By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
Oregon will soon be the first state to have a statewide rent control program. Last week, in my first week at Cascade Policy Institute, I testified in opposition to the rent control bill, SB 608. The bill has the support of the Governor Kate Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek, and Senate President Peter Courtney. About 100 people signed up to testify, and supporters outnumbered opponents by 2-to-1. It’s a done deal and it’s a bad deal.
During World War II, the federal government instituted a national system of rent controls, establishing maximum rents for rental properties. New York City was the only city to retain this first generation of rent controls after the war. During the 1970s, rent regulations were introduced in many cities, including Boston; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; and Los Angeles.
In contrast with pure rent control (a fixed maximum price), SB 608 is a form of “second generation” rent controls that allows annual rent increases, limited to 7 percent plus inflation. Rent controls under SB 608 apply to buildings that are more than 15 years old. The bill also places strict limits on “no cause evictions.”
Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that rent control is “among the best-understood issues in all of economics, and—among economists, anyway—one of the least controversial.” Krugman’s well known and widely used economics textbook describes the economic inefficiencies associated with rent control:
Rent control, like all price ceilings, creates inefficiency in at least four distinct ways. It reduces the quantity of apartments rented below the efficient level; it typically leads to misallocation of apartments among would-be renters; it leads to wasted time and effort as people search for apartments; and it leads landlords to maintain apartments in inefficiently low quality or condition.
Proponents of rent controls argue that “second generation” rent controls reduce or eliminate the inefficiencies associated with “first generation” rent controls. For example, Kotek was quoted in the Oregonian:
What you’re hearing from landlords about rent control is they have an idea of it that’s very much the model that began right after World War II where properties had hard, fast caps on rents. That’s not the kind of rent control we’re talking about. We’re talking about second generation rent stabilization where there’s a process for managing rent increases that protects investors and tenants.
Kotek is correct that second generation rent controls are not as bad as first generation rent controls, but it’s matter of degree. Second-degree burns aren’t as bad as third-degree burns, but a second-degree burn still hurts.
While many proponents see rent control as one way to address housing affordability, none of them indicated it would do anything to resolve what is widely perceived to be a housing shortage. In fact, an expert flown in from Berkeley by the housing committee admitted that rent controls in other cities have led to the conversion of apartments to condominium. He went so far as to suggest legislation that would ban the conversion of apartments to condos.
This suggestion lays bare the pernicious chain of regulation that rent control brings. Second generation rent control doesn’t “work” unless there are strict limits on the termination of month-to-month rents. Then, it won’t work unless there are strict limits on the conversion of units. One witness even suggested that apartment building owners should be forbidden from selling their properties.
The limits on providers’ ability to terminate leases will lead to providers becoming more selective in to whom they rent units. In this way, the ordinance misallocates rental units among would-be renters and may do the most harm to those whom the bill is intended to help, such as those with a history of homelessness, impaired credit, criminal convictions, or employment instability. An older woman testified about her horror story of trying to find an apartment with her retired husband in Medford, applying to dozens of apartments only to be told she’d be on a list. Her story will become more common as rent controls reduce the supply of rental units.
In addition to the inefficiencies identified by Krugman, SB 608 will ultimately lead to higher rents than would occur in the absence of the law. As rental units turn over, providers will factor in the expected cost of the law into the rents and other fees that they charge incoming residents. Some or all of the expected cost associated with SB 608 will be passed on to tenants. Ultimately, the law will have the perverse impact of increasing—rather than reducing or stabilizing—rents over time and reducing the amount of market rate housing available to low- and middle-income households.
 Krugman, Paul. “A rent affair.” New York Times. June 7, 2000.
 Krugman, Paul and Robin Wells. Microeconomics, 3rd ed. New York: Worth Publishers. 2013. p. 130.
 Friedman, Gordon R. “Portland’s Tina Kotek explains her rent control plans—and landlord pains.” Oregonian. February 4, 2017.
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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By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.
After teaching an evening class at Portland State University, I walked up to the kiosk showing TriMet arrival times. My bus was coming in five minutes. Good news. One of my students was standing there, too. She shook her head, looked at her phone, and said, “My next bus is in 30 minutes. I’m just going to Uber home.” Her situation wasn’t unique. Across the country, more and more commuters see ride hailing as a reliable and affordable substitute for mass transit.
Transit agencies should see services such as Lyft and Uber as an opportunity rather than a threat. Toward that end, Cascade Policy Institute recommends TriMet pursue a pilot project that replaces one or more of its high-cost bus lines with ride hailing services supported by a subsidy funded with the cost savings from eliminating the high-cost line. The experiment likely will find that replacing high-cost bus service with ride hailing will improve ridership and save money.
TriMet faces a challenge of declining ridership in conjunction with rising costs. Ridership has declined for many public transit providers in the U.S.—TriMet reports bus boardings have dropped 13 percent from their 2009 peak. As the Portland Tribune reported, the agency thinks many factors have contributed to the decline in ridership, including gentrification in Portland, the growth of urban centers inside and outside the city, and the development of self-sufficient walkable neighborhoods that has reduced the need for bus trips.
Longer travel times likely are another factor that explains the decline in bus ridership. From 2007 through 2017, the average vehicle speed for TriMet buses has dropped by almost nine percent. Portland city commissioner Amanda Fritz recently tweeted that Portland’s new speed limit law has made her bus commute five minutes longer. Over a year, that’s about 30 extra hours sitting on a bus. With longer travel times, the costs to commuters of using public transit increase, leading to a decline in ridership.
As with any mass transit enterprise, TriMet operates a number of high-cost, low-ridership bus lines. For example, the agency reports the 97 (Tualatin-Sherwood Rd) bus line has about ten riders per hour at a cost of more than $18 per ride. The fare for a ride hailing service covering the same distance as the average bus trip would be less than $8. Service on this route could be completely replaced by ride hailing services and save TriMet thousands of dollars a week.
While ride hailing can replace mass transit, it can also complement bus and rail service. Recent research finds that ride hailing services have the largest positive effect on rail service in cities with large public transit systems already in place, such as Portland. In 2015, Lyft conducted a nationwide survey of riders and found that 25 percent of riders use Lyft to connect to public transit. Uber reports that nearly 25 percent of Uber trips in suburban Portland began or ended within one quarter-mile of a MAX or WES station.
More than a dozen cities in the United States currently have programs running similar to the pilot project we propose. Detroit’s program, “Woodward 2 Work,” runs late at night and is aimed at those who work late shifts when mass transit does not run. San Clemente replaced two high-cost bus lines with ride hailing. Marin County’s service is designed to boost ridership on commuter rail by making it more convenient for riders to get to and from rail stations. Several of the programs that began as pilots have been extended because of their success in serving commuters and saving money.
Many of these cities have developed procedures to accommodate users who do not have a smartphone and users with ADA-related needs. In approving ride hailing services in Portland, the city mandated a performance standard that called for wheelchair accessible vehicles to reach riders in thirty minutes or less. In Detroit’s program, riders without bank accounts can use prepaid gift cards.
The pilot project we recommend would be a low-cost, low-risk test of potential synergies between public transit and private ride hailing. If successful, the lessons learned can and should be applied to additional high-cost transit lines.
Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is an Oregon-based economist, adjunct professor at Portland State University, and Academic Advisor at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on January 24, 2019.
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By Bobbie Jager
As a mother of 13 children (no, that’s not a typo) and grandmother of 17 more, I understand the critical role that parents play in the lives of their children. Education can make or break a child’s future, and school choice gives parents the power—and the responsibility—to decide what education options fit their children best. That’s why I support school choice and National School Choice Week.
Every January, National School Choice Week (www.schoolchoiceweek.com) shines a spotlight on effective education options for all children. A nonpartisan and nonpolitical celebration of educational choice, the Week raises awareness of the different K-12 education options available to children and families. National School Choice Week recognizes all K-12 options, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling.
Started in 2011, National School Choice Week is now the world’s largest annual celebration of opportunity in education. Parents, teachers, supporters, and students will gather at more than 40,000 events the week of January 20-26, 2019. These events will celebrate the ways in which school choice has brought quality educational options to millions of households nationwide.
Some parents may not know it, but they do have a wide array of options. In Oregon, school choice runs the gamut, from homeschooling to magnet schools offering specialized programs in subjects like the arts or sciences. Some school districts offer choice through open enrollment (children studying in public schools outside their neighborhood borders).
Some argue that school choice undermines public education. Far from it! For one thing, many school choice options are public options, including open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, and online learning. Oregon’s publicly funded options include more than a hundred charter schools and 12 virtual (online) schools, all of which have greater autonomy and flexibility than traditional public schools.
But regardless of the school setting parents choose, education should always have children—and parents—as its focus. However well-intentioned, no school official can ever replace the love, care, and affection that parents will show a child. Because they care so much, and know so much about their sons and daughters, parents are the best-placed individuals to decide the right schooling option for their children. School choice gives them that power, that opportunity, and that voice.
The joy in children’s eyes at National School Choice Week festivities reminds me of my kids’ excitement when they came home from school after completing a big project or doing well on a test. When placed in an environment that nurtures and cultivates their special skills and abilities, children have a chance to shine, and their faces radiate happiness. As a mother, I hope all parents can witness that joy in their children’s faces—not just once or twice a year, but throughout their schooling.
Here in Oregon, we will use National School Choice Week to host the Options in Education Fest 2019: Exploring Your Child’s Education Opportunities, at the Salem Convention Center, Saturday, January 19, 2019. Parents and children can learn more about their options, including programs offered and application processes at various schools. This knowledge will provide parents with the power to make informed choices for their children. For more information and to attend the Options in Education Fest, visit schoolchoicefororegon.com.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of being named Oregon’s “Mother of the Year.” But in reality, all children see their parents as the Mother or Father of the Year. And all parents who make sure their children receive a quality education—and the better future that comes with it—qualify. So please celebrate National School Choice Week by considering your school options or coming out to the Options in Education Fest. Your children will thank you, both now and for many years to come.
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 appeared in The Portland Tribune on December 18, 2019.
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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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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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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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