Month: February 2018

TriMet Shows That Public Pension Reform Is Possible

By Scott Shepard and John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon Legislature is currently meeting, and the conventional wisdom is that reform of Oregon’s overly generous Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is impossible. According to Governor Kate Brown, we signed contracts with public employee unions, a deal is a deal, and we should just quietly accept our fate that the massive cost of PERS will lead to layoffs and service cuts at schools and other service providers.

There is another way.

The Portland regional transit district, TriMet, is not part of PERS and has been slowly reforming its pension program since 2002. As a result, 100% of all new employees are now in 401(k)-style pensions that have no long-term liabilities for employers. These are referred to as “defined-contribution” (DC) pensions in which monthly payments are made by management into personal accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. The eventual pension payouts will be a function of the market performance of whatever investments are chosen by individual employees.

This stands in contrast to “defined benefit” (DB) programs like PERS in which employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management mostly clueless about the level of funding obligation they’ve agreed to. In many cases, those liabilities turn out to be much larger than expected.

The advantages for taxpayers of moving public employees into DC pensions is now evident in the actuarial valuations done for TriMet. According to the most recent valuation, projected annual benefit payments for TriMet DB pensions will peak in 2034 at $74.6 million, and then steadily decline to $6 million in 2072. They will hit zero by the turn of the century.

This was not something that TriMet did casually. Management was forced into it because of decisions made a decade earlier that caused long-term retiree obligations to explode. TriMet Board members are appointed by the governor. In the early 1990s, Governor Barbara Roberts and TriMet General Manager Tom Walsh wanted public approval of a massive expansion of TriMet’s light rail empire and the tax funding to pay for it. They feared that controversy about a union contract could endanger public support.

In their efforts to avoid strife, in 1994 they granted expensive concessions to the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 (“the ATU”) on behalf of its represented employees. Loren L. Wyss, the long-serving president of TriMet, objected and his battle with Walsh became public. In back-channel communications with Gov. Roberts, Walsh made it clear that either he or Wyss needed to go. In August 1994, Wyss met with Gov. Roberts, where he submitted his resignation.

As later explained in The Oregonian,

“…the contract just approved by Tri-Met union employees will protect all its members from additional contributions to their pensions for 10 years. It will also guarantee 3 percent minimum wage increases in the future…every single dollar of health, welfare, dental and vision plans will be paid for by the public employer; [and] the retirement age will decline to 58 within 10 years….”

The die was set for cost escalation. In the decade from 1994 to 2004, salaries and wages increased 72 percent; annual pension costs went up 160 percent; and the cost of health care benefits rose 116 percent. These increases plus stagnant revenues in the latter half of the period resulted in a tripling of unfunded pension liabilities, from $38 million in 1993 to $112.4 million in 2002.

Fred Hansen followed Tom Walsh as General Manger; and he moved new, non-union hires into DC pensions after 2002. This was a first step towards fiscal sanity. Resistance from the ATU kept TriMet from moving its new unionized workers to DC plans for another decade, by which time a citizens’ committee of Portlanders had issued a report declaring TriMet “on the brink” of disaster.

During a protracted negotiation with the union in 2012, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel testified at a binding arbitration hearing,

“TriMet’s union defined benefit plan would be placed on critical status and under federal oversight if it were a private pension plan subject to ERISA.” She also stated that unless something was done to shore up the plan, “TriMet could be forced to default on its pension obligations or its other financial obligations in the future.”

Union leadership eventually agreed to move all new members to DC pensions by 2013, while protecting existing members from reform. As a result of this delay, the union workers’ DB fund remained only 59 percent funded in 2013.

Nevertheless, the trends were now moving in the right direction. The number of active employees still accruing DB pension benefits fell from 1,580 to 1,460 from 2016 to 2017 alone. In 2017 the unionized workers’ DB account reached nearly 80 percent funding, with unfunded liability falling by nearly $50 million in a single year.

Neil McFarlane was TriMet General Manager during that era. He commented recently, “The shift [to DC pensions] has been a success. TriMet is paying more than the required annual contribution every year right now” because the system is closed. “We will be fully funded within the next few years: five to ten for the union plan, fewer for the non-union.”

The DC plan to which TriMet moved new workers has been recognized as one of the best in the country. It features low costs, high returns, and a guaranteed employer contribution that is paid irrespective of employee matching contributions. As a DC plan it does not create open-ended, unpredictable public liabilities to be paid by generations as yet unborn.

TriMet has not fully banished the ghosts of unsustainable employee-benefit promises past. It still faces a massive and escalating unfunded liability driven by health care costs, known in accounting jargon as “other post-employment benefits,” or OPEB. The health care benefits that TriMet granted away in the 1994 contract debacle have been described as “universal health care into the afterlife.”

The description is only a minor exaggeration, as the plan offered TriMet’s unionized employees health care without premiums and with mere $5 co-pays, and benefits that ran not only throughout retirement, but to the employees’ spouses and dependents for fully 16 years after the employees’ deaths. Total unfunded liability for OPEBs reached an astonishing $769 million dollars in 2016.

Compare: State Paralysis on PERS 

TriMet’s pension reform efforts offer a valuable guide to the Oregon legislature on how to contain and reverse the spiraling PERS disaster. The unfunded liabilities for PERS have grown from $16 billion to more than $25 billion in less than ten years, even with the far-too-optimistic 7.2 percent assumed-savings rate (i.e., discount rate) in place. Were the rate adjusted down to its actuarially appropriate level, PERS’ unfunded liability would explode to $50 billion or more at a stroke.

Even at the current recognized rate, funding status has fallen below 70 percent, even while mandatory payments to PERS by government employers have passed 26 percent of payroll.

Municipalities are laying off workers, depleting public services, and raising fees in order to fund the present level of recognized PERS unfunded liabilities. Some reduction in pension benefits will have to happen, one way or another. All parties will benefit from an orderly effort to reform benefits while there is still time. 

The Way Forward

The state should follow the tracks laid by TriMet by moving its employees from DB to DC plans as soon as possible. As TriMet has demonstrated, this move will begin to stanch the fiscal wounds that have been inflicted by a generation of recklessly overgenerous pension benefit promises.

Unfortunately for everyone, PERS reform has been hamstrung for more than 20 years by a wayward state Supreme Court, which has thwarted previous attempts at thoughtful change with erroneous interpretations of the federal Contract Clause. The legislature will be obliged to make bigger changes than would have been required years ago. It will have to move all current workers, whenever they were hired, to DC plans for all work performed after the date of the effective legislation.

While this reform will be significant, it also will be deeply equitable. Right now, older workers are receiving higher benefits for each hour worked than ever will be available to younger workers. This isn’t fair, and it may violate civil rights laws: Younger workers are more diverse than their older peers, which means that benefit reductions that affect only new workers have a disparate impact on women and minorities.

The reform will also pass constitutional muster. As the Oregon Supreme Court finally recognized in its Moro decision, correcting its long-held error, the legislature may change any benefits for work not yet performed, even for current employees.

The Oregon Legislature can and must follow TriMet’s example. The sooner this is done, the less drastic any later steps will be. According to TriMet General Manager McFarlane, solving a pension crisis “doesn’t get any easier with passing time.”

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market research center. Scott Shepard is a lawyer and was a visiting law professor at Willamette University during 2016. This essay is a summary of a case study of TriMet’s pension reform written by Mr. Shepard for Cascade Policy Institute. The full report is available here. This essay was originally published in the February 2018 edition of the newsletter “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change,” a project of Third Century Solutions.

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Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Pensions a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health

By Scott Shepard

Scott Shepard is a lawyer and was a visiting law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon during 2016. He is the author of “A Lost Generation but Renewed Hope: Oregon’s Pension Crisis and the Road to Reform,” an academic study on Oregon state pensions published August 1, 2017 by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is an Academic Advisor to Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research center.

Introduction 

As recently as 2012, TriMet faced a pension funding disaster. Indefensibly overgenerous pension benefits granted in the early 1990s threatened to bankrupt the public transit system and to cripple the Portland metro area. While TriMet still has difficult reform ahead of it (regarding its other post-employment benefits promises), it has achieved pension fund stability by replacing its unsustainable defined-benefit pension promises with a well-designed, defined-contribution retirement plan.

“Defined-contribution” (DC) pensions are retirement benefit plans in which monthly payments are made by management into personal accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. The eventual pension payouts will be a function of the market performance of whatever investments are chosen by individual employees.

This stands in contrast to “defined-benefit” (DB) programs like Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). Under DB programs, employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management mostly uninformed as to the level of funding obligation to which they have agreed. In many cases, those liabilities turn out to be much larger than expected. 

TriMet has brought its pension funding liabilities under control by moving its employees from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans: first its management employees hired after 2002, then its unionized employees hired after 2012. The shift followed the lead of most private sector businesses, the federal government, and an increasing number of states. As a result of the change, TriMet’s pension obligations are moving steadily and reliably toward full funding within the near to medium term. This glide path to full funding is allowing the organization to focus on other vital personnel issues such as managing the cost of other post-employment benefits (“OPEBs,” which are primarily health care benefits for unionized workers) for current workers and retirees.

Oregon and its municipalities can only envy TriMet in this regard. The defined-benefit PERS funding costs continue to spiral out of control. These unbridled expenses are crushing local governments and school districts, forcing layoffs, hiring and wage freezes, bigger class sizes, reduced government services, and increased taxes. The failure to reform harms younger and more diverse workers at the expense of their older colleagues, and private-industry workers in favor of their government-employee neighbors. Taxpayers have said “enough,” voting 60-40 in 2016 against significant state tax hikes that inevitably would have been dedicated to helping to fund the PERS shortfall.

One necessary step toward addressing this problem is for the state of Oregon to follow in TriMet’s tracks, moving PERS workers from DB to DC plans. TriMet started down this road fully 15 years ago, while the state has dithered. Oregon must play catch-up by moving all PERS-covered workers to DC plans for work to be performed after the changeover.

This move by itself likely will not be enough to solve Oregon’s public pension crisis. The state has already promised more than it can reasonably pay. But moving to DC plans for all work not yet performed is a necessary first step. And the faster the legislature acts, the less severe—and the less upsetting to retirees and current and future employees—will be the other reforms required later.

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TriMet Needs a Broader Definition of Diversity

By John A. Charles, Jr.

TriMet has been recruiting a new General Manager for the past six months. At its January meeting, the Board announced the name of the leading contender and offered the public a chance to ask questions.

Before the questioning began, however, an executive search firm hired by TriMet summarized the recruiting process. Celia Kupersmith of KL2 Connects said that more than three dozen applications had been vetted, and a significant number of them were women or racial minorities. A black woman was one of three finalists.

However, the top applicant was Doug Kelsey, a white male currently employed by TriMet.

Many activists in the audience criticized the process. They complained that TriMet had proceeded too quickly and with not enough transparency. In particular, they were upset that virtually all applicants requested privacy in order to protect the jobs they already had. Soon thereafter, the TriMet Board announced that it would delay a final hiring decision while it reassessed its process.

Many of TriMet’s critics have a naïve view of the business world, and it shows in the self-contradictory nature of their demands. They want a deep pool of talent, rich with ethnic and gender diversity, but they also want a very public process. The two goals are mutually exclusive. Complete transparency means most qualified candidates will not apply.

They also have a narrow concept of “diversity.” Race and gender are just two attributes the Board should consider. What about intellectual diversity?

TriMet has been working off the same philosophical playbook for over 35 years. The focus has always been two-fold: (1) building a network of low-speed, low-capacity light rail lines; and (2) maintaining “labor peace” by agreeing to wage agreements that include expensive retiree benefits. That vision is looking very stale these days.

TriMet’s ridership is in a steady decline. It peaked in fiscal year 2012 and ridership has dropped in each of the last three years. Only 2.4% of total travel in the Portland region takes place on transit, making it irrelevant or even a nuisance to most taxpayers.

Light rail has lower ridership today than before the Orange line to Milwaukie was built. During FY 2017, boarding rides per-hour on MAX reached the lowest level since light rail opened in 1986.

TriMet’s financial position would be unsustainable were it not for massive and growing subsidies. During the past two decades, TriMet has promised so much to employees in the form of pensions and post-employment health care benefits that the agency now has unfunded liabilities of nearly $1 billion.

At the TriMet hearing in January, I asked Mr. Kelsey whether he saw any possibility that TriMet’s next light rail project—a multi-billion line to Bridgeport Village—might be canceled under his leadership, given the problems stated above. He responded that light rail was still a very important part of TriMet’s planning and he was not about to abandon it.

That answer concerned me because TriMet seems wedded to an outdated business model. Both in Portland and elsewhere, ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft are steadily eroding the market share of both regulated taxis and transit operators. This trend will only accelerate as autonomous vehicles become a reality.

Over the next 20 years, shared driverless cars likely will revolutionize the transit industry. Capital-intensive light rail and streetcar systems will face rising costs with declining ridership, creating a fiscal death spiral.

TriMet and its executive search consultants have done a commendable job of recruiting a diverse field of CEO candidates when measured by race and gender. What is lacking is a broader concept of “diversity” to include new ways of thinking about transit.

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 originally appeared in The Portland Tribune.

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Four Strikes and You’re Still Out: Oregon’s Ongoing Quest to Centralize Education Policy

By Steve Buckstein 

In 2015 Oregon state government killed off what should have been the last of three big education reform efforts since 1991. Each promised to solve the unsolvable: namely, figuring out how a one-size-fits-all public Kindergarten-through-high-school virtual monopoly system could educate all Oregon students and launch them onto a lifelong path of educational and career success.

First came the Education Act for the Twenty-First Century in 1991. With its Certificates of Initial and Advanced Mastery (CIM and CAM), it aimed to produce “the best educated citizens in the nation by the year 2000 and a work force equal to any in the world by the year 2010.” After it failed, the Quality Education Model arose in 1999 and is still limping along primarily to justify arguments for spending billions of additional taxpayer dollars to achieve the successes no such plan can deliver.

In 2012 Oregon made its third big reform effort. The Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB), headed by its creator, Governor John Kitzhaber, promised to centralize education policy more than either of the two big reform efforts it followed. Kitzhaber concluded that those previous reforms simply didn’t control a broad enough swath of the education spectrum to work. Kindergarten through 12th grade simply wasn’t a grand enough vision. So, his OEIB effort sought to control everything from pre-Kindergarten through graduate school. But by 2015, “…the ease with which lawmakers…agreed to dismantle it reflects the widely shared view that the board did more wrong than right in its three-plus years of operation.…” This would have been the perfect time to adopt the “three strikes and you’re out” concept for Oregon’s education policy efforts.

The fatal flaw in all these reform efforts was that they relied on “smart” people centralizing control over educational policy and decision making. As I discussed in “Forced Participation: Public Education’s Fatal Flaw” and “The Oregon Education Investment Board: Top Down on Steroids,” centralizing control over education policy and forcing students to attend schools chosen for them by others are destined to fail because they fly in the face of one of America’s most cherished values: choice. Parents don’t appreciate politicians, bureaucrats, or experts making decisions for them about what is best for their children. Advise? Sure. Command? No way.

Today, rather than call a halt to this inevitable string of big reform failures, the Oregon legislature is embarking on what may turn into a fourth “impossible mission” to achieve student success in our public school system. Members of the Joint Committee on Student Success will spend this year traveling around the state asking everyone they meet what constitutes success in their communities. They will then return to the marble halls of the State Capitol and recommend that every school be mandated to do “what works” somewhere—of course, at a higher cost to taxpayers than they are paying today.

Rather than wait years to judge this latest big reform a failure, it is time to try another path: the school choice path. Of source, school choice is in conflict with the command-and-control efforts that are central to the big reform efforts Oregon has tried since 1991.

Instead, the school choice path allows students and their families to chose where and how they get the educational opportunities that our advanced society is now capable of providing. No longer would students be required to attend schools based on their ZIP codes. No longer would the tax dollars Oregonians pay to educate students be spent only in schools built by local governments and populated by public employees.

The school choice path recognizes that different children learn in different ways. They learn at different paces, too. And, they no longer need to be assigned to one brick building for years and years, only to be moved by the system into another building when they reach a certain age or grade level.

Today, most families, even low-income families, have the tools they need to explore the many educational options available for their children. They want to pick and choose from a wide assortment of options: from traditional neighborhood schools, to public charter schools, to private schools, to online learning, to home schooling.

The school choice path is being carved out in other states much faster than it is here in Oregon. The latest and most versatile school choice programs being enacted elsewhere are Education Savings Accounts. Unlike vouchers, which only let parents pay for private school tuition, ESA funds may also be used for other approved educational expenses, such as online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, and other customized learning services and materials.

Also, while voucher funds all go to private school tuition or are lost to the families, funds remaining in ESA accounts each year may be “rolled over” for use in subsequent years, even into college. This creates incentives for families to “shop” for the best educational experiences at the lowest cost, as well as incentives for schools and educational programs to price their services as low as possible.

On the school choice path, if a school fails students it doesn’t get more money, it gets less as students leave and take their allocated money with them to other schools. This is the path that finally will put students first.

Before Oregon’s fourth education reform strike inevitably fails and takes a further toll on students and taxpayers, let’s decide to take another path—the school choice path.

(This Commentary is an update of a 2012 Commentary, “Three Strikes and You’re Out: Replacing Top-Down Education Control with School Choice.”)

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Oregon Can Help Young Oregonians Be “Future Ready” by Reducing Red Tape

By Kathryn Hickok

Governor Kate Brown opened this month’s legislative session with her State of the State speech February 5. She focused on the need for better education and workforce training for young Oregonians, so they can achieve the American Dream and raise families. To close the “skills gap” between workers and employment opportunities, she proposed a new job-training initiative called “Future Ready Oregon.” 

The governor’s vision is laudable, but what young Oregonians need most isn’t another state program. What often stands between young workers and moderate-income jobs is government red tape in the form of burdensome occupational licensing requirements and fees that can be significant barriers to entry. 

According to the Institute for Justice, “[l]icensing laws now guard entry into hundreds of occupations, including jobs that offer upward mobility to those of modest means….” In fact, Oregon ranks 8th in the nation in the number and expense of regulatory burdens and restricts numerous occupations licensed in few other states, such as farm labor contractors, bartenders, and locksmiths. 

Oregon could make it easier for job-seekers by reducing license and fee requirements for jobs that have little or no impact on public safety and by replacing some occupational licenses with less restrictive credentialing options. Reducing government red tape that stands between Oregonians and the jobs and training they need to climb the economic ladder would truly help young adults become “future ready.”

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Climate Change Alarmists Can’t Get Their Story Straight

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Relying on computer models to predict the future has always been risky. Now we know it’s the basis of climate change securities fraud as well. 

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) recently wrote the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that several California cities have claimed in lawsuits against oil and gas companies that those companies failed to disclose known climate risks associated with fossil fuel use. Yet those same cities have made bond offerings in which they tell potential investors that it is impossible to predict future risks of climate change. 

For example, San Francisco predicts in its lawsuit against the oil industry that it will be subjected to as much as 0.8 feet of additional sea level rise by 2030, with short-term costs of $500 million and long-term costs of $5 billion. Yet the City tells potential bond investors, “The City is unable to predict whether seal-level rise will occur.” 

The County of Santa Cruz claims in its fossil fuel lawsuit that there is “a 98% chance that the County experiences a devastating three-foot flood before the year 2050.” Meanwhile, in efforts to sell its own municipal bonds, the County reassures investors that it is unable to predict such floods. 

This confirms what has long been suspected: Climate change alarmists just make stuff up to scare the public.

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

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If Health Care Becomes a “Fundamental Right,” Who Pays for It?

By Steve Buckstein

The Oregon House of Representatives has voted for HJR 203, which would add a section to the Oregon Constitution making health care a “fundamental right.” If passed by the Senate, voters will be asked in November to put this language in our Constitution:

“It is the obligation of the state to ensure that every resident of Oregon has access to cost-effective, medically appropriate and affordable health care as a fundamental right.” 

I object to defining health care as a right on a philosophical level, because in America rights don’t come from government; government protects our natural or God-given rights. But on a political level, I understand that government tries to grant such rights all the time.

A key argument against this proposal is the recognition that a “fundamental right” to health care would seem to trump everything else, since the Oregon Constitution doesn’t currently recognize any other “fundamental rights.” If the legislature tries to make good on this “fundamental right,” what happens when voters reject the new taxes needed to pay for it?

The unintended consequences of codifying health care as a “fundamental right” are almost endless. But that’s the way the game is played for now, and the next inning will play out in the Oregon Senate before the end of this short legislative session.

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Why Health Care Should Not Be Defined as a “Fundamental Right”

By Steve Buckstein

The Oregon House of Representatives has voted for HJR 203, which would add a section to the Oregon Constitution making health care a “fundamental right” of every Oregonian. If passed by the Senate, Oregon voters will be asked in November to put this language in our Constitution:

“It is the obligation of the state to ensure that every resident of Oregon has access to cost-effective, medically appropriate and affordable health care as a fundamental right.”

Cascade Policy Institute board member Michael Barton, Ph.D. and I testified in opposition to earlier versions of this legislation. Dr. Barton gave us a history and philosophy lesson, explaining how the American government was founded on the principle that government does not grant rights, it simply protects our inalienable rights such as those to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He explained that our rights define what we are free to do without interference; they are not goods or services that others must provide for us. He expounded on these concepts in his 2006 Cascade Commentary, “Right to Health Care Violates Individual Rights.”

While I object to defining health care as a right on a philosophical level, on a political level I understand that government tries to grant such positive rights all the time. In this case, passing this constitutional amendment will make some people feel good. It may say that we care deeply about the uninsured; but it only gives intellectual lip service, if that, to the matter of future costs.

More and more people will say, “I have a right to not care about the costs, because I have an unqualified right to health care.”

Define health care as a fundamental right, and cost control will go out the window. Witness Oregon’s public school system, where education is supposedly “free” and yet taxpayers are asked to pay more and more for little (if any) improvement in real quality. As in education, health care innovation will become mired in bureaucratic process.

And who will have the task of controlling the economics? Is the Oregon legislature going to assume responsibility for that? An elegantly composed commission? A superhuman future governor? Or do we assume private insurance companies will simply figure it out?

A key argument against this proposal is the recognition that a “fundamental right” to health care would seem to trump everything else in the Oregon Constitution. If the legislature comes up with a plan to make good on this “fundamental right,” what happens when voters reject the new taxes needed to pay for it?

Since neither education, transportation, criminal justice, nor any other state government service is defined as a “fundamental right” in our Constitution, then funding for these services might be cannibalized to fund the one “fundamental right” in that document, health care. But voters won’t be presented with this reality when marking their ballots in November. This potential clash of essential services may make for strange bedfellows in future election battles. Will the teachers union, for example, want to lose funding to the health care providers?

The unintended consequences of this proposal are almost endless. But that’s the way the game is played for now, and the next inning will play out in the Oregon Senate before the end of this short legislative session. Stay tuned….

(This article is an update on a legislative post, published here, regarding an earlier version of this legislation which was considered in 2008.)

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Testimony on HB 4001/SB 1507 Regarding Energy Rationing for Environmental Quality

Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

President & CEO, Cascade Policy Institute

 Regarding HB 4001/SB 1507

February 7, 2018

Members of the Committee: I have spent the last 45 years of my life promoting environmental quality. I began my career working for the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that was an early innovator in market-based mechanisms. From 1980 through 1996 I was CEO of Oregon Environmental Council, where I helped pass dozens of environmental laws. Since 1997 I have worked for Cascade Policy Institute, promoting concepts such as congestion pricing of roads.

If I thought that HB 4001 and SB 1507 could deliver significant pollution reductions at reasonable cost I would support them, but they will not. To summarize the problem in one sentence, the bills require Oregonians to pay a significant tax that will be certain, immediate, and local; for benefits that are speculative, long-term, and global.

This stands in sharp contrast to environmental policies such as drinking water regulations. Provision of safe drinking water does have a major cost, but the benefits are substantial and they accrue 100% to those who pay. Oregonians are quite willing to bear the expense of such programs because they demonstrably make us all better off. This will never be the case with carbon dioxide regulation.

Moreover, even assuming that reducing CO2 has some local benefit, the relevant trends are already moving in the right direction. According to the most recent legislative report from the Oregon Global Warming Commission, the “carbon intensity” of Oregon’s economy – that is, greenhouse gas emissions/unit of state GDP – dropped 64% from 1990 through 2015. This is a spectacular achievement, and it is driven almost entirely by market forces.

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency released its latest update of automobile emissions trends for carbon dioxide. The report shows that CO2 emissions per mile for all motor vehicles sold in 2017 were the lowest since the agency began collecting data in 1975.

For truck SUVs, the reduction since 1975 was 50%. For minivans it was 51%. For standard passenger cars it was 55%. Almost miraculously, automakers have produced the cleanest cars in history while also making them safer and more pleasant to drive than the 1975 models.

There is no crisis in Oregon regarding CO2 emissions. The trends are positive and long-term. This is a case where you should simply “do no harm” by staying out of the way.

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

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For Green Activists, the Cleanest Cars in History Are Bad News

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon Legislature convened again this week. A top priority for some officials is SB 1507,

which would create an energy rationing program that likely would increase the cost of gasoline to more than $7 dollars per gallon by 2035. This is being promoted as a means of reducing carbon dioxide, which some people think is a pollutant.

Coincidentally, the Environmental Protection Agency just released its latest update of automobile emissions trends for carbon dioxide. The report shows that CO2 emissions per mile for all motor vehicles sold in 2017 were the lowest since the agency began collecting data in 1975.

For truck SUVs, the reduction since 1975 was 50%. For minivans it was 51%. For standard passenger cars it was 55%. Almost miraculously, automakers have produced the cleanest cars in history while also making them much safer and more pleasant to drive than the 1975 models.

One would think that environmental advocates would be pleased with this success story, but good news is actually bad news for activists. They can only pass onerous legislation when everyone thinks we have a crisis.

We don’t have a crisis, and we don’t need this bill.

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

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