Month: September 2018

Can School Choice Change Lives?

By Steve Buckstein

Can School Choice Change Lives? Join Cascade Policy Institute and SchoolChoiceforOregon.com the evening of Tuesday, September 25th for a Live Stream Facebook event featuring two prominent national School Choice experts.

Find out how and why School Choice is indeed changing lives around the country, and how Oregon school children can benefit from much more school choice than they have today.

Each student has individual challenges and learning styles, and many factors can cause them to fall behind. Join this discussion to learn how School Choice can help.

Are you a parent? Are you an Oregon taxpayer? You won’t want to miss this fast-moving Q&A discussion with local and national school reform experts, in front of a live studio audience in Portland.

We invite you to submit questions in advance or during the Live Stream at Facebook.com/SchoolChoiceforOregon.

To be involved, go to SchoolChoiceforOregon.com/Events and enter your email address. You’ll be notified by email before the event goes live on Facebook at 6 pm on September 25th.

If you’ve ever wondered why Oregon’s public education system is so expensive, yet produces such poor results for so many children, you won’t want to miss this important event. Again, go to SchoolChoiceforOregon.com/Events and enter your email address.

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

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The Kicker Debate Continues

By Steve Buckstein

Because of Oregon’s recent and projected strong economy, a personal “kicker” tax refund of $686 million is projected to go out in the first half of 2020. This would be the second-largest kicker amount in the state’s history. If you pay personal income taxes to the state of Oregon, you will get some of this money as a credit on your future tax liabilities. This will again raise the question: Is the kicker law good or bad public policy?

Some people will be envious that the “rich” will get much bigger refunds than the rest of us and they don’t really “need” the money. While the average kicker is projected to be $336, they point to those in the highest adjusted gross income bracket of $401,200 and above who can expect to receive $6,787. What is often unstated in this argument is that those “lucky” top taxpayers paid way more income tax than the rest of us, and they will get back exactly the same percentage of their tax payments as everyone else does.

So, whether the kicker law is good or bad public policy, let’s think a little about who this money really belongs to. Is it a rebate for overpaying your taxes, or is it somehow “our” money that is better left in government coffers?

How the kicker works 

First, the mechanics of the kicker law: Oregon state government is highly dependent on the personal income tax for its General Fund budget. With a fairly flat tax structure, most wage earners are in the nine percent income tax bracket, while the highest income earners are in the top 9.9 percent bracket. Therefore, state revenue can be quite volatile, going up and down as the economy cycles between boom and bust.

The legislature first passed the kicker law in 1979, and voters added it to the state constitution in 2000. It mandates that state economists estimate what income tax revenue will be over the following two-year budget period. The legislature then must balance the budget by not allocating more money than the estimate. If the estimate is low by two percent or more, then the entire surplus must be returned to taxpayers. The kicker law actually is composed of two parts, dealing with personal income taxes and corporate income taxes differently. In 2012 voters decided that any corporate kickers would be returned to the state general fund to provide additional funding for K-12 public schools.

Some people argue that the way the kicker “kicks” makes little sense. They correctly note that projecting state revenue two years out to within a two percent margin is terribly difficult, and has been done only rarely. Others defend the kicker law as an important brake on runaway government spending, especially since voters have rejected other tax and expenditure limitations at the polls.

Whose money is it? 

Whether the kicker law is good or bad public policy doesn’t change the answer to a more fundamental question: Whose money is it?

Some argue that the kicker money really belongs to the state. After all, they say, it’s in the state’s coffers because individuals paid what the tax law said they owed on their tax returns. As long as any Oregonian has a “need” for that money—be they school children, the elderly, the disabled, etc.—then the money should go to them instead of back to the individuals who earned it.

How much is that latte? 

Of course, this is the Marxist “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” justification. Taken further, not only would the kicker money remain with the state, but the state could retroactively come after even more of your previous income if, in the wisdom of government officials, anyone still “needed” those funds.

One way to look at this argument is to think about walking into a coffee shop today and ordering a $3 latte. The price is posted on the wall, but the person behind the counter asks you a question before accepting your order. “Did you get a raise last year?” “Yes,” you tell her proudly, “I was very productive last year and my boss gave me a 10 percent raise.” “That’s great,” she replies. “The $3 latte will cost you $3.30.” “Why?” you wonder. “Because your ability allows me to better meet my needs.”

You wouldn’t accept this argument from your barista, and you shouldn’t accept it from your government.

Envy is a powerful emotion, but it should not trump reason. If we can find a better way to restrain runaway government spending, we should do so. But until that day arrives, the kicker law is one defense against those who argue that some of the money you earned belongs to someone else just because they “need” it.

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. You can find more Cascade Commentaries on Oregon’s kicker law here.

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Better Forest Management Can Prevent Oregon WIldfires

By Justus Armstrong

Wildfires in Oregon this summer have burned thousands of acres, resulting in hazardous air quality conditions and the evacuation of hundreds. As our firefighters face these fires, it’s important to examine the policies and practices that may contribute to increased wildfire risks.

Environmental advocates point to carbon-induced climate change as a factor in intensified droughts and longer fire seasons, but dealing with climate change as a means of dealing with wildfires puts the cart before the horse. Wildfires are a cause of carbon emissions more than a consequence, since burning forests release higher amounts of stored carbon. Before addressing the impacts of carbon on our forests, we must address the impacts of poor forest management.

Proposed strategies for preventing wildfires have included clearing overcrowded forests with commercial logging, or focusing the Forest Service budget on prevention today to save money on firefighting tomorrow. These solutions are a start, but the root of the problem exists at the top. The U.S. Forest Service simply doesn’t have the same incentive to take care of Oregon forests as those most affected by wildfires. In addition to reevaluating regulations that hinder controlled burning and forest clearing, Oregon officials can advocate for the decentralization of federal forest management to state, local, or private levels. Rethinking forest management is one step towards preventing future wildfires.

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

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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.

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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.

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Reform of Oregon’s Foster Care System Is Long Overdue

By Justus Armstrong

Are we failing Oregon’s foster kids? A January audit from the Secretary of State uncovered serious shortcomings in how Oregon’s Department of Human Services has handled foster care, including chronic mismanagement and irresponsibility, overburdened caseworkers, and a common practice of children with nowhere else to stay having to sleep in hotels or their caseworker’s office.

Oregon’s child welfare system is deeply flawed and in need of reform. Many internal reforms to Oregon’s DHS have been recommended, but Oregon could take additional steps to improve the situation by contracting out child welfare services to private agencies. Doing so would relieve the overburdening of the state agency and allow other organizations and members of the community to assume responsibilities that the state has failed to fulfill.

Other states have already implemented privatization with promising results. After shifting to a privatized child welfare system, Kansas saw a decrease in the average length of stay in foster care and an increase in adoptions; and Michigan was able to relieve their overburdened caseworkers while saving taxpayers’ money.

It will take careful effort to implement a similar system in Oregon, but making our state a safer place for foster kids is long overdue. Privatization provides an opportunity for substantial change in the right direction, and we need change now more than ever.

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

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