Month: May 2019

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Metro Transportation Funding Task Force Testimony

By John A. Charles, Jr.

At the last meeting, there was a fair amount of discussion about how the proposed bond measure should be structured to reduce GHG emissions from the transportation network.

If that is the direction the committee prefers, then it implies that the bond measure should not fund any road expansion projects. But it also has implications for light rail construction.

According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the SW Corridor project, the estimated energy consumption during construction of light rail will be 5,886,876 million Btu. The DEIS also asserts that the “one-time energy use required to construct the Light Rail Alternative would be offset by the project’s long-term, beneficial operational impacts.”

To determine if this is true, we can look at the estimated daily energy savings from rail operations. On page 4-129 of the DEIS, the following information is presented:

2035 Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled and Energy Consumption

Vehicle Type Daily VMT – No build option Million Btu/Day – No build option Daily VMT

Light Rail option

Million Btu/Day

Light Rail option

Passenger vehicle 51,474,286 249,084 51,415,071 248,798
Heavy-duty trucks 3,389,982 73,132 3,389,288 73,117
Transit bus 100,122 3,546 97,501 3,453
Light rail 19,189 1,247 21,200 1,377
TOTAL 54,983,579 327,009 54,923,060 326,745

 

Since the energy savings from light rail operation compared with the base case are quite small, it would take 61.09 years to overcome the GHG deficit caused by construction. Also, the useful life of the equipment is likely to be only 40 years, so replacing all the light rail cars and track system would create another energy deficit.

If you asked the Energy Trust of Oregon for a grant to install an energy conservation project with a 61-year payback, they would probably reject your request. Cost-effective energy efficiency projects need to have a payback period that is less than the lifespan of the equipment.

Given the over-riding goal of GHG reduction, I recommend that bond expenditures be limited to bike and pedestrian projects only. Among other things, this would drop the total cost by about 90%, which would greatly increase the chance of voter approval.

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Taxpayers Should Demand Accountability Before Passing (Another) Metro Bond Measure

By Miranda Bonifield

Last November, Metro gained approval from Portland voters to borrow $652 million for low-income public housing projects. In 2020, they’ll ask for $850 million for a light rail project.

This year, the regional government is proposing a $475 million bond measure to fund parks and nature projects. While Metro argues this is not a tax increase, the reality is that borrowing $475 million will cost taxpayers over $800 million between principal and interest payments. And judging by precedent, Metro will ask for additional funds before they’ve completed the projects currently on their roster. Metro has owned its largest nature park, Chehalem Ridge, for nearly a decade without making it accessible to the public—making it a nature project, but not a park. Metro continually asks voters to pay full costs without delivering full benefits.

In 2016, Metro persuaded voters to approve additional funding for similar projects despite concerns that the regional government ought to make smaller demands and demonstrate its reliability. While audits have found some improvements since 2016, Metro still struggles to demonstrate measurable benefits from the thousands of acres they already possess.

The Metro Council will be finalizing the bond language and hearing public testimony in their Portland headquarters at 2 p.m. on June 6. Voters should require accountability and consistency from Metro before indebting ourselves for another twenty years.

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

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Carbon Regulation: Another Legislative Circus

By John A. Charles, Jr.

According to the state’s Global Warming Commission, Oregon has already met its goal of reducing per-capita carbon dioxide emissions to levels that are 20% below 1990 emissions by the year 2020. In fact, we met the goal four years ago.

Are state legislators celebrating this achievement? Not at all. They are too busy rolling out a 98-page bill that will establish a statewide limit on carbon dioxide emissions, designed to make energy more expensive. The bill also repeals the CO2 goal that we’ve already met and imposes a more stringent one: to reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050.

Why change the goal? Because proponents of the bill don’t care about results. They always want aggressive sounding goals with distant timelines, in order to give themselves bragging rights about how visionary Oregon is in restricting the use of fossil fuels.

Most of the costs are backloaded to occur after 2030, when electric utilities will be forced to buy a shrinking number of carbon dioxide allowances. At that point, electricity bills will start going up. But you won’t be able to blame politicians, because most of the legislators voting for the bill this year will be out of office by then. That’s how it always works.

We’ve already met the state goal for CO2 reduction. Legislators should leave us alone.

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

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Is Oregon Really “Disinvesting” in Education?

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The Portland Association of Teachers declares Oregon has suffered “a 30-year disinvestment in education.” That’s a bold charge. Thirty years is a long time, and disinvestment is a strong word.

To disinvest literally means “to reduce or eliminate” investment. Is it true that Oregon has reduced investment in public schools over 30 years? No.

Multnomah County’s Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission has been tracking school spending in the Portland area for more than 30 years. A review of Portland Public Schools spending since 1985 shows that per student spending in Oregon’s largest school district has steadily increased over the past 30 years, as shown in the figure below.

Over the past three decades, both total spending and spending on instruction at PPS have grown faster than the rate of inflation. In recent years, Portland schools have spent about $30,000 per student, with almost $8,000 per student spent on instruction.

 

Portland Public Schools spending in dollars per student

Since the last recession, PPS total spending has accelerated. Voters in the district have approved nearly $1.3 billion in construction bonds since 2012. In 2011 and 2014, voters approved and renewed a local option property tax increase for Portland schools. Another renewal of the $95 million tax is expected to be on the ballot this year.

In Oregon, total expenditures per student were $13,037 in 2016, the most recent year for which information is available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Oregon is exactly in the middle of the state rankings of per student total expenditures. Six states, including Oregon, Washington, and California, have per student spending that is within five percent of the national average. Total expenditures include salaries, employee benefits such as health insurance and PERS, supplies, and debt service, among other things.

According to the state’s Legislative Revenue Office, annual state and local education spending in Oregon has increased by about $1.7 billion over the past ten years. This amounts to $2,350 in increased spending per student and has greatly outpaced the rate of inflation.

Despite Oregon’s smack-dab-in-the-middle per student spending, the state ranks near the bottom in graduation rate, produces mixed results on standardized tests, and has the sixth-highest student-teacher ratio in the U.S.

These dismal outcomes are not the result of disinvestment; they are a result of misinvestment—a diversion of education spending away from classroom teaching.

The Public Employee Retirement System and other benefits are the biggest drivers of Oregon’s education finance problems. The cost of paying for public employee retirements has doubled over the past ten years. In 2009, school districts paid approximately 15% of payroll to fund PERS. The latest estimates indicate next year, districts will have to pay 30% of payroll. A big piece of current so-called “instructional” expenditures is actually spent to pay for teachers who have retired.

In general, health insurance premiums for teachers in Oregon are lower than those of teachers in California or Washington, but Oregon teachers pay a much smaller share of the premium. Research indicates Oregon teachers pay approximately 12% of the premium, while teachers in California and Washington pay 22-45%.

Many school districts have taken on additional debt to reduce their PERS obligations and fund construction. Interest payments on debt are taking money out of classrooms. Census data indicate Oregon schools pay almost $600 per student per year in interest payments alone, making it the fourth highest state in per student interest payments.

Oregon taxpayers continue to support and invest in the state’s education, and any claims of disinvestment are simply wrong. Because of misplaced priorities, too many dollars earmarked for education are not used to teach students the skills they need to be productive and successful adults. PERS must be overhauled, and educational spending should be directed toward increasing high school graduation rates and making measurable improvements in academic achievement.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on May 21, 2019.

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Education Savings Accounts Give Parents the Power of Choice in K-12 Education

By Kathryn Hickok

This month, the Tennessee legislature passed a new Education Savings Account (ESA) law for its state’s K-12 students. The law creates the second ESA program that will operate in the Volunteer State.

The new Tennessee law provides families there with alternatives to low-performing public schools in the form of about $7,300 per student in education funding annually, if parents want to withdraw their children from their zoned district schools. Parents may spend ESA funds on private school tuition, tutoring, educational therapies, or other education-related expenses.

Education options are widespread in America, unless a family can’t afford an alternative to their zoned public school. Education Savings Accounts give parents the ability to customize their children’s education in the ways that are best for them as individual students. ESAs put parents, rather than government school bureaucracies, in the “driver’s seat” of their kids’ education. Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee are operating ESA programs today.

Unlike school voucher programs, ESAs give parents the flexibility to spend education funds on more than just private school tuition. Depending on the specifics of individual ESA programs, approved uses for ESA funds also can include textbooks, online classes, tutoring, testing, AP classes, dual-enrollment courses, homeschool expenses, and education-related fees. Some ESA programs operate like controlled-use debit cards, with which parents can pay only for legitimate education expenses.

Senate Bill 668, introduced in Oregon’s 2019 Legislative Session, would create an Education Savings Account program here. Participating children from families with income less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level and participating children with a disability would receive $6,500 deposited into their accounts. All other participating children would receive $4,900 deposited into their accounts. Funds remaining in a child’s account after expenses are paid each year could be “rolled over” for use in subsequent years, including post-secondary education within Oregon.

ESA programs are frequently designed so the amount of funding support provided to participating students would be less than the amount the state would have spent for a student to attend a public school, with the state recouping the difference. In this way, ESAs can provide a net fiscal benefit to state and local government budgets.

A fiscal analysis of Oregon’s SB 668 found the program, if enacted, likely would cost the state approximately $128 million a year but would lead to savings of about $130 million a year to local school districts, for a net state and local impact of approximately $2.2 million in reduced costs. There would be virtually no net impact on per-student spending for students who continued to choose public K-12 education.

Because parents, not the government, direct the spending of funds in their children’s ESAs, ESA programs have stood up to constitutional challenges. A state’s government is not involved in picking “winners and losers” in the non-public education sector, nor is it directing taxpayer funds to religious institutions. Schools chosen by parents are accountable to parents, who are free to “vote with their feet” and enroll in schools that are providing value. Because ESAs are not a “use it or lose it” benefit, parents are further incentivized to use their ESA funds with education providers with whom they are satisfied.

Senate Bill 668 will receive an informational hearing in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, June 5, at 1 pm at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem. If you support more parental choice in education, you may wish to attend the hearing or to submit your own testimony or comments to the committee online.

Children in 29 states and the District of Columbia currently benefit from 62 operating school choice programs. Oregon students, regardless of their ZIP Codes or income levels, deserve the opportunity for an education that fits their unique needs and goals. Education Savings Accounts put more options within reach for all students, especially those who need them the most.

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

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Tennessee’s New Education Savings Account Law Puts More Parents in the “Driver’s Seat” of Their Kids’ Education

By Kathryn Hickok

This month Tennessee enacted a new Education Savings Account (ESA) law for its state’s K-12 students. The law creates the second ESA program that will operate in the Volunteer State.

Education options are widespread in America, unless a family can’t afford an alternative to their zoned public school. The Tennessee legislation provides families there with alternatives to low-performing public schools in the form of about $7,300 per student annually to spend on private school tuition, tutoring, or educational therapies.

Education Savings Accounts work like controlled-use debit cards. Parents can spend allocated funds on approved school expenses or educational services. ESAs put parents, rather than public school bureaucracies, in the “driver’s seat” of their kids’ education.

Senate Bill 668, introduced in this year’s Oregon Legislative Session, would implement an Education Savings Account program here in Oregon. Senate Bill 668 will receive an informational hearing in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, June 5, at 1 pm. If you support parental choice in education, attend the hearing or submit your own testimony online.

Children in 29 states and the District of Columbia currently benefit from 62 operating school choice programs. Oregon students deserve the same opportunities for an education that fits their needs.

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

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Why Record-Breaking Revenues Aren’t Enough

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

This week, Oregon is facing a one-day teacher strike, with educators demanding more money for schools. Also this week, the legislature will consider a billion-dollar-a-year sales tax on business. All this is happening in the face of record-breaking tax revenues.

Research published by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that Oregon tax revenues are nearly 30 percent higher than the pre-recession peak. Only one other state has seen bigger growth in tax revenues.

But even a gusher in tax revenues can’t keep pace with government spending. Despite a booming economy with record low unemployment, the number of people on the Oregon Health Plan has nearly doubled from pre-recession levels. Over the same period, the annual cost of the public employee retirement system has grown by 60 percent, or double the rate of tax revenues.

Nearly every problem with state and local budgets can be traced to PERS costs and Medicaid expansion. Our budget problems are spending problems, not revenue problems.

While we recovered from the last recession, our elected leaders are making dangerous decisions today that will lead to devastation when the next recession hits. If our government can’t balance the books during a boom, we won’t survive a bust.

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

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May 8 Should Be Declared “Fix PERS Now Day”

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The Oregon Education Association is organizing a statewide walk-out May 8 related to what it says is inadequate school funding. What they’re really demanding is a $2 billion tax increase.

Districts across the state, including Portland, Beaverton, North Clackamas, Gladstone, and Eugene have canceled classes for the day, forcing working parents to stay home or line up day care for the strike. The teachers surely have their chants and songs already scripted for their rallies. But, there’s one slogan the teachers won’t be shouting. That’s: “Fix PERS Now!”

District administrators appear to be in support of the Oregon Education Association’s unauthorized strike. West Linn-Wilsonville superintendent Kathy Ludwig said, “OEA’s purpose with this rally is to send the message to all Oregonians that public school funding has been insufficient for decades and needs to be addressed.” A written statement made to the Portland teachers’ union by superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero reads: “Our educators and students deserve better. It is long overdue that we prioritize schools in Oregon.”

The claim that Oregon hasn’t prioritized public education is simply wrong. Portland Public Schools voters have approved nearly $1.3 billion in construction bonds since 2012. In 2011 and 2014, voters approved and renewed a local option property tax increase for Portland schools. Another renewal of the $95 million tax is expected to be on the ballot this year.

In Oregon, total expenditures per student were $13,037 in 2016, the most recent year for which information is available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Oregon is exactly in the middle of the state rankings of per student total expenditures. Six states, including Oregon, Washington, and California, have per student spending that is within five percent of the national average. Total expenditures include salaries, employee benefits such as health insurance and PERS, supplies, and debt service, among other things.

According to the state’s Legislative Revenue Office, annual state and local education spending in Oregon has increased by about $1.7 billion over the past ten years. This amounts to $2,350 in increased spending per student and has greatly outpaced the rate of inflation.

Despite a booming economy with increased tax revenues and funding for schools, many districts claim they are facing a funding gap. Beaverton expects to cut more than 200 teachers. Portland plans to eliminate 45 classroom teaching positions and combine many fourth and fifth grade classrooms. These announcements raise the question: Why are districts cutting staff in the face of rising revenues?

PERS and other benefits are the biggest drivers of Oregon’s education finance problems. The cost of paying for public employee retirements has doubled over the past ten years. In 2009, school districts paid approximately 15 percent of payroll to fund PERS. The latest estimates indicate next year, districts will have to pay 30 percent of payroll. The increased cost of PERS alone in the next biennium would cause the average class size to increase by two to four students per classroom.

It gets worse. In reaction to earlier PERS crises, many school districts took on additional debt to reduce their PERS obligations. The interest payments on the bonds are taking money out of classrooms. Census data indicate Oregon schools pay almost $600 per student per year in interest payments alone, making it the fourth highest state in per student interest payments.

The OEA claims it’s seeking more spending to reduce class sizes and improve graduation rates. However, the Oregon Business Council calculates PERS will consume much of the $2 billion in tax increases under consideration by the legislature. Without meaningful PERS reforms, Oregonians will face decades of multi-billion-dollar tax increases every time the legislature meets.

The frustration of teachers is understandable. They are on the front lines of education. However, walking off the job is the wrong approach and sets a poor example for students. It punishes pupils, parents, and employers for our politicians’ failure to fix PERS. It also misses the mark strategically because the legislature doesn’t have any more money, and neither do put-upon taxpayers. Parents who are forced to stay home to watch their kids on May 8 should take them on a field trip to the OEA’s rallies with signs of their own, reading, “No New Taxes—Fix PERS Now!”

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

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Florida Legislature Gives 18,000 More Children the Chance for a Great Education

By Kathryn Hickok

This week, the Florida legislature passed a bill that would create a scholarship program for lower-income families called the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The Family Empowerment Scholarship will provide lower-income children with scholarships equal to 95% of the state portion of funding to school districts. The Family Empowerment Scholarship is expected to be signed into law soon by Governor Ron DeSantis.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship will complement Florida’s other parental choice programs, the McKay Scholarship for children with special needs and Step Up for Students for children from low-income families. According to the American Federation for Children, which promotes parental choice in K-12 education, the parents of more than 170,000 Florida children wanted to apply for 100,000 scholarships available through Step Up for Students for the current school year. By authorizing 18,000 new scholarships in its first year, with a subsequent annual growth rate of 7,000 per year, the new Florida law will increase the education options available to low-income Florida parents.

Oregon should take a serious look at the diversity of parental choice options low-income families now have in states like Florida and across the country. It’s time for Oregon to expand the role of parents choosing―and schools delivering―better education through school choice, because every child deserves a chance for a successful school experience and a better future today.

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

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