Category: Commentaries

To Work or Not to Work, That Is the Question

By Jakob Puckett

When I was growing up in Ohio, my family had an enormous garden with every kind of produce. Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini—you name it, we grew it. We grew so much of it that we would cook the extras into zucchini bread, pickles, and pasta sauce. And we had extras of those, too. My brother and I saw an opportunity and decided to start a business called Veggies2U. We would go door-to-door in our neighborhood and sell our products, and enough people liked them that our business continued for several summers.

It’s a good thing we lived in Ohio, because if we grew up in Oregon and started the same business here, we would have run into some problems. To begin with, we didn’t have a domestic kitchen license, kids were involved in making the food, and we didn’t have a separate storage facility for the materials and food we made for ourselves and those we intended to sell. We would have been in violation of several laws, subject to several thousands of dollars in fines, threatened with jail time, and would have begun our descent into a life of crime, one pickle jar at a time.

This is just a small example, but it points to a much larger problem. Occupational licensing (essentially, getting the government’s permission to work) has become a major roadblock for people who want to work but are deterred by excessive regulations. These laws reduce entrepreneurship, raise prices, and eliminate competition. Oregon is one of the worst states in the U.S. regarding this practice. While we likely would agree that some degree of oversight can be beneficial, the situation has gotten out of hand.

Nearly 25% of Americans need a government license for their occupation, up from five percent in 1950. A 2017 Institute for Justice report found that the national average for a low- or medium-income job requires a $200 fee, an exam, nine months of training, and often additional education. That’s a lot to ask of the 75% of American workers living paycheck to paycheck. Furthermore, some licensing requirements make little sense; and many occupations licensed in one state are not licensed in others, with equal quality of service. Even jobs licensed in many states exhibit inconsistency. For example, the four months of manicurist training required by Oregon are completed in nine days in Iowa.

Occupational licensing restrictions most hurt the people who are least able to bear it—lower-income workers, military families and veterans, and middle-class families. Occupational licensing has also become a way for special interests to cement their position by eliminating competition and raising prices on consumers. Nationwide, thousands of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake. Florists, yard workers, even pet-sitters—among countless others—face being regulated out of a job by bureaucrats who have never been in their position.

Overall, Oregon has the eighth-most-burdensome licensing requirements for low- and medium-income occupations (not doctors and lawyers), costing workers more than $300 and a year of training—both higher than the national average—just to reach their first day of recognized work. The Oregon legislature may be starting to recognize this burden. In 2015, legislators passed the Home Baked Goods bill, allowing people to earn money selling products grown and baked at home like my brother and I did, without criminalizing them.

Given the stakes, Oregon should review all existing occupational licensing laws, and requirements not related to job and consumer safety should be eliminated. Farm labor contractors, bartenders, and locksmiths are licensed by only 13 states. Only 21 states license commercial floor sanding and painting contractors; but Oregonian contractors pay hundreds of dollars in fees and undergo 1,463 days of experience and education, triple the average in other licensed states. The legislature can open Oregon for business by de-licensing these industries. Since most licensing occurs on the state level, multi-state working groups could be formed to facilitate uniform licensing standards, enhancing economic mobility among states.

Oregon should focus on building an economy that provides a way out for the hopeless and a way forward for the hopeful, and one step in that direction is to tear down the barrier of occupational licensing.

Jakob Puckett is a Research Associate at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article originally appeared in The Newberg Graphic on August 29, 2018.

Click here for the PDF version:

18-16-To_Work_or_Not_to_WorkPDF

Read Blog Detail

Moving in the Wrong Direction

By Jakob Puckett

Oregonians have a proud tradition of giving back to distinguished or disadvantaged members of society. Businesses have broken barriers to provide better service to groups like seniors, veterans, new families, and vulnerable people, by offering discounted rates or donating services for a worthy cause.

In one particular and familiar industry, however, the state will not allow such generosity. Customers in the aforementioned groups looking to move from one home to another, who could benefit from special offers, would find themselves out of luck, thanks to an apathetic state agency with misaligned priorities.

Not everyone will accept this, though. 2 Brothers Moving and Delivery, a home moving business in Portland, has challenged the status quo of the residential moving industry for years. In addition to moving and rearranging homes, company founder Adam Sweet has been shifting the legal landscape of how to start a home moving company in the first place.

After a much-publicized state police sting operation embroiled Sweet in a legal tangle about whether he, then a college student, could move other people’s furniture without permission from established moving companies, he challenged the law and won. No longer would new moving businesses have to justify their existence to the competition. Now, Sweet wants to change another part of the law, one that’s just as unfair to even more people.

The state of Oregon treats home moving services like a public utility and regulates them similarly to commodities like water and electricity. Home movers painstakingly must organize, request, and publish their tariffs (the rates they charge on every aspect of their service). And they truly do “request” what prices customers will pay for their services. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) gives permission for their rates, under the guidelines of what is considered “fair and reasonable.”

However, those with the most influence in this oversight process rarely approach this standard from a customer’s perspective. What is “fair and reasonable” to industrial moving companies who rarely make residential moves (the companies with the loudest voices within ODOT) may not be “fair and reasonable” in terms of residential customer benefit.

Pressured by mountains of impending paperwork, small home moving businesses often find it easier to accept the proposed rates of these larger companies, rather than requesting individualized rates. ODOT employees end up determining what is fair and reasonable, on everything from the price of boxes to move your television to whether you pay per hour and miles moved or by the weight of your furniture.

The state tries to tell businesses what the consumer wants, and oftentimes they are simply wrong.

Leaving aside whether household moving services are a natural monopoly—defined as an industry with nearly insurmountable entry barriers that render competition almost impossible—ODOT, under a “fair and reasonable” cloak, prevents customers from having options that would be offered in any other industry.

Discounts are not allowed, meaning seniors, veterans, or any other group for any other reason cannot receive a lower price, even if the business wants to offer it. Donating services as a charity to individuals, such as transitioning homeless individuals or those with cancer, are prohibited. Undercharging a customer based on the published tariff rate results in a series of increasing fines, culminating in the state revoking the company’s ability to do business at all.

If the goal is to ensure that customers are not fleeced by moving companies adding hidden fees, Sweet sees a simple solution: include proposed exceptions in the published tariffs. “If it’s published in the tariff, you should be able to charge it,” he says, and that includes discount options. The Department of Justice already handles cases of business fraud, and law enforcement already has mechanisms for dealing with those situations. Why should ODOT make the process more complicated to the disadvantage of customers? Most Americans move eleven times during their lives, meaning this question usually arises nearly a dozen times.

Ultimately, it turns out that consumers really do need protection, but not from their own shortsightedness or from home moving businesses. Rather, the real risk comes from the anti-consumer mantras echoing through the halls of ODOT, determining how good or bad of a deal individuals and families can get during moving season.

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

Click here for the PDF version:

18-15-Moving_In_The_Wrong_DirectionPDF

Read Blog Detail

Metro’s Waste Reduction Program Lacks Direction and Accountability

By Justus Armstrong

This October, the Portland-area Metro Council will award the first round of grants for its Investment and Innovation program. The program’s goals include strengthening local waste reduction efforts and fostering economic benefits for those from marginalized communities; but with a combination of corporate welfare and vague performance measures, the means by which Metro hopes to obtain these goals are murky at best and unethical at worst.

The program, which sets aside $3 million a year from Metro’s solid waste reserve fund over a three-year pilot period, offers two tiers of grants—one tier ranging from $10,000 to $50,000, the other from $50,000 to $500,000—to nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses alike. Metro directs the larger capital grants toward “investments in equipment, machinery and/or buildings” for projects in line with its waste reduction goals. In awarding capital to businesses, Metro seeks to improve regional recycling and disposal infrastructure, but seems to have no regard for the program’s marketplace consequences.

By matching assets with public funding, Metro grants an unfair advantage to businesses that follow its environmental agenda. While the grants program limits funding to costs tied to waste reduction projects, padding companies’ overhead and capital costs to benefit these projects goes outside the scope of Metro’s stated goals and undermines the competitive marketplace. Businesses should earn investment capital such as buildings and equipment by themselves, not through taxpayer handouts. Most citizens would oppose the use of their tax dollars to prop up privately owned corporations. Apart from good intentions and “green” packaging, what makes this project demonstrably different? How does it fit into Article XI, Section 9 of Oregon’s Constitution, which states that no municipality shall “raise money for, or loan its credit to, or in aid of, any such company, corporation or association?” Many questions have yet to be addressed.

Even for measuring success, the program’s standards are unclear; and Metro has been down this road before. Metro’s Community Planning and Development Grants program awarded around $19 million from 2006-2015 to help local governments prepare land for development. Like the Investment and Innovation program, these grants were intended to advance Metro’s long-term vision, but a 2016 report from Metro auditor Brian Evans found problems with clear direction. “The program has become less aligned with certain regional planning priorities over time,” Evans wrote. “Changes to the program reduced clarity about what was intended to be achieved and there was no process in place to evaluate the program’s outcomes.”

The Investment and Innovation program faces similar risks. Since the grants outsource waste reduction goals to third parties, Metro can only guess at their potential effectiveness. In a pre-proposal workshop for prospective applicants, Program Manager Suzanne Piluso could offer no estimate of the program’s effect on waste, saying it would take until after the pilot period to “determine if it’s moved the needle.” To be clear, that’s $9 million for a waste reduction program that can’t promise to actually reduce waste. Metro is handing out taxpayer money for hypothetical benefits that are unlikely to match the price tag.

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

Click here for the PDF version:

18-13-Metro’s_Waste_Reduction_Grants_Program_Lacks_Direction_and_AccountabilityPDF (1)

Read Blog Detail

Metro’s November Bond Measure Would Make All Housing More Costly

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Metro recently decided to refer a $652.8 million bond measure to the November ballot. If approved by voters, it would authorize Metro to borrow money either to purchase existing housing units or to subsidize the construction of new ones. The loans would be paid off by higher taxes on every property owner in the region for the next 30 years.

Unfortunately, of all the things Metro could do to reduce the price of housing, borrowing money is likely to be the least effective.

For one thing, new construction is expensive. Many public housing projects in recent years have cost more than $250,000 per unit. If Metro is lucky, the bond measure might pay for a total of 2,400-3,000 new apartments. Since the Portland region produces over 10,000 units of new housing every year, Metro’s intervention would not even be noticed.

In addition, borrowing $652.8 million and paying it back with interest (for a total of over $1 billion in debt service) would make every current home and apartment more expensive. We can’t tax ourselves to prosperity.

The basic weakness in the Metro bond measure is that it misdiagnoses the problem. When the Metro Council adopted its long-range growth management plan in 1995, it made a conscious decision to limit the physical size of the urbanized metropolitan region. That limit is imposed through Metro’s control of the Urban Growth Boundary. The planning goal was to “grow up, not out,” in order to prevent rural development and create the population density needed for light rail.

While that vision may sound appealing to some, there is a tradeoff: It limits the supply of new housing. Metro has always known this. As the agency’s economists wrote in 1994, “…the data suggest a public welfare tradeoff for increased density, more transit use, and reduced vehicle miles traveled. The downside of pursuing such objectives appears to be higher housing prices and reduced housing output.”

Metro controls the regional land supply and doesn’t want lots of cheap land for housing. Metro actually needs land to be scarce and expensive, because that’s the only way to justify its vision of high-density housing projects and light rail transit. Inevitably, this will be self-defeating; higher home prices will push more and more people out of Portland, where they will become even more auto-dependent.

In addition to its control of the regional land supply, Metro also imposes a tax of 0.12 percent on all new housing construction, with the exception of projects where the value of land improvements is less than $100,000. The tax revenues are used to pay for planning required on lands that might be used for housing in the future. The City of Portland also imposes its own tax for a similar purpose, at a much higher rate. It should be obvious that taxing new construction makes the housing problem worse.

The only way to significantly reduce the price of all homes in the region—both current units and new ones—is to make it easier to increase the supply. The best thing Metro could do would be to systematically inventory every artificial barrier to housing production, such as zoning ordinances, planning requirements, building codes, system development charges, and hidden taxes—and figure out a way to reduce or eliminate them.

In other sectors of the economy where supply is unregulated, the market does a wonderful job of providing us with the products we want at reasonable prices. The same thing will happen in housing, if we allow it.

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 appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 3, 2018.

Click here for the PDF version:

18-12-Metro’s_November_Bond_Measure_Would_Make_All_Housing_More_Costly

Read Blog Detail

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Public Employee Worker Freedom

By Steve Buckstein

On June 27 the U.S. Supreme Court restored First Amendment rights of free speech and free association for public employees in Oregon and nationwide. This is truly a victory for everyone who values the freedom of workers to associate with and financially support only those organizations with which they agree.

Ruling in favor of Illinois public employee Mark Janus in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Court said he, and all other public employees nationwide, do indeed have Constitutional Rights that have been violated by the collection of so-called “fair share” or “agency” fees from their paychecks to pay for services the employees don’t want, or from unions whose political goals they oppose.

The union compulsion the Court just ended for public employees brings to mind the well-known statement by Thomas Jefferson:

“To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”

The Janus case is the latest to come before the Supreme Court pitting individual workers against the powerful unions that seek to take their money without their consent. In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), public sector unions were allowed to impose fees on all workers for collective bargaining purposes.

Then, in Communications Workers of America v. Beck (1988), the Court found that unions could not compel fees for political purposes that workers opposed. Finally, in 2014 the Court went further in Harris v. Quinn and ruled that at least some workers could opt out of both the political and bargaining portions of public sector union dues.

This set the stage for freeing all public sector workers from forced union dues as Mark Janus successfully argued that everything his public sector union does, including collective bargaining with public bodies, is inherently political, and therefore he should not be compelled to support that organization with his money.

Union arguments that they should collect fees from all workers because they represent them all increasingly ring hollow because unions aren’t really required to represent all workers; they want to represent them so they can collect more dues revenue. They could just as well lobby to represent only those workers who voluntarily agree to pay them, but they haven’t done so─yet. Now, with this Court decision public sector unions may change their tune, not because they want to, but because the law of the land makes it the best option for these unions to retain relevance with workers who do want their services.

The Janus decision comports with the sentiments of most Oregonians. Several scientific surveys have been conducted in recent years to see how the public and members of union households feel about these issues. A 2013 survey found that more than 30 percent of Oregon union households would opt out of union membership if they could do so without penalty. In 2014, more than 80 percent of all Oregonians surveyed agreed that employees should be able to choose whether or not to join a union or pay union dues.

In 2015, members of Oregon union households were asked, “Are you aware that you can opt-out of union membership and of paying a portion of your union dues without losing your job or any other penalty?” Over 27 percent of Oregon union household members surveyed answered “no.” This implies that over 65,000 of Oregon’s some 243,000 union members that year didn’t realize that membership and some dues are optional. This is even more surprising given that their so-called “Beck rights,” granted by the Supreme Court in the 1988 CWA v. Beck case are named after Harry Beck, who is now retired in Oregon and is still advocating for worker freedom.

Nothing in the Janus decision prohibits unions from organizing and collecting voluntary dues from public employees. The ruling simply restores the First Amendment rights of public employees to say “no” to unions with which they don’t want to associate.

Cascade Policy Institute stands with Mark Janus and with Oregon public employees, including public school teachers, who believe as he does that they want their Constitutional rights to free speech and free association protected. Now, the Supreme Court has done just that.

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 2, 2018.

Click here for the PDF version:

18-11-Supreme_Court_Rules_in_Favor_of_Public_Employee_Worker_Freedom

Read Blog Detail

Time to Stop the PERS Pac-Man from Eating Teachers’ Salaries and Taxpayers’ Pocketbooks

By Steve Buckstein

What do Pac-Man and public pensions have in common? An intriguing 2016 national study of pension debt and teacher salaries recently answered this question. Depending on what economic assumptions are made, it’s likely that unfunded public pension liabilities for all states and local governments exceeded $6 trillion in 2017. Based on the same assumptions, Oregon’s share of those liabilities likely approached $50 billion.

The study, The Pension Pac-Man: How Pension Debt Eats Away at Teacher Salaries, by Chad Aldeman of Bellweather Education Partners, concluded that unfunded public pension liabilities were eating away at teacher salaries in every state—just like the old arcade game Pac-Man. This happens because the school districts teachers work for have to pay an increasingly larger share of their budgets into retirement funds for teachers who are no longer teaching, at the expense of those currently in the classroom.

In effect, America’s public school teachers are being charged on average about $6,800 a year—money that could be boosting their paychecks—to preserve what are becoming increasingly inequitable public pension systems. The inequality stems from the shifting nature of state pension systems that compensate older (and currently retired) teachers at higher rates than they will younger ones.

So where do Oregon teachers stand? Compared to the national average of about $6,800 per teacher, Oregon basically has to charge our teachers $7,398 a year to cover our unfunded PERS liabilities. That’s more than in all but 14 other states.

One might conclude that Oregon teachers consequently have lower salaries than teachers around the country because of this large pension hit. Not true. The nation’s largest teachers union reported that the average Oregon teacher earned $61,862 a year in 2016-17, compared to the national average of $59,660. That put our teachers in thirteenth place for average teacher pay among the 50 states.

Then again, Oregon teachers might be expected to earn more because, again according to that recent union report, in 2017 Oregon had more revenue per student in its public school system than 30 other states. We had $14,827 per student in average daily attendance, compared to the national average of just $13,900.

So, even though Oregon teachers are being hurt by our large public pension debt, they still earn more than teachers nationwide, and even more relative to their Oregon neighbors who pay the taxes to fund those higher teacher salaries while earning less than the national average themselves. All-in-all, Oregonians compensate our public school teachers relatively well.

Even though the latest, so-called Tier 3 or OPSRP PERS system has a less generous defined-contribution element than Tier 1 PERS workers earned, taxpayers should not be on the hook for unknown, and unknowable, pension costs going forward. It’s unknowable costs like these that have led to the current, nearly $7,400 annual debt burden on our teachers, districts, and taxpayers.

If Oregon had no unfunded PERS liabilities, three things could happen. Teachers might argue they should see an average raise of almost $7,400 per year, while school districts might want to put that money toward other district expenses that benefit students. Taxpayers might expect to see their Oregon personal income tax bills reduced if the state managed its public pension funds responsibly.

But none of these outcomes will occur because Oregon hasn’t managed PERS responsibly. As long as this continues, the outcome will be what’s unfolding now: higher taxes and greater school district payments to fund pension liabilities that few saw coming—and that threaten to continue, like Pac-Man, to eat away at teacher salaries, school district budgets, and taxpayer pocketbooks.

To stop the PERS Pac-Man, our Governor and legislators need to get serious about PERS reform, specifically by ending the “defined-benefit” elements of PERS for all work done in the future, either by new employees or current ones. Instead, the legislature should move all public employees, including teachers, to 401(k)-style defined-contribution retirement plans, which are the only kind of plan available to most taxpayers. The costs to future teachers, schools, and taxpayers will only get worse if we don’t end the PERS Pac-Man once and for all.

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

Click here for the PDF version:

18-10-Time_to_Stop_the_PERS_Pac-Man

Read Blog Detail

School Choice Leads to Student Success

By Kathryn Hickok

Parents know a solid education prepares their children for life, and that path begins in grade school. But many Oregon families are trapped in public schools that don’t meet their kids’ educational needs. While families with greater means can move to neighborhoods with public schools they like, or pay twice for education by opting for a private school, lower-income families often don’t have those options.

And those families’ children are at the greatest risk of not graduating from high school. According to the National Association of Education Progress, only 33% of Oregon fourth-graders tested “proficient” in reading in 2017. Our state continues to have the third-lowest graduation rate in the country. Nearly half the children born into poverty will stay in poverty as adults. Changing those outcomes requires a solid early education leading to graduation and employment.

This spring, the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program sponsored by Cascade Policy Institute is celebrating twenty years of giving low-income parents more choices in education, so their children can have a better chance. As director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon, I’ve watched how partial tuition scholarships, funded by private donors in our community, have changed the trajectories of our students’ lives, sparking their passion for learning and helping them fulfill their potential.

One of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon’s first scholarship recipients described her experience this way: “My parents…wanted my brother and me to be placed in an environment where we would be academically challenged and be able to succeed….What [the Children’s Scholarship Fund has] given me is so much more than money; you have given me opportunity, confidence, faith, and trust that life has meaning, and that I am meant to succeed no matter what obstacles come my way.”

Every child should feel that way, and with school choice they can.

In 1998, philanthropists Ted Forstmann and John Walton wanted to jumpstart a national movement that would support low-income parents wanting alternatives to faltering government schools. Pledging $100 million of their own money, Forstmann and Walton challenged local donors across the U.S. to match their gift and help them offer 40,000 low-income children the chance to attend the tuition-based schools of their parents’ choice. That challenge became the Children’s Scholarship Fund and a national network of independently operating private scholarship programs for K-8 children.

But instead of 40,000 applicants, the Children’s Scholarship Fund heard from 1.25 million low-income parents nationwide. Here in Oregon, parents of more than 6,600 children in the Portland tri-county area applied for 500 available scholarships. Forstmann and Walton found out quickly that low-income parents were desperately seeking a quality education they couldn’t find in their local public schools.

They believed that if parents had meaningful choices among educational options, children would have a better chance at success in school. Twenty years of data have proven this true. Studies of college enrollment and graduation rates of scholarship alumni have shown that, despite coming from socioeconomic backgrounds associated with lower rates of college enrollment, Children’s Scholarship Fund students enroll in college at an average rate that is similar to or higher than the general population.

In other words, education in private grade schools is closing the achievement gap for kids from less advantaged backgrounds.

Ted Forstmann was known to say, “If you save one life, you save the world,” and “if you give parents a choice, you will give their children a chance.” Thanks to Forstmann, John Walton, and private donors in Oregon and 18 other states who have supported low-income parents in their quest for a quality education, more than 166,000 children have been a given that chance through scholarships worth more than $741 million. By offering parents the opportunity to choose which school best fits their child’s needs, the Children’s Scholarship Fund puts the power of education back in the hands of parents, where it belongs.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is also director of Cascade’s Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families. A version of this article was originally published by the Pamplin Media Group and appeared in The Gresham Outlook on April 24, 2018.

Click here for the PDF version:

18-09-School_Choice_Leads_to_Student_Success

Read Blog Detail

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.

Click here for the PDF version:

18-08-TriMet_Shows_Pension_Reform_Is_Possible

Read Blog Detail

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.

Click here for the PDF version:

18-07-WES_at_9_Time_to_Admit_the_Mistake

Read Blog Detail

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.

Click here for the full report, Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Plans a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health:

Following_in_TriMet’s_Tracks_Feb2018

Read Blog Detail