence would taper off. While the year didn’t kick off the way I’d hoped, I can still dream in what I call my Year of Wishful Thinking.

Operation Warp Speed demonstrated what awesome innovations can be achieved with massive investment and reduced regulatory hurdles. In less than a year, we went from pandemic panic to numerous effective vaccines.

Now, if we can only get those vaccines into people’s arms. With hindsight, it was probably a mistake to put trust in the states to manage the vaccination process. In Oregon, Operation Warp Speed has given way to Operation Equity Lens. The first meeting of Oregon Vaccine Advisory Committee spent a third of its time on “an hour of introductions, sharing of pronouns, expressing words of the day and a Native American prayer” according to the Lund Report. As a result the meeting ran out of time and did not cover key agenda items.

My wish is that the Vaccine Advisory Committee gets moving on putting shots in arms. There is growing evidence that a focus on age is the best strategy for allocating the vaccine. It’s simple, straightforward, and targets the population most likely to die from COVID-19. The next committee meeting should be 15 minutes. “We distribute by age, everyone who agrees, say ‘aye.’” Everyone says, “Aye.” Done. Meeting adjourned, shots go out, the state is vaccinated.

With vaccinations rolling out, we need to focus on reopening the state. People need to go back to work. Businesses need customers. Kids need to be in school, both to learn and to see their friends again. Once a large share of the population is vaccinated, there’s no more reason or excuse for emergency orders shutting down huge parts of the state.

With the re-opening, there will be a reckoning. Residents and businesses will demand that peace, safety, and livability return to their downtowns and neighborhoods. Property owners and utilities will demand back payments. Parents will demand accountability from their schools. State and local governments will demand more and higher taxes. My wish is that the joy of reopening does not devolve into rent seeking and score settling.

The pandemic has provided an opportunity to experiment with deregulation. What we learned is that many regulations do more to stifle opportunities than to protect the public. For example, during the pandemic, the state allows physicians and physician assistants with out-of-state licenses to practice in Oregon so long as they are in good standing in their home state. It seems to be working, let’s make that permanent—and expand it to every occupation. During the pandemic, the state allows restaurant to-go orders to include cocktails. Restaurants have been pushing for to-go cocktails for years. It took an emergency to make it so. Let’s make it permanent.

In my Year of Wishful thinking, I hope state and local governments review their regulations from top-to-bottom to eliminate regulations that do more harm than good.

  • As noted above, many occupational licensing laws do little to protect the public. Instead they serve merely to keep people out of the occupation and extract higher prices from consumers.
  • Oregon’s certificate of need laws have led to an undersupply of much needed hospital beds in the state. If we had more ICU beds, we would not have needed to shut down as fast and as hard as we did.
  • The state’s prevailing wage law was originally designed to exclude non-union and black-owned firms from winning government contracts. “Affordable” public housing costs almost double what privately built housing does and prevailing wages are a big reason why. Without prevailing wage laws, we could be building much more affordable housing.
  • In much of Oregon, a student’s public school is assigned by street address and public money flows to the school system rather than the student. We need to flip that system. Send the money to the student and let their family choose which school meets their needs.
  • Get government out of the business of being in business. There is no reason for Metro, the Portland area regional government, to be running the Zoo, Convention Center, Expo Center, and solid waste management. There is no reason for the City of Portland to also be the water company. We hate monopolies in the private sector and we shouldn’t tolerate them in the public sector.

The chaos of the first weeks of 2021 makes it difficult to be hopeful. But 95% of the year is still ahead of us. It’s not too late for some dreams to come true in the Year of Wishful Thinking.

Eric Fruits is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Oregon ratepayers need relief. Ending the Public Purpose Charge can help-cm

Oregon ratepayers need relief. Ending the Public Purpose Charge can help.

By Rachel Dawson

As government-imposed shutdowns continue, more Oregonians are struggling to pay their electricity bills. Portland General Electric reported in June that arrears (when payment is 31 days past due or more) were up 41% compared to the same time last year. Economic hardship likely will persist for many people long after the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed.

It’s clear that Oregon ratepayers need relief. One way for legislators to provide such relief would be to eliminate the Public Purpose Charge (PPC) energy tax, or to allow Oregonians to opt out of it.

This 3% tax has been paid by PGE and PacifiCorp ratepayers since 2002. It was originally intended to last 10 years to help fund energy conservation and to subsidize the renewable energy industry until it became market competitive. The PPC has since been extended to 2026.

A recent Cascade Policy Institute report found the PPC’s ten-year mission has been met and recommends the tax should not be further extended. Just as intended, the most cost-effective programs were completed in the early years of the tax, leading to a 73% increase in costs per unit of energy saved. The cost of installing solar has decreased 76% between 1999 and 2019. Thus, it appears the solar industry no longer needs PPC subsidies to be market competitive.

Ending the PPC is long overdue. And doing this during a recession would be a great way to immediately aid many struggling Oregonians.

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

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Who Will Pay the Bills When the Pandemic Ends?

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

This week, the U.K. became the first western nation to vaccinate its residents against COVID-19. The recipient, a 91-year-old retired shop clerk, voiced relief, “I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year.” Despite the fanfare greeting the vaccine rollout, authorities warned that the vaccination campaign would take many months. They warned the tough restrictions that have rattled daily life and cratered the economy are likely to go on into spring.

While many of us dream the vaccine will bring a return to normal life, for many people post-pandemic life will be a nightmare. The end of pauses, freezes, shutdowns, and lockdowns will mean the end of moratoriums on housing evictions, utility shutoffs, and student loan payments. During COVID-19, millions of Americans have racked up thousands—maybe tens of thousands—of dollars in unpaid rent, utilities, and student loans. For example, information presented to the Oregon Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors estimates unpaid rent in the state is between $250 million and $300 million. When the emergency ends, those bills will come due.

Elected officials have put themselves in an impossible position. If they allow masses of evictions and utility shutoffs, they will face torches and pitchforks from their constituents. If they try to pass laws wiping out the debt, they will face a revolt from some of their biggest donors. And, even worse, they will face years of constitutional challenges.

Both the U.S. and the Oregon constitutions forbid any laws “impairing the obligation of contracts.” Rental agreements are contracts. So are arrangements with utilities and student loan providers. Neither the federal government nor state or local governments can simply “wipe out” the payment provisions of these contracts. Our politicians are in a bind, but it gets even worse.

One way to work around the constitutions’ contracts clauses would be to establish a voluntary program of debt forgiveness. But for a program to be truly voluntary, the state must provide a compelling incentive for debt holders to forgive the debt.

An option promoted by Rep. Jule Fahey (D-Eugene) would provide state grants to certain property owners who forgive 80 percent or more of their tenants’ past due rent. It has been reported the proposed legislation would set aside $100 million for grants to renters and property owners. On the one hand, $100 million is a lot of taxpayer money. On the other hand, $100 million is less than half the total amount of unpaid rent in the state.

If such a fund is established, it will be an admission that the governor’s emergency orders have caused enormous damage to households and businesses. If the state is willing to admit it’s caused at least $100 million in damage to rental properties, how much damage has it done to restaurants, bars, retailers, manufacturers, nonprofits, and families?

In September, Portland attorney John DiLorenzo sent a letter to Governor Kate Brown demanding the state compensate several businesses for losses associated with her pandemic-related executive orders. Under Oregon law people are “entitled to reasonable compensation from the state” if their property is “taken” under the emergency powers Brown invoked to shut down most of the state. According to DiLorenzo, “What’s happened here is the governor has basically destroyed property for the purpose of furthering the policy behind the executive order.” Rep. Fahey’s draft bill would be the first piece of legislation to attach a dollar figure to the value that has been taken as a result of the executive orders.

It’s easy for politicians and policy makers to mindlessly remind us, “We’re all in this together.” But, too often they face no meaningful consequences for their decisions that affect millions of people. Oregon’s law requiring reasonable compensation for property taken under the governor’s emergency orders was designed to impose a consequence on the government. If the government has to pay a price for its emergency orders, then the government is more likely to make decisions that account for the costs it imposes on everyone else.

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 Legislators should throw restaurants and bars a lifeline by legalizing “cocktails to-go”-cm

Oregon Legislators should throw restaurants and bars a lifeline by legalizing “cocktails to-go”

By Rachel Dawson

Do you want to enjoy a drink but don’t feel safe sitting in a bar?

If you live in one of the many states that have allowed “cocktails to-go” since the beginning of the pandemic (including our neighbors in California, Washington, and Idaho), you’re in luck! Oregon restaurants and bars, however, aren’t so fortunate, as our state legislators have thus far failed to similarly update our liquor laws.

In Oregon, restaurants may sell beer, cider, and wine for delivery and take-out orders; and distilleries can sell bottled liquor and cocktail-kits to-go. However, bars and restaurants are barred from selling pre-mixed, to-go cocktails in closed containers for offsite consumption.

Oregon lags behind other states across the nation in this regard. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, at least 33 states have allowed cocktails to-go. Florida and Mississippi authorized the sale of to-go cocktails on a limited basis before the pandemic began. While Texas restaurants can deliver coolers full of jello shots, Oregon restaurants can’t even include tequila with orders for margarita mix.

Restaurant and bar owners across the state have asserted cocktails to-go sales would be a lifeline for them, given that on-site capacity remains limited and many Oregonians are dining at home. In desperation, the Botanist House, a Portland restaurant, threatened to sell cocktails to-go in defiance of the law. In a public letter, the owner, Matt Davidson, explained his reasoning:

“The COVID-19 Pandemic has simplified our business priorities down to a single word, survival. Our protest is not about increasing our top line revenue, driving more dollars to the bottom line, or expanding our market share. It is simply about doing what 70% of the country is already doing to help struggling businesses survive.”

Ultimately, the protest never took place due to the possibility of a resolution in an anticipated emergency session of the Oregon legislature. State Representative Rob Nosse from the Southeast Portland area has drafted a bill legalizing the sale of to-go mixed drinks. Rep. Nosse’s bill would limit orders to two cocktails and require that cocktails be sealed and purchased in conjunction with food.

Those opposed to a change in legislation argue that this bill could harm people recovering from alcohol abuse and who are susceptible to relapse, or that it could lead to drinking and driving. Rep. Nosse responded that, if this is a concern, “why do we allow people to buy beer at Plaid Pantry and screw-top wine?” Further, 72% of Oregon adults said they would support a proposal allowing cocktails to-go, according to a survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association.

Although many states are allowing cocktails to-go temporarily through emergency orders, some—like Iowa—are taking steps to make them permanent. Iowa’s governor signed a bill legalizing cocktails to-go after it passed through the House with unanimous support back in June.

Oregonians are capable of safely enjoying cocktails to-go with their take-out orders even after pandemic restrictions are eased and restaurants open back up to full capacity. Oregon legislators can learn from Iowa and come together during the next session to pass a bill that will allow restaurants and bars to sell cocktails to-go for both immediate relief of their businesses and their patrons’ future enjoyment.

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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What is Going On Cases Rise and Oregon Schools Open-cm

What is Going On? Cases Rise and Oregon Schools Open

By Helen Doran

“What is going on?” That’s what many Oregon parents are asking as their kids struggle with online learning, all while public officials flip-flop on education policies during a wave of COVID-19 cases.

On October 30th, Governor Kate Brown added to the mayhem. On the same day the state announced a record breaking number of cases, the governor rolled out relaxed safety standards for reopening Oregon elementary schools. Since then, the case count has climbed higher by the day.

The Oregon Department of Education explained that the change in direction was because the benefit of in-person education outweighed the risk of spreading the disease. But why was this announced when cases are at an all time high…after two months of distance learning?

The governor’s relaxed standards at a time when cases are trending dramatically in the wrong direction is a cognitive dissonance for exhausted parents who have been told that keeping their kids behind a laptop was for the greater good.  Students and families can’t afford to ride the ODE’s wave of ever-changing priorities and promises. A money-back guarantee would be a lifeline for students struggling in the public school system and needing a solution urgently. Oregon needs to make school choice a priority during the 2021 legislative session. Children’s futures depend on it.

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

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Achieving Equity: Oregon Students Deserve a Money-Back Guarantee

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

On September 21, 2020, Oregon’s Senate heard policy proposals to advance equity in education. Senators seeking the quickest and most effective way to achieve equity during this pandemic should flip the state’s funding model. Instead of funding the public school system, the state should support students directly by providing each student as much as $10,500 from the State School Fund.

My fifth grader in Portland Public Schools just got his daily COVID-19 class schedule, and there’s a lot of alone time. On a typical day, he meets with his classroom teacher over Zoom for 75 minutes over the 6.25 hour day. There’s a half-hour “morning meeting,” 30 minutes to go over language arts and social studies, and 15 minutes to discuss math. Nearly three-quarters of the time he’s “in school” he’s actually watching videos posted by his teacher or working on his own.

Governor Kate Brown and the school system frequently remind us, “We’re all in this together.” But, if you talk to parents and kids, many feel like they’re all on their own. On their own to find space for their kids to work. On their own to buy the laptops, printers, webcams, microphones, and headphones to support “online learning.” On their own to pay their broadband providers to supply enough bandwidth to support multiple people video conferencing at the same time. On their own to balance their jobs or job hunts with the school’s Zoom-on, Zoom-off daily schedule.

When our politicians and policymakers say, “We’re all in this together,” what they’re really saying is, “Tighten your belt and toughen up.” For example, when parents tried to enroll their children in online charter schools with a long history of distance learning, the Oregon Education Association lobbied against lifting an enrollment cap. The union argued even a modest lifting of the cap would deny funding to public school districts. To them, our kids are just numbers fed into a formula that funds the system. Rather than working with existing money, they are demanding even more spending on the public school system.

Elizabeth Thiel, the president of Portland’s teachers’ union, says in order for schools to re-open to students, federal and state taxpayers must fund more “investments” in overhauling school ventilation systems, buying personal protective equipment for teachers, and “doubling or more” the number of teachers to allow small group instruction.

On average, Oregon school districts receive about $10,500 per student from the State School Fund. If students aren’t getting instruction from their public schools, they should get that money back to receive instruction elsewhere. States like Oklahoma and South Carolina have already taken advantage of similar ideas by reallocating much of their federal stimulus dollars directly to families to help them adapt to this school year.

Instead of waiting for DC to deliver more federal money, Oregon must put families first by allowing education dollars to follow children to the school that works best for them—whether that’s a traditional district-​run public school, charter school, private school, home school, or learning “pod.”

Think of it as a money-back guarantee. If the public school isn’t working for your kids or your family, you should have a right to take that money and spend it where it works with your child’s needs and your family’s schedule. If enough students leave the public system, the smaller class sizes demanded by Ms. Thiel can be achieved without doubling the number of teachers on the public payroll.

Direct funding of students reduces inequities in school systems because it allows all students to have access to education alternatives. Almost 60% of public charter school students in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic. Imagine what these families could do with as much as $10,500 per student to spend on educational expenses. If equity is the goal, school choice through direct funding is the surest and quickest path.

If your local grocery store doesn’t re-open or can’t keep its shelves stocked, families can take their money elsewhere. So why are families locked into schools that don’t fit their needs? Let’s give a money-back guarantee to every student and their struggling families. Education funding is intended to help children learn, not to entrench the education establishment.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He can be reached at eric@cascadepolicy.org.

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Oregon Students Deserve Stability

By Helen Doran

Oregon guidelines for the 2020 fall semester have been remarkably inconsistent, causing confusion and mayhem for faculty, parents, and students alike. The Oregon Department of Education recently released new guidelines that allow students with special needs to have limited in-person instruction but with reduced hours and class size. This includes students with disabilities, English language learners, and those enrolled in career technical education (CTE) programs.

But even these guidelines are dependent on the absence of Covid-19 cases among staff and students for two weeks. This doesn’t guarantee a stable learning environment for students that need stability the most.

The guidelines also fail to explicitly address those affected by the decision to continue virtual learning in the fall. What happens to the student experiencing homelessness who has no access to a hotspot? What about the single mother who has to choose between keeping a job and staying at home with her child?

It’s time to face the reality that Oregon’s public school system cannot guarantee a “one-size-fits-all” solution for students this fall. A money-back guarantee for K-12 education would go a long way in empowering parents to find the stability they need in uncertain times.

Every parent and every child find themselves uniquely affected by the pandemic. They deserve unique solutions too. Let’s put the money in the hands of the parents, not the system.

Helen Doran is a Program Assistant at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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COVID-19 is limiting classroom access; it’s time to stop limiting Oregon’s online charter school enrollment

By Cooper Conway

The Oregon Education Association (OEA) recently penned a letter to legislators urging them to maintain a strict limit on the number of children who may transfer to online charter schools. A 2011 Oregon law caps the number of students allowed to transfer to an online charter school at 3 percent of local district enrollment. The union argues that the cap was generous because only 1 percent of students were actively looking to switch at the time the cap was set.

However, that was 2011. We are now living in 2020, during a worldwide pandemic in which learning in person is impossible for most children.

Parents of more than 300 Oregon students recognized this new reality and completed paperwork to transfer their children to an online charter school soon after Governor Kate Brown suspended in-person classes on March 16. In addition to those 300 students, thousands more looked to transfer to one of Oregon’s 22 online learning programs after the shutdown of brick-and-mortar schools. Instead of receiving a quality education in a setting that embodies social distancing, Oregon’s Department of Education stepped in on behalf of teachers’ unions and denied the transfers of any more students looking to continue full-time learning.

Nevertheless, the OEA claims raising the cap by as little as one-half of one percent would be too much. The union argues the state’s Department of Education and local Education Service Districts are currently working to provide a better, hybrid program for students during COVID-19. In contrast, nearly two dozen online charter schools have had distance learning curricula in place for years.

Encouraging the switch to charter schools is more bang for the Oregon taxpayer’s buck, too. Charter schools historically operate with 80 to 95% of what public schools receive from the state school fund. The money saved by districts from the transfer of students to charter schools could help their budgets across the state—all while empowering students to get an education in the setting of their choice.

The union’s forceful defense of the 3% cap raises a key question: Why is there a cap at all? Such an arbitrarily low cap forces charters to rely on admission lotteries, turning education into a game of chance. In no other setting in America does this happen. For example, 41 million Americans have applied for unemployment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The government is not allowed to put a 3% cap on the number of citizens claiming unemployment, so why is the Oregon state government allowed to take away students’ choice to attend an online charter school?

The government school bureaucracy can’t parent a child better than the child’s parents do. Parents should choose where their children attend school—not politicians, not bureaucrats, and certainly not a union.

Moving forward, Oregon legislators not only should raise the charter school enrollment cap, but they should get rid of it entirely. A child’s education is not something that should be politicized.

Cooper Conway is a Research Associate 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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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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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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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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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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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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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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