Author: Cascade Policy Institute

What’s Better for Low-Skilled Workers: Higher Minimum Wages or Lower Taxes?

By Kathryn Hickok

What’s better for welfare recipients and low-skilled workers: a higher minimum wage, or a larger Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)? David Neumark, director of the Economic Self-Sufficiency Policy Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine, explains in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal why the EITC benefits low-income single parents more over time than does a higher minimum wage.

The Earned Income Tax Credit is a tax benefit for low-to-moderate-income wage earners who have dependent children. By reducing the amount of taxes owed, the EITC lessens the impact of taxation on earned income when people enter the workforce, and therefore can provide a strong incentive to transition off public assistance.

“The minimum wage does, of course, provide an immediate boost to earnings of employed workers,” Neumark writes. “But evidence indicates that minimum wages reduce employment among young workers, costing them work experience that generates earnings growth in the long run. One of my recent studies shows that the shift to higher minimum wages since 2000 has contributed significantly to declines in employment among teens in school, which can reduce adult earnings later.”

“Because it promotes work,” he adds, “the EITC should do the opposite among those eligible for its most generous benefits—low-skilled single mothers….The evidence shows that exposure to a more generous EITC leads to markedly higher earnings in the long run among less-educated single mothers.”

Neumark recommends that if lawmakers want to pursue policies “that help turn government assistance…into economic self-sufficiency,” they should incentivize work. Rather than make it harder to enter the workforce, lawmakers should make it easier for working parents to keep more of the money they earn. They’ll not only take home more of their paychecks, but they’ll also increase the skills and experience that will raise their wages. That combination is a winning path out of poverty and government dependence for working parents and their children.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Amateur Hour at the State Land Board

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Oregon owns 1.5 million acres of School Trust Lands that must be managed for the benefit of public education. When profits are earned, the money goes into the Common School Fund, an endowment. Last year, the Fund distributed more than $70 million to local schools.

The Trust Lands are managed by the State Land Board, comprised of the Governor, the State Treasurer, and the Secretary of State. By policy, they are supposed to sell money-losing lands and keep the profitable ones.

Unfortunately, they tend to do the opposite. At its April meeting, the Board voted to sell a 3-acre industrial parcel in Washington County. There was no compelling reason to sell, as the property had an internal rate of return of 8% since it was purchased in 2012.

The state also owns 74,000 acres of timberland within the Elliott State Forest, near Coos Bay. Earnings on the Elliott have been spiraling downwards since the 1990s. In 2013, it finally started losing money and is expected to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. These losses take money directly out of public school classrooms.

In November 2016, the Board received an all-cash offer of $221 million dollars for the Elliott from a consortium of private landowners and tribal nations. That offer was rejected last year.

Students deserve professional management of their assets. They will never get it from the State Land Board because it’s made up of politicians. It’s time to amend the Oregon Constitution to remove trust land management from the Board’s jurisdiction.

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

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End PERS—For a Day!

By Steve Buckstein

Most Oregonians know that our state’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) is some $25 billion to $50 billion under water. Promises made to past and present government workers, primarily those hired before 1996, were simply way too generous for taxpayers and entities like school districts to afford.

A misreading of the so-called Contracts Clause in the U.S. Constitution by the Oregon Supreme Court has meant that once a government employee was hired in the state, the terms of his or her employment could not be altered, even for work done in the future.

One remedy for this situation might be to fire all public employees for a day, thus canceling their PERS contracts, and then hire them back the next day under new, less generous terms. If you think that’s a non-starter, something similar actually happened in Oregon before.

In 1953 the Oregon legislature passed a law ending the PERS system—for one day—so that the new system could include public employees in the (then) relatively young federal Social Security program. That one-day change was for the benefit of the workers. But it just might be a precedent to do something similar today for the benefit of taxpayers and public agencies. Let’s see who picks up this controversial ball and runs with it.

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

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TriMet Shows Pension Reform Is Possible

By Scott Shepard and John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon legislature recently adjourned its 2018 session and once again took no action to reduce the long-term financial obligations of the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System. Conventional wisdom in Salem is that significant pension reform is impossible, so we should just quietly accept our fate that the PERS crisis will lead to layoffs at public schools and other service providers.

The conventional wisdom is wrong.

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 percent 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” 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.

This stands in contrast to “defined-benefit” programs like PERS in which employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management clueless about the major level of funding obligation they’ve agreed to.

The advantages for taxpayers of moving public employees into defined-contribution pensions is now evident in the actuarial projections done for TriMet. According to the most recent valuation, estimated annual benefit payments for TriMet defined-benefit pensions will peak in 2034 at $74.6 million, then drop to $24 million in 2060 and $6 million by 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 in the 1990s that caused long-term retiree obligations to explode. The TriMet Board realized that changes were necessary and voted to move all new, non-union hires into defined-contribution pensions after 2002.

Resistance from the bargaining unit kept TriMet from moving its new unionized workers to defined-contribution plans for another decade, by which time a citizens’ committee 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 that unless changes were made, “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 defined-contribution pensions by 2013. As a result, the number of active employees still accruing defined-benefit pension benefits fell from 1,580 to 1,460 during 2016. Last year, the unionized workers’ defined-benefit account reached nearly 80 percent funding; and the long-term, unfunded pension liability dropped by nearly $50 million.

The defined-contribution 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.

TriMet’s pension reform offers 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.

Some reduction in PERS benefits will have to happen, and all parties will benefit from an orderly transition while there is still time. The state should emulate TriMet by moving its employees from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans as soon as possible.  However, 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 defined-contribution plans for all work performed after the date of the effective legislation.

The sooner this is done, the less painful later steps will be. As former TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane noted recently, 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 public policy research organization. Scott Shepard is a lawyer who recently authored a new case study of TriMet’s pension reform for Cascade Policy Institute. The study, “Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Pensions a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health,” is available here. A version of this article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune.

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In 9 Years, WES Hasn’t Decreased Westside Congestion

By John A. Charles, Jr.

February marked the nine-year anniversary of the Westside Express Service (WES), the commuter rail line that runs from Wilsonville to Beaverton. Sadly, there was little to celebrate.

A central problem is that WES never had a clear mission. At various times the train was promoted as: (1) a congestion relief tool for Highway 217; (2) a catalyst for so-called “Transit-Oriented Development;” or (3) a way of providing “another option” for travelers. None of these arguments has panned out.

During legislative hearings in Salem, representatives from Washington County claimed WES would take 5,000 motor vehicles per day off of nearby highways. But WES is not capable of that because it only runs eight times (each direction) in the morning, and eight times in the afternoon. Unlike traditional commuter trains pulling eight or nine passenger cars, WES travels only in one- or two-car configurations.

During its best hours of performance, the total number of passengers is less than 0.5% the number of motorists traveling on Highway 217/I-5 at those hours, so there has been no congestion relief.

Prior to WES, two TriMet bus lines provided more than 4,000 boardings per day in parallel routes. Commuter rail has replaced inexpensive bus service with a massively subsidized train. Taxpayers would be better served if we canceled WES and moved commuter rail customers back to buses.

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

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WES at 9: Time to Admit the Mistake

By John A. Charles, Jr.

February marked the nine-year anniversary of the Westside Express Service (WES), the 14.7-mile commuter rail line that runs from Wilsonville to Beaverton. Sadly, there was little to celebrate.

In the first few years of operation, ridership grew and it was at least plausible that WES eventually could become a productive transit line. However, average daily ridership peaked in 2014 at 1,964 daily boardings, then dropped in each successive year. During fiscal year 2018, WES ridership has averaged only 1,668 daily boardings.

A central problem is that WES never had a clear mission; it was always a project in search of a purpose. At various times the train was promoted as: (1) a congestion relief tool for Highway 217; (2) a catalyst for so-called “Transit-Oriented Development;” or (3) a way of providing “another option” for travelers. None of these arguments make sense.

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

During its best hours of performance, the total number of passengers traveling on WES is less than 0.5% the number of motorists traveling on Highway 217/I-5 at those same hours, so there has been no congestion relief.

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

WES has not been a catalyst for “transit-oriented development” and never will be because the train stations are a nuisance, not an amenity. The noise associated with train arrivals was always underestimated and is not likely to induce new residential construction.

As for the hope that WES would provide “another transit option,” there were already two TriMet bus lines providing over 4,000 boardings per day in parallel routes prior to the opening of WES. Commuter rail simply replaced inexpensive bus service with a massively subsidized train.

Several key statistics summarize the problems with the train:

  • WES was originally projected to cost $65 million and open in 2000. It actually cost $161.2 million and opened in 2009.
  • TriMet projected an average daily ridership of 2,500 weekday boardings in the first year; actual weekday ridership was 1,156. It grew over time to 1,964 in 2014, but dropped to 1,771 in 2016 and 1,668 in 2018. Since each rider typically boards twice daily, only about 850 people actually use WES regularly.
  • The WES operating cost/ride is roughly five times the cost of average TriMet bus service.

Ridership and Cost Trends for WES

2009-2018

(inflation adjusted, 2015 $)

2009 2010 2011 2012 2014 2016 2018 % Change since 2014
   
Avg. daily boardings 1,156 1,313 1,571 1,700 1,964 1,810 1,668 -15%
Operating cost per ride $27.41 $24.46 $20.43 $18.39 $15.85 $13.55 $16.73 +6%
Cost/

train-mile   

$54.70 $54.12 $53.30 $53.79 $51.12 $53.82 $60.56 +18%
Cost/

train hour

$1,180 $1,166 $1,171 $1,180 $1,109 $1,178 $1,307 +18%
Average subsidy/ride $26.18 $23.00 $19.01 $17.64 $14.36 $12.07 $15.30 +7%

In June 2016 TriMet staff persuaded the Board to approve the purchase of two used rail cars to expand the WES fleet. The estimated cost for the purchase was $1.5 million, plus $500,000 more for retrofitting.

TriMet claimed that this purchase was necessary to satisfy the “expected demands for growing WES service.” That demand was a fantasy.

WES is destined to be a one-hit wonder―an expensive monument to the egos of TriMet leaders and Westside politicians. Taxpayers would be better served if we simply canceled WES, repaid grant funds to the federal government, and moved the few commuter rail customers back to buses.

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

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TriMet Shows Public Pension Reform Is Possible

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon legislature recently adjourned and once again took no action to reduce the unfunded liabilities of the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). The reason is that most legislators think PERS reform is impossible. 

That belief is wrong. 

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 retirement accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. 

This stands in contrast to “defined benefit” (DB) programs like PERS in which employees are promised high levels of retirement payments regardless of how investment funds are performing. 

The success of the TriMet reforms can be seen in its latest pension fund valuation, which shows that annual benefit payments for pensions will peak in 2034 at $75 million, then drop to zero by about 2085.           

TriMet’s pension reform offers a guide to the legislature on how to reverse the spiraling PERS disaster, where unfunded liabilities have grown to $25 billion. The state should move all employees to defined-contribution plans as soon as possible. 

This essay summarizes a new Cascade study of TriMet’s successful pension reform program. “Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Plans a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health” can be found here.

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

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Study: School Trust income would go up by 600% if lands were sold

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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

PORTLAND, Ore. – Cascade Policy Institute released a study today showing that revenue generated for schools by the Oregon Common School Trust Lands (CSTL) likely would go up by 600% if the lands were sold and the net income added to the existing Common School Fund.

The study, A Proposal to Generate Adequate Returns from Common School Trust Lands, also showed that Oregon is only making $4.25/acre from its CSTL portfolio, the lowest among nine Western states. The state of Washington is earning the most, at $37/acre.

Management of Oregon’s 1.5 million acre portfolio of CSTL has long been a contentious issue. In 1992 Oregon Attorney General Charles S. Crookham issued an opinion clarifying that CSTL must be managed primarily for revenue maximization. Advocacy groups representing non-school interests have worked to subvert that directive ever since.

Environmental groups have repeatedly lobbied and litigated to eliminate revenue generation from the Trust Lands, claiming that commodity production is an outdated concept. They finally succeeded during the three-year period of 2013-15, when Oregon’s Trust Land portfolio actually lost $360,000/year in net operating income. Those losses had to be paid for by Oregon public school students.

The Oregon Land Board voted in 2015 to sell most of the Elliott State Forest in order to remedy this problem. However, the Board reversed itself in 2017, and Governor Kate Brown subsequently sought bonding authority from the Legislature to allow her to borrow $101 million (requiring $199 million in debt service) in order to “buy out” a portion of the Elliott so that it no longer would be subject to the Constitutional mandate to earn money for schools.

Those bonds have not yet been sold, and the Elliott is expected to incur more losses during 2018.

Last year Cascade Policy Institute commissioned economist Eric Fruits, Ph.D. to do a comparative analysis of nine Western states with large CSTL portfolios to determine under what circumstances it might make sense for states to sell these lands and invest the net proceeds into stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments. Dr. Fruits concluded that six states (including Oregon) likely would be better off selling CSTL assets; two states would be better off maintaining ownership; and one state likely would benefit from divestment, but more information is needed.

Cascade President John A. Charles, Jr. stated, “The Oregon Land Board has a fiduciary obligation to manage CSTL assets for the benefit of schools. Losing money every year violates that obligation. The Trust Lands have a market value of over $700 million, and students would be best served if the Land Board simply sold its real property portfolio and turned the proceeds over to the Oregon Investment Council, which has earned an average of 8.2% annually from the Common School Fund since 2010. In fact, there is no management option that would earn more money for students than selling these lands.”

The full report, A Proposal to Generate Adequate Returns from Common School Trust Lands, can be downloaded here.

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

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Oregon Small Businesses Deserve the Tax Break They Expected

By Steve Buckstein

While most Americans are reaping the benefits of the recent federal income tax cut, the Oregon legislature has just passed SB 1528 on a partisan vote that could deny several hundred thousand Oregon small businesses an equivalent state income tax cut they should expect.

Proponents of the bill argue that some of these businesses already got a state income tax break in 2013 and therefore shouldn’t benefit any further. But fewer than ten percent of the businesses the bill will hurt got that break. More than 90 percent won’t get any state break if Governor Kate Brown signs the bill.

Oregon is a small business state. Many are family businesses that depend on their business income to support their households.

Governor Brown says of the bill, “We’re looking at the implications for Oregon’s small businesses and Oregon’s economy.” She has until mid-April to sign it into law. Small business groups like NFIB are urging her to veto it.

If she does sign the bill, opponents might gather signatures referring it to voters in November. And hundreds of thousands of those voters will be the very people the bill impacts.

Oregon doesn’t need more tax revenue from small businesses to balance its budget, and giving them a tax break should be good for our economy. If you agree, call the Governor at 503-378-4582 and ask her to veto SB 1528.

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

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Time to Decentralize Oregon’s Education Reform Efforts

By Kathryn Hickok and Steve Buckstein

Three years ago, 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: how a one-size-fits-all public K-12 school system could educate all Oregon students and launch them onto a lifelong path of educational and career success. The fatal flaw in these reform efforts was that they relied on centralizing control over education policy.

Now, 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 travel around the state asking everyone they meet what constitutes success in their communities. They then will return to the State Capitol and recommend that every school do “what works” somewhere—most likely at a higher cost to taxpayers than they are paying today.

But rather than wait years to judge this latest reform effort a failure, why not try another path: the school choice path? School choice allows students and their families to choose where and how to get the educational opportunities that are right for them. School choice recognizes that children learn in different ways and at different paces and puts parents, not bureaucrats, in the driver’s seat of their kids’ education. That truly would be a revolutionary movement in the direction of student success.

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. Steve Buckstein is Cascade’s Senior Policy Analyst and Founder.

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