Author: Cascade Policy Institute

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There’s No Such Thing As a Free Government

By Miranda Bonifield

April 16 was the first day of 2019 where the money Americans have earned finally exceeded the portion of our income dedicated to the support of the government. Tax Freedom Day is an annual reminder of the real cost of expanding government’s power and responsibilities. The $5.2 trillion we spend on taxes in 2019—29% of our income—will outpace our spending on food, clothing, and shelter combined.

Unfortunately, this is only what we’ll pay this year—not what the government will spend. If annual federal borrowing were taken into account, Tax Freedom Day would fall on May 8, meaning we would work nearly half of this year to support government programs.

Americans have handed the government an ever-growing share of our money in exchange for the promise of a chicken in every pot and a roof over every head. But prosperity is not preserved and poverty is not prevented by government spending. Rather, it is the everyday Americans who work and innovate every day to create value for ourselves and our communities who are responsible for the opportunities we can all take hold of.

Next time you’re asked to approve a tax increase, ask yourself how many days you’re willing to work to fuel government programs, and how many you’d like to work to support your family.

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Testimony Before the Joint Subcommittee on Capital Construction HB 5005

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Members of the subcommittee, my name is John Charles and I am President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization.

Most witnesses ask you to spend money. I am here asking you to save money – by deleting the Governor’s request for $27.5 million in lottery-backed bonds for TriMet’s planned light rail line to Bridgeport Village mall near Tualatin.

It’s important to note that HB 5005 is actually the first part of a two-part request for this project. As Ms. Gabriel stated in her April 5 briefing, the Governor will be asking for an additional $125 million of bond revenue in the next biennium, so you should really think of this as an appropriation of $152.5 million.

I encourage you to reject the request because TriMet has a consistent record of over-promising and under-performing on all its capital construction projects, as detailed below. You should stop rewarding that kind of behavior.

Analysis of the SW Corridor Project

TriMet makes two primary claims regarding this light rail line. First, it will attract 43,000 average weekday riders by 2035. Second, it will provide a “reliable, fast travel option” between Bridgeport Village and Portland.

Neither of these claims is plausible.

TriMet Ridership projections are always inflated

TriMet has a 40-year track record of making ridership forecasts. They have been consistently wrong, and always on the high side. As Figure 1 shows, actual ridership has never even reached 60% of projected ridership on a specific rail line. In 2017 total average weekday ridership was less than half the predicted ridership for MAX in 2020. 

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SW Corridor Light Rail Project Joint Ways and Means Committee Testimony John Charles April 2019

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Road Widening, Congestion Pricing Can Improve Metro-Area Drive Times

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

I’ve got a big family, which means we do a lot of laundry. With our old appliances, we were doing a load a day and there was a backlog of dirty clothes.

When our old washer and dryer went kaput, we decided on an upgrade. I bought the biggest, most energy efficient washer and dryer I could afford. I figured with bigger loads, we’d be doing fewer loads. But in some ways, I was wrong. Sure, the new washer and dryer could hold a lot more laundry, but we were still doing about a load a day.

However, something changed: The backlog of dirty clothes disappeared, and our utility bills decreased. Even though we are still washing clothes every day, we are washing more clothes more cheaply than we were before. Where it used to take three hours for a complete wash-and-dry cycle, now it’s closer to two hours. Those new appliances made our day-to-day lives measurably better off.

In Portland, the Oregon Department of Transportation is in the process of widening I-5 through the Rose Quarter, which has been named one of the worst bottlenecks in the country by the American Transportation Research Institute. ODOT forecasts the improvements will save more than 2.5 million hours of travel time each year and reduce crashes by up to 50 percent. For example, the current “worst” stretch (I-5 southbound, from the Going on-ramp to I-84 eastbound off-ramp), will see travel times drop 15-30 percent. Over a typical work year, that would save a commuter more than 20 hours of time stuck in his or her vehicle. Many, if not most, commuters through the Rose Quarter will be measurably better off because of this project.

Despite these anticipated benefits for commuters, opponents of the I-5 project claim that increasing highway capacity will increase congestion. They invoke a concept they call “induced demand,” arguing that wider roads “induce” people to drive more, leading to more traffic and ultimately even worse congestion than before the improvements were made. It’s much like arguing that I’m worse off because my new washer and dryer can handle more laundry than my old klunkers.

Critics of the project tend to confound traffic with congestion. Traffic is the number of vehicles or vehicle miles travelled. Congestion involves speeds or travel time. A road can have a lot of traffic and little congestion. Similarly, a road with relatively little traffic can be highly congested—such as streets around a neighborhood school in a residential area during drop-off and pick-up times.

To be sure, improvements around the Rose Quarter will increase traffic on I-5 and I-84. Some of that traffic will come from more people driving. But some of that traffic will be the result of people choosing to use the highways instead of taking arterials or residential streets, which will reduce congestion on these increasingly clogged roads. If it’s cheaper in terms of time to take a highway rather than an arterial, people will choose the highway. That’s not “induced” demand, that’s plain old vanilla demand. Lower prices lead to higher quantity demanded.

The Rose Quarter highway improvements are to be combined with a congestion pricing program that will further improve traffic speeds and travel times. Done properly, such pricing discourages driving when congestion is most likely. Anyone who has used Uber or Lyft has experienced congestion pricing with the services’ “surge pricing,” in which fares increase when demand for rides exceeds the number of drivers at a particular time. Congestion pricing smooths the timing of trips to foster a faster flow of vehicles.

The benefits of road widening are readily visible here in Portland. Last year, a newly completed auxiliary lane on I-5 southbound from OR 217 to I-205 removed a frustrating bottleneck. According to ODOT, that stretch of road went from five hours of afternoon rush-hour congestion to one hour a day of congestion, during the afternoon commute. OR 217 went from four hours of congestion to zero hours of congestion. I’m sure no one is sitting in their car on I-5 or OR 217 saying, “I really miss all that congestion.”

The Portland region is adding more than 30,000 people each year. Our transportation system needs to keep up with the influx of new residents, workers, and business activity. It’s this growth that’s inducing the demand for more and better roads, and the region needs to meet that demand.

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

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Portland’s Affordable Housing Bond: Nothing for Money

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Remember that song about getting money for nothing? In Portland, it’s the opposite. We’re getting nothing for money.

This week, Portland’s City Council will get the first annual report on how the city is spending its affordable housing bond money. The four-page report—yes, it’s really only four pages—is colorful and has lots of pictures but nothing about actual results. So, I did some research.

Turns out, by the end of 2018, the city spent almost $38 million and built exactly zero new units of affordable housing. Sure, Portland bought two buildings. But, the buildings were already built or almost completely built, which means the money did nothing to actually add any new units.

Once the city spends millions more on the four other buildings in their pipeline, Portland might have only 250 additional units of affordable housing.

Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to reform the country’s social welfare programs. He said, “We put a crazy amount of dough into our social benefits and poor people are still poor.”

The same can be said for Portland: We’re spending a crazy amount of money on affordable housing, but we’re not actually building much new affordable housing.

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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Read My Lips: Metro’s Promises Are Doubtful at Best

By Miranda Bonifield

There’s nothing so permanent as a temporary government program, and nothing is quite as immortal as a temporary tax. Metro promised in 2006 that its parks bond would leave no need for new taxes until 2016. Instead, the money was sent to a general fund and additional taxpayer support was requested in both 2013 and 2016.

Now Metro is planning a new 400-million-dollar bond measure to support expansion of its parks and nature programs. The organization argues that tax rates wouldn’t be raised and that the funds would combat the challenges posed by population growth, climate change, and racial inequity.

What isn’t said is that your property taxes would go down without approval of the new 20-year bond measure. Metro can and probably will want to issue additional bonds and levies in future years, including a potential transportation bond in 2020—meaning that taxes would rise in the long term.

Metro’s auditor found in 2015 that Metro’s land acquisition often lacks clear connection to its long-term goals. This means that not only is Metro stretching for more money, it’s not even entirely sure what it accomplishes by spending it.

Read my lips: Metro’s version of no new taxes is doubtful at best.

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

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Free to Choose with Freedom Scholarships

By Miranda Bonifield

School choice made a splash in the headlines last month with the proposal of the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act. The proposed legislation would create a federal income tax credit for donations to organizations which grant scholarships to school-aged children and create an efficient path forward for students in states which have yet to embrace educational choice.

Tax credit scholarship programs have already successfully assisted thousands of students in states like Florida, where 92% of families enrolled report satisfaction. 71% of the 108,000 students would otherwise be in a public school. But because of their option to choose, they are statistically more likely to attend a school which parents feel is positively shaping their character and to attend college after graduation. Tax credit scholarships have been encouragingly successful on the state level. Encouraging donations to scholarship-granting nonprofit organizations, while leaving states the flexibility to opt in or out of the program, is an optimal way to encourage school choice without federal overreach.

Closer to home, Senate Bill 668 is currently in the Oregon Senate Committee on Education. The bill would create Education Savings Accounts for Oregon students. ESAs direct a portion of the funds designated for a child’s education in a public school to an account which could fund the family’s choice of private, online, or homeschool options.

If implemented, both the federal and the state proposals would be real victories for American students.

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

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Oregon Taxpayers Can’t Celebrate $146 Million Debt Service on the Elliott State Forest

By John A. Charles, Jr.

This week our State Treasurer, Tobias Read, issued a press release bragging that investors around the country “stood in line” to loan Oregon $100 million so that Governor Kate Brown could buy part of the Elliott State Forest, which we already own.

According to Treasurer Read, “There was three times more demand than supply” of the bonds, which will be repaid to investors over 20 years at an interest rate of 3.83 percent.

While this may have been a great day for investors, Oregon taxpayers have no reason to celebrate. They will be paying roughly $146 million in debt service on the loan, while getting little in return.

The Elliott is an 82,500-acre forest in Coos and Douglas Counties. It is an asset of the Common School Fund, which means it must be managed for the financial benefit of K-12 public schools. It was once a thriving commercial forest, generating millions of dollars each year for schools. In 1994, it had an estimated market value of $850 million.

Timber harvesting started to decline in the late 1980s due to environmental litigation. By 2014, timber production was so minimal that the Elliott actually started losing money. This immediately caught the attention of the State Land Board, which owns it. Land Board members in 2015—Governor John Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown, and Treasurer Ted Wheeler—feared they would be sued for breach of fiduciary trust if they continued to hold onto a money-losing asset.

Seeing no other options, the Board unanimously voted in August of that year to sell the forest and place the proceeds in the Common School Fund, where they could be profitably invested in stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments.

The Board set the market value of the forest at $220.8 million. After a lengthy outreach process, the Board received a bid for that amount in 2016 from a consortium of buyers led by Lone Rock Timber Co.

However, by the time the bid was evaluated in December, the composition of the Land Board had changed. Kate Brown had become Governor, Tobias Read was Treasurer, and Dennis Richardson was the new Secretary of State. At the first meeting of the board in February 2017, both Read and Richardson stated that they had a fiduciary duty to sell the forest so that $220.8 million could be invested in better-performing assets. Gov. Brown reversed her 2015 vote and urged the Board to reject the offer. The final vote was 2-1 in favor of selling the forest.

This infuriated Oregon’s environmental lobby, even though it was their own lawsuits that had turned the Elliott into a liability. After the vote, pressure mounted on Treasurer Read to change his mind.

Two months later, Read reversed himself. He and Gov. Brown decided that instead of selling the forest for $220.8 million, they would retain it and ask the legislature for permission to borrow $100 million to buy part of the Elliott so that it would no longer be required to make money. The $100 million would be placed in the Common School Fund to make up for the lost timber harvest receipts.

Unfortunately, the $100 million loan will require debt service payments of roughly $200 million, and all of it will have to be paid by Oregon taxpayers. Therefore, the benefits to schools of adding $100 million to the Common School Fund will be diluted or possibly exceeded by debt service.

Moreover, the Land Board had no clear idea of which part of the Elliott will be free of the obligation to produce revenue for schools. The $100 million certainly will not “buy” the entire forest; an unknown portion will still have to be managed for profit, if that’s even possible.

Ordinarily, one could expect the State Treasurer to be the adult in the room regarding a cash offer of $220.8 million and the Board’s fiduciary duty to schools, but this is Oregon. It’s so much easier to just borrow money and talk about something else. Tobias Read is giddy that several of the bond buyers were from “socially responsible investment funds.”

Perhaps if he talks long enough about green investing, taxpayers will forget about the $200 million they owe on the loan.

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

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What’s Causing Oregon’s “Housing Affordability Crisis”?

By Miranda Bonifield

Here’s a question for you: Why is housing so expensive in Oregon?

Government at all levels has attempted to address the issue of housing affordability for years with tax credits, occasional expansion of the urban growth boundary, multimillion dollar bond measures, and now statewide rent control in Oregon. But rather than making life easier for Americans, state and local policies play major roles in the affordability crisis.

Economist Dr. Randall Pozdena recently authored a report published by Cascade Policy Institute that analyzes the decline of housing affordability, with a particular focus on Oregon. His research confirms what any developer can already tell you: Housing is less affordable because land is less available.

Easy access to land up until the 1970s meant housing price increases roughly tracked increases in household income. But in the ’60s and ’70s, planners and environmentalists dreaming of European-style density began lobbying against automobile-driven suburban sprawl. These measures gained enough traction that by 2000, the Brookings Institution found, state ballots around the country contained 553 “anti-sprawl” measures. Supporters expected higher density to decrease the need for public spending, improve traffic conditions by facilitating the use of transit, and lower development costs.

Instead, housing is escalating further out of reach every year. Oregon, California, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C. have the worst affordability scores in the country. An expensive market might make sense in D.C. and Hawaii, as both have extremely limited land available for development. California’s problem is the bureaucratic state whose regulations keep developers from meeting demand. But it’s Oregon that has the worst score for affordability out of the fifty states: Our housing prices rose 32% faster than our incomes between 1992 and 2007. This puts housing affordability in Oregon behind every one of the other 49 states.

With some exceptions, Oregon’s income growth has generally kept pace with the rest of the nation. We have plenty of developable land and a capable, productive community. Our housing is unaffordable because we’ve embraced some of the most aggressive “anti-sprawl” policies in the country. Dr. Pozdena finds:

“The higher the rank of anti-sprawl policy in a state, the poorer is the affordability rank of the state and the lower has been the availability of additional development sites relative to population growth. The confidence that these associations are not random is 99.99 percent. This is strongly indicative of a causal relationship between implementation of anti-sprawl policy, land conservation, and the affordability problem.”

There is no market and no economic philosophy in which reducing supply while demand increases leads to lower prices. In reality, Oregon’s policies have increased public spending, damaged public service quality, made no sizable impact on the number of automobile commuters, and worsened congestion.

It’s encouraging to hear policymakers acknowledge that we need to expand urban growth boundaries and encourage more development; but until a fundamental shift occurs in the philosophy behind growth policy, these statements are all flash and no substance. Oregon’s land use regulations don’t align with the way Oregonians actually live. They worsen traffic, crowd cities, and decrease quality of life.

Oregon must address the true causes of housing affordability problems, not just the symptoms—or the crisis will never end.

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

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Cultivating Educational Choice with Education Savings Accounts

By Miranda Bonifield

A Portland public school made headlines last week for offering parents the chance to choose their child’s teacher for next year as part of a school fundraiser. Teachers cried “foul” because they thought the opportunity gave unfair advantage to students whose families were from higher income brackets.

Why not give the same opportunity to all students?

Senate Bill 668 would implement a universal Education Savings Account (ESA) program in Oregon. ESAs direct a percentage of the funds the state would otherwise spend to educate a student in a public school to the student’s family to spend on private school tuition and/or other approved educational expenses.

In other words, every family could choose their child’s teacher.

Florida implemented an Education Savings Account program for special needs students in 2014. Of the students enrolled during the first two years, 40% used the funds to customize (mix and match) aspects of their child’s education. About half of these families chose to educate their children outside of a brick-and-mortar private school. The more than 10,000 students enrolled are a tiny fraction of the 2.59 million students in Florida public schools, but their choices illustrate an important point: Families need and want options that the state does not provide in their district public schools.

Oregon’s education system perpetuates a disconnect between the interests of families seeking the best possible outcome for their children and of schools seeking the fairest possible outcome for all children. We can agree that Oregon’s teachers are overworked, that many of our schools are underperforming, and that something must change to give the best possible shot to each student. Education Savings Accounts are an efficient, compassionate, effective way to provide quality education to all Oregon’s students—regardless of income.

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

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Local News Brings Accountability to Local Government

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Fake news is bad, but no news is even worse. Across the world, across the country, across the state, and across our communities, we are witnessing an obliteration of local news media. In Oregon, local newspapers are struggling and shuttering while TV and radio outlets focus more and more on national news fed by wire services.

Research soon to be published by the Journal of Financial Economics finds that when a local newspaper closes, local government wages and employment increase, municipal borrowing costs go up, as do county deficits. The authors argue local newspapers hold their governments accountable. When a community loses a paper, it loses some of that accountability.

It’s easy to blame Google and Facebook and media mergers for decimating local news. But, we ourselves are also to blame. We’re more likely to click on a story about a Trump tweet, celebrity gossip, or cute cats than we are to read a researched investigation into steep tax hikes, onerous regulations, and municipal malfeasance.

A tweet from Trump has virtually zero impact on our day-to-day lives in Oregon. At the same time, our legislature is right now passing bills that will affect all Oregonians every day. Our local governments and school boards are making decisions that affect how we work, how we live, how we travel, and how our kids are taught.

We all need to support local media, but it’s more than just buying a paper. Listen to the local news on the radio. Watch the local news on TV. More importantly, be engaged in your local community. That’s where everyday people can make a big difference.

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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