Category: Commentaries

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

By Steve Buckstein 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Steve Buckstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oregon Parents Deserve to Be the Voice for Kids’ Education Options

By Bobbie Jager

For the second year in a row, Oregon has reported the third-lowest graduation rate in the country. With a four-year adjusted public high school graduation rate of 74.8% (2015-16), Oregon only beats Nevada and New Mexico, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The typical response to this kind of bad news is for teachers unions and legislators to claim that taxpayers are “underfunding” public schools; and that’s why so many kids don’t make it to graduation. But Oregon already spends more on K-12 education than 33 other states. According to the National Education Association’s Rankings & Estimates report for 2016 and 2017, revenue per Oregon student in Average Daily Attendance is nearly $14,000, including local, state, and federal funding. That puts Oregon more than four percent above the national average in school spending.

Read the rest of the article here.


Bobbie Jager, Oregon’s 2012 “Mother of the Year,” is a parental choice advocate and the School Choice Outreach Coordinator for the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article was originally published by the Pamplin Media Group and appeared in The Portland Tribune on January 25, 2018.

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Innovative Technology Can Reduce Tobacco Harm and Save Oregonians Tax Dollars

By Steve Buckstein

To eventually end cigarette use in America, rather than rely on tobacco taxes, public service announcements, and restrictions on cigarette use, we might look toward innovation. New technologies hold out the promise of ending deadly cigarette use altogether. The biggest impediment standing in the way is the federal government.

That might soon change, however, as the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering approval of a tobacco product that relies on battery-powered heat, instead of fire, to deliver aerosolized nicotine-containing vapor. The distinction is important because, as the late Professor Michael Russell wrote, “people smoke for the nicotine but they die from the tar.”

Traditional options for quitting tobacco use have included nicotine patches, lozenges, and gum, which have relatively low success rates. New “heat-not-burn” technology is proving promising at getting smokers around the world to quit cigarettes in favor of heated tobacco products known as IQOS, sometimes referred to as “I Quit Ordinary Cigarettes.” Using an electronic device to heat a small piece of tobacco without fire or combustion is the purest form of an electronic cigarette. Currently available in nearly three-dozen countries—including Italy, Switzerland, Japan, Germany, and Canada—these products have helped nearly four million adults quit smoking.

According to a recent article in The Economist, “Britain’s Committee on Toxicity recently found that people using heat-not-burn products are exposed to between 50% and 90% fewer ‘harmful and potentially harmful’ compounds compared with conventional cigarettes.”

Such harm reduction could save not only many American lives, but billions of American tax dollars. Between Medicaid, Medicare, and Veterans Affairs, conventional cigarette use may cost American taxpayers more than $100 billion per year.

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) estimates that some 7,000 people die annually from cigarette use; and harm reduction could help reduce the costs associated with our growing Medicaid program, known as The Oregon Health Plan. Thirty-eight percent of adults on Medicaid smoke cigarettes—more than three times the percentage of Oregonians insured by other providers who smoke. Also, the OHA believes the cost to taxpayers for tobacco-related Medicaid health care is substantial.

If Oregon smokers transitioned to less harmful alternatives, whether by quitting entirely or by switching to a product like IQOS, that would be a win for both public health and public tax expenditures.

In 2009, President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, a law that gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products in the United States. It went further and created a process for introducing new tobacco products that might be less harmful than cigarettes and even created a process for obtaining FDA approval to market those products as such. Permission to sell IQOS and market it as less harmful to adults is what the product’s makers are currently seeking from the FDA.

The FDA has noted that modified-risk tobacco product provisions “may be valuable tools in the effort to promote public health by reducing the morbidity and mortality associated with tobacco use, particularly if companies take advantage of these provisions by making bold, innovative product changes that substantially reduce, or even eliminate altogether, either the toxicity or addictiveness of tobacco products, or both.”

The Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee will meet January 24 to discuss IQOS and make a recommendation to the FDA regarding approval of the product. It should examine the science and consider the importance of providing adult smokers with an alternative to cigarettes, because innovation and consumer choice may prove to be a great incentive to finally quit. The rest of the world has already embraced this technology, and the FDA should also.

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article originally appeared in The Bend Bulletin on January 17, 2018.

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Poll Shows Voters Are Smarter Than Politicians Think

By John A. Charles, Jr.

In November the regional government, Metro, released the results of a new public opinion poll of 800 registered voters living in the tri-county region.

One of the questions was, “In a few words of your own, what is the most important change that could be made to improve the quality of life in the Portland region?”

The top three responses were: dealing with the homeless/poverty (25%); affordable housing (17%); and traffic congestion (14%).

Environmental issues tied for last place (2%), and global warming did not even make the list.

This is roughly the opposite of what we frequently hear from many of the political talking heads. Listening to them, one would think that environmental Armageddon is upon us, especially because Donald Trump is President.

For instance, the top legislative priority for Senator Michael Dembrow (D-Portland), who chairs the Senate Environment Committee, is a bill he hopes to pass in early 2018 that would create a $700 million/year tax on carbon dioxide by establishing a convoluted industrial regulatory program. The ambient environment would not be improved one bit by this tax, but all of our basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter, and energy—would become more expensive.

Sen. Dembrow’s biggest supporter on this issue is Governor Kate Brown, who recently flew to Bonn, Germany to hobnob with celebrities at a United Nations conference on global warming. The two of them are convinced that if they can make energy more expensive, we’ll all use less of it and the world will be saved from “global warming.”

Most voters intuitively know that this is a scam. The term “global warming” doesn’t even have a useful definition. Voters know that the pain-versus-gain equation of global warming taxes is heavily one-sided: the “benefits” of reducing fossil fuel use are highly speculative (and may not exist at all); long-term (potentially thousands of years away); and global in nature. Yet the costs will be known, immediate, and local.

As the Metro poll shows, there is very little grassroots support for this kind of punishment.

It’s not surprising that homelessness, housing, and traffic congestion rank as the top three issues in the Metro poll because these are problems most of us confront daily. They are also things we can take action on.

Unfortunately, government itself has caused much of the mess, so voters will need to think carefully before signing on to more tax-and-spend programs. Almost every time regulators intervene in real estate markets, the result is some combination of less housing production and higher housing prices.

Take the most obvious intervention: urban growth boundaries. Since 1980, the population of the Portland metro region has increased by about 78%, but the available land supply for housing has only gone up by 10%. Making buildable land artificially scarce and thus more expensive is not a winning strategy if you’re trying to provide more housing.

But lack of land is just the start. After you add in ubiquitous farm and forestland zoning, extortionist system development charges, tree protection ordinances, inclusionary zoning requirements, prevailing wage rules on public housing projects, and numerous other interventions, the result is that we have a serious shortage of housing.

Even the government is trapped in government regulation. Last spring the Portland City Council approved spending $3.7 million to purchase a strip club on SE Powell Boulevard near Cleveland High School. The City plans to tear down the building and build 200 to 300 units of low-income public housing on the 50,000-square-foot property. City officials have admitted that it will take two years just to obtain the necessary permits for the redevelopment.

If it takes this long to get the permits for one of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s top priorities, imagine the delays facing a private sector developer.

The housing woes in such cities as Portland, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle are mostly self-inflicted. Housing supply is lagging demand because we’ve created so many barriers to housing construction. Removing those barriers should be a top priority for the state legislature when it convenes in February.

Global warming legislation does not even deserve a hearing.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article was published by the Pamplin Media Group and appeared in The Portland Tribune.

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dont allow skimming of medicaid funds for unions

Don’t Allow the Skimming of Medicaid Funds for Unions

By Aaron Withe and Steve Buckstein

Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars are skimmed off the top of Medicaid payments intended for some of society’s most vulnerable citizens and used for purposes never envisioned by the program’s supporters. Most of us can agree this is wrong.

After all, the whole point of Medicaid is to help low-income individuals—particularly the elderly and disabled—whose lives, dignity and comfort all benefit from the program.

Unfortunately, many politicians don’t see it this way. Oregon is one of nine states that allow labor unions to get a slice of the Medicaid pie by skimming union dues from the Medicaid paychecks of home-based caregivers.

The home-care program allows Medicaid-eligible individuals to avoid institutionalization by receiving daily living assistance in their own homes. In Oregon, Medicaid clients employ approximately 30,000 home-care and personal-support workers (HC/PSWs)—often their own family members—who are compensated through the program for providing basic assistance.

In 2000, however, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) successfully inserted itself into that arrangement.

It funded a ballot measure that allowed HC/PSWs to be unionized on the shaky logic that their Medicaid payments made them “public employees.” As a result, the state deducts an average of $500 per year in SEIU dues from each caregiver’s Medicaid payments and sends it to SEIU before the assistance money ever reaches the caregiver.

In states where this is happening, caregivers and their clients are understandably upset. Because unions have a limited role to play between family members in a home-based setting, many feel the idea of paying for traditional union services just doesn’t make sense.

Some have pursued legal action to prevent the worst of the dues-skimming abuses. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the Harris family’s case and ruled that “partial-public employees” like HC/PSWs could no longer be forced to pay a union against their will.

But it hasn’t been enough. Although the Harris decision technically allows HC/PSWs to make their own choice about whether to pay union dues, Gov. Kate Brown’s complicit administration has continued skimming dues from the Medicaid payments, making it easy for SEIU to keep thousands of caregivers paying dues against their will.

Kyle Osburn, a Portland resident who cares for his disabled son, was one such caregiver. Kyle never signed up for SEIU membership, but the state confiscated dues from his Medicaid checks anyway. Others, like Diana Berman, tried to cancel their union payments after Harris but were told they weren’t allowed to resign until an arbitrary 15-day annual window.

Thousands of caregivers in Oregon remain victimized by the SEIU’s dues-skimming scheme.

And Oregon isn’t alone. At least eight other states deduct dues from Medicaid checks and divert the money into union bank accounts. This practice inevitably goes hand-in-hand with shocking reports of what unions will do to obtain “authorization” for such payments, including forging caregivers’ signatures and pressuring them to sign union cards.

It’s clear federal action is needed to protect the integrity of Medicaid, its beneficiaries and caregivers nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should immediately adopt administrative rules to ensure that Medicaid dollars are not misdirected toward union dues. Congress could also make it illegal to skim Medicaid funds in this way.

Either move would protect caregivers’ freedom to join a union if they chose to. Preventing state governments from deducting dues from Medicaid checks would make it far easier for caregivers to exercise their rights under Harris, but would in no way prevent caregivers from joining a union and paying dues on their own.

Medicaid dollars should be preserved for improving the lives of disabled, elderly and other Americans in need. They shouldn’t be diverted to special interest groups that often use those dollars for political gain, like propping up the politicians who skim dues for them in the first place.

Federal policymakers should take action now.

Aaron Withe is the Oregon director of the Freedom Foundation, a think and action tank in Salem. Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s Portland-based free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in The Bend Bulletin on December 8, 2017.

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Straightforward policy reforms can reverse Oregon’s lower-than-average incomes and high cost of living

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Oregon’s economy seems to be chugging along, yet many of us feel like we’re losing steam. Employment and incomes are up since last year, but when we compare Oregon with other states, things don’t look so good here.

Oregon’s median family income is about the same as the national average. But according to the Census Bureau, we are 14 percent below our northern neighbor. Oregon’s per capita personal income—another measure—is more than 8 percent lower than the national average. Oregon is not a rich state.

At the same time, according to one widely used survey, Oregon’s cost of living is about 25 percent higher than the national average and 17 percent higher than in Washington. Oregon’s Consumer Price Index has increased 20 percent since 2007, while prices nationwide only increased 16 percent. Much of this disparity is due to Oregon’s increased cost of housing. In addition, prices for food, gasoline, and health care are also higher here.

It’s expensive to live in our state. When adjusting incomes for the cost of living, Oregon goes from the middle of the pack to the bottom of the bunch. Accounting for purchasing power, Oregon’s median family income is 20 percent lower than the nation and 27 percent lower than Washington’s.

While our incomes are lower, they are more evenly distributed. By various measures, Oregon has less income inequality than most other states. Our top one percent of income earners has a smaller share of total incomes, and our poverty rate is lower than the national average.

On the one hand, our state does not have enough deep pockets to feed soak-the-rich tax policies. On the other hand, our below-average incomes mean we don’t have the resources to feed soak-the-middle-class tax policies like the health insurance and provider taxes that a “no” vote on Measure 101 in the upcoming January 23 election would repeal.

It also means we don’t have the resources to feed soak-the-poor tax policies like the carbon tax the legislature is almost certain to take up next February.

Regulations regarding paid time off, employee scheduling, and occupational licensing increase the cost of employing people without directly adding money to workers’ paychecks. The result is reduced employment and lower wages.

Oregon’s land use laws—as well as regulations regarding design review, historic preservation, and inclusionary zoning—have stifled residential development. Demand for housing is outpacing construction, driving up housing prices. The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis estimates that over the past 10 years, the Portland area has underbuilt by 27,000 units.

The application of Oregon’s land use laws has also limited commercial development. While local areas are supposed have a 20-year supply of vacant industrial land, too often much of that land is not development-ready. Modern companies operate in globally competitive markets and cannot wait for a years-long planning process. Instead of waiting, they locate and expand elsewhere, taking jobs with them.

Anyone who drives through the Portland area knows that congestion has worsened over the past few years. It affects more than just commuters. The Oregon Department of Transportation concludes that congestion is affecting freight traffic and businesses throughout the state, threatening their national and international competitiveness. Higher transportation costs result in higher prices for consumers.

With the decline in water traffic in the Port of Portland and increased railway congestion, highway traffic is a key transportation mode for freight. As highway conditions worsen, Oregon is more likely to get crossed off the list of places to do business, resulting in a loss of potential middle-income jobs.

A recent study of income and cost-of-living data between states concludes: “Cost of living is clearly impacted by state policies [such as those noted above].” Oregon can move from being a poor state to a rich state through straightforward policy reforms. These must address our high cost of living as well as our lower incomes. Reforms to speed up and expand real estate development will relieve housing price pressures and attract employers. Construction to relieve congestion will improve our competitiveness while reducing roadway accidents and alleviating commuter stress. Labor market reforms will increase employment and boost Oregonians’ paychecks.

Do these things, and Oregon can meet its promise to all of us.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is an Oregon-based economist, adjunct professor at Portland State University, and Academic Advisor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article was originally published by the Pamplin Media Group and appeared in the Gresham Outlook and The Portland Tribune.

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Vote NO on Health Care Tax Measure 101

Vote NO on Health Care Tax Measure 101

By Steve Buckstein

Oregonians will have the opportunity in January to vote No on Ballot Measure 101, thus rejecting new taxes that the state legislature and the governor tried to impose on health insurance premiums and hospital services. While these and other taxes are meant to shore up state funding of Medicaid services to low-income Oregonians, it has become clear that the state has been misspending such funds for years.

Voters’ Pamphlet statements for and against Measure 101 were due by November 13, and Cascade Policy Institute submitted an Argument in Opposition which you can read below. In it, we noted three ways that the state has mismanaged over $650 million in health care funds entrusted to it by state and federal taxpayers. But, that may be far from the final number.

On November 17, four days after the Voters’ Pamphlet deadline, Oregonians learned that the state may have “erroneously paid, allocated, inaccurately recorded or over-claimed $112.4 million in health care funds, according to a letter Oregon Health Authority (OHA) Director Pat Allen sent to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. Allen also told state legislators that “the state was likely to see more processing problems come out of the state’s health agency.”

These revelations were too late for Cascade, or anyone else, to include in our Voters’ Pamphlet statements. So voters will need to keep up with all the reasons to vote No on Measure 101. More reasons may emerge when the Secretary of State releases an expected audit of the OHA by early December.

An early version of the Voters’ Pamphlet for Measure 101, including the full text of the Measure and Arguments in Favor and in Opposition can be found at the Secretary of State’s website.

Here is Cascade’s Argument in Opposition:


Vote No on Measure 101.

Oregon state government has a long history of mismanaging “other people’s health care dollars,” including:

  • Wasting $300 million federal tax dollars building a website, Cover Oregon, that wasn’t able to sign up a single person for health insurance.
  • Paying $280 million a year for nearly 55,000 Medicaid recipients recently found to no longer qualify or who failed to respond to an eligibility check.
  • Overpaying health care organizations $74 million over three years to provide expanded Medicaid coverage to some Oregonians. The state initially only asked for $10 million of those overpayments back, and under political pressure eventually asked for the rest.

As one Oregon economist notes about the taxes in Measure 101:

“The law explicitly allows the new taxes on health insurance providers to be passed on to consumers. With these new taxes, that Silver ACA plan will cost about $625 more in 2019 than in 2018. It’s not just 40-year-olds who will get hit with the insurance tax. Nearly 12,000 college students…will pay the tax. Small group employers…will pay the new tax.

“Taxes on hospitals will raise the costs of care across the board….The cost of these taxes also will be passed on in the form of higher deductibles and premiums. Even if you don’t go to the hospital, you will be paying the hospital tax through higher insurance prices.”*

The cost of health care is already too expensive for many Oregonians. Don’t let the state add even more taxes onto services that are expensive enough already, especially when it has such a poor track record spending the health care tax money it already gets from us.

Say No to these new health care sales taxes.

Vote No on Measure 101.

*source: Health Care Tax Would Hurt Middle Class

(This information furnished by Steve Buckstein, Cascade Policy Institute.)

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

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Tolling People on to Portland’s Highways

Tolling People on to Portland’s Highways

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Earlier this year the state legislature passed a bill requiring the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) to apply for federal authorization to implement “value pricing” on two regional highways: I-205, and I-5 from the Washington border to the intersection with I-205. The OTC must apply by December 31, 2018.

Although value pricing may sound vague or somewhat ominous, motorists should be happy with this new policy. It has the potential to eliminate traffic congestion and create a revenue stream that will allow us to build the new highways and bridges that we need.

First, some background. “Value pricing” is a bureaucratic term for electronic tolling of highways where the toll rates vary based on the density of traffic. Usually, the rates change based on time of day, direction of travel, and day of the week. The rates are set to ensure 45 MPH driving conditions at all times of the day, hence the “value” offered to motorists.

There are many possible variations on this theme. In most cases, value pricing is used on new highway lanes, allowing drivers the option of staying in the unpriced, general purpose lanes. That probably will not be feasible in the Portland region because there is no room for an entire new network of priced lanes on I-5.

In some ways this is a blessing, because variable tolling will make our current lanes more productive. If priced properly, it’s possible that new lanes will not even be needed, saving us the expense of construction.

Value pricing is necessary because our current system cannot address congestion. Our highway network is an open access system, where each trip appears to be “free.” Of course, it’s not free—it’s being paid for by various back-door mechanisms such as motor fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees, and random federal grants. But we think it’s free, so during peak hours we see a “stampede” effect.

When too many people try to get on at the same time, per-lane throughput drops substantially. The carrying capacity for most highways is roughly 1,800 vehicles per-hour in each lane. At times of hyper-congestion, this can drop to 900 vehicles or fewer.

By using variable pricing, we can clear up the stampede and get per-lane travel back to 1,600 or 1,800 vehicles per-hour. In essence, value pricing allows us to “toll on” more people than we “toll off.”

The effect of this was seen recently when tolls on the Port Mann Bridge in Canada were removed on September 1. The Port Mann is a 10-lane bridge over the Fraser River near Vancouver. After tolls were removed, the result was a huge increase in congestion. One driver saw her daily commute increase by 25 minutes each way. She told a news reporter, “Absolutely, it’s terrible. It’s selfish but I want those tolls back on.”

In addition to the benefits of free-flow driving conditions, variable tolling will also create the dedicated revenue stream we need for future highway expansion. There is no doubt that we need several new bridges over the Columbia River, plus additional highway lanes elsewhere. Value pricing will tell us where to build, when to build, and who is willing to pay.

Fortunately, the Oregon Constitution does not allow toll revenues to be siphoned off for non-highway uses such as light rail construction. Therefore, money paid by motorists will benefit them directly.

The new law mandates value pricing on two specific highways but also authorizes the OTC to implement pricing anywhere else. Since the Portland highway network is an integrated system including I-84, I-5, I-405, HW 26, HW 217, and I-205, it would be better to implement value pricing region-wide to ensure that motorists get what they want: free-flow driving conditions, at all times of the day.

Most new highways being built around the world are using electronic tolling with variable rates. The new Oregon law is an opportunity for us to learn from that experience and to implement a Portland highway pricing system that truly delivers “value” for motorists.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article was originally published by the Pamplin Media Group and appeared in the Wilsonville Spokesman and The Portland Tribune.

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Too Late to Fix PERS by Fooling Oregonians

By Scott Shepard

Governor Kate Brown’s task force, assigned to find ways to cut Oregon’s yawning unfunded PERS pension liability, is approaching its November 1 reporting deadline. Governor Brown is relatively new at her job, so perhaps she can be forgiven for hoping her PERS task force can produce magical founts of free money. But it can’t.

The Governor wants proposals to cut the admitted pension deficit of about $25 billion by 20 percent ($5 billion). Even if the task force managed this feat, the recognized debt would only return to its 2015 level, before the PERS Board started inching the assumed rate of return down from its long-standing eight percent figure toward more plausible figures. If the Board shifted to an assumed rate that matched risk with the certainty of payment obligations, unfunded pension liabilities would approach $50 billion.

Oregon taxpayers simply cannot—and will not—pay this tab. Oregon is not wealthy or highly populous. Raising an extra $50 billion—or even 25—is likely impossible. Taxes would have to rise and services decline to the point that businesses and families would begin to flee the state. This would spark a vicious cycle. Fewer taxpayers would be taxed even more to pay a fixed, unpayable bill, creating more incentives for emigration, until the state inevitably declared defeat. While this might sound apocalyptic, it’s not far-fetched: Puerto Rico has already slid into this vortex, and Illinois may become the first American state to fall into default and possible federal receivership.

Governor Brown’s task force efforts cannot thwart this process. She has charged it to find “out-of-the-box solutions” for raising these $5 billion. But no such ideas, out of any box whatever, can come without cost to taxpayers. Some ideas recently floated include increased “sin” (e.g., alcohol and tobacco) taxes. Those who don’t drink or smoke might think themselves off the hook, but they’re not. These increases, if not dedicated to PERS payments, could (and probably would) go to other purposes, like funding the state’s perennial non-pension budget deficit.

The same is true of all proposals floated. Money spent one way can’t be spent in others. Raiding the rainy day fund would force tax increases during the next economic downturn, increasing the pain of the next recession. Raiding the workers’ compensation fund would increase fees to employers, which would increase the costs of goods and services and decrease wages. Selling government property for pensions would mean that property is not available for public use or to sell for other purposes.

Governor Brown knows this. When she seeks “out-of-the-box” funding increases, the constraint she seeks to escape is really our knowledge that taxes are rising, public assets are shrinking, services are being curtailed, and our options are closing around us.

The only viable answer to Oregon’s pension and budget crisis is to reduce pension benefits for government workers. They enjoy more generous wages and benefits than those of comparable private-sector workers. Older government workers also earn benefits for every hour of work that are far higher than those earned by their younger peers.

The legislature first must shift all government workers, for work not yet performed, to the lower benefit structure that serves as a permanent cap for newer public employees. A 2015 Oregon Supreme Court opinion* fixed a long-term Court error by recognizing that the state can take this basic, equitable step to put all employees on the same basis for work not yet completed.

Then it must make use of another implication of that 2015 decision: that the Supreme Court has wrongly suppressed a set of amendments added to the Oregon Constitution in 1994 that, if followed, would have averted this crisis. The legislature should pass legislation to facilitate the equitable adjustment of excessive pension payments made for more than 20 years on the basis of the Court’s error, and fast-track review of the legislation to the Court.

Finally, the legislature should move all government employees into the type of 401(k), defined-contribution retirement plans that are the only sort available to most taxpayers.

It is far too late for panels tasked with finding ways to fool the public. Oregon’s pension crisis requires fair but real pension payment adjustments. Nothing else can succeed.

* Moro v. State, 357 Or. 167 (2015).

Measure 8 (1994), incorporated at OR. CONST. art. IX, § 10–13.

Scott Shepard is a Salem lawyer and law professor and author of an academic study on Oregon state pensions published August 1, 2017 by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is also an Academic Advisor to Cascade Policy Institute in Portland. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on September 28, 2017.

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