Category: Tax and Budget

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Portland’s Clean Energy Tax: A High Cost with Low Benefit

By Rachel Dawson

In January 2019 the City of Portland implemented a voter-approved a 1% tax on certain “retail sales” within Portland to fund clean energy projects and jobs training. This tax will be applied to retailers with $1 billion or more in total sales, $500,000 of which must be from within Portland city limits. Retailers can pass the cost of the tax along to the purchaser of the good or service. Thus, it is likely consumers—not retailers—will ultimately be paying for it. Once collected, these funds will be administered by the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

Despite claims that the Portland Clean Energy Fund is unique, the energy efficiency projects funded by this tax are already being completed by the Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO) and Oregon Housing and Community Services through a surcharge on ratepayers’ utility bills. In some cases, the Portland Clean Energy Fund will be triple-taxing Portland utility ratepayers.

Approximately 40-60% of funds will be allocated to clean energy projects including renewable energy, conservation, and green infrastructure for residential, commercial, and public school projects. At least one half of clean energy project funds must benefit low-income residents and minorities. The Portland Clean Energy Fund will also be used to help Portland meet its goal of using 100% community-wide electricity from renewable sources by 2035.

Many voters believed this tax would only affect large retailers. However, senior deputy city attorney Kenneth McGair admits the tax will affect public works projects and construction equipment wholesalers, as well as disability insurance plans and insurance policies. The only exempt transactions will be groceries, medicine, and health care services. Due to its impact on construction, this tax will increase the cost of taxpayer funded projects such as affordable housing.

While 1% may seem like a small amount, it will add up to millions of dollars when applied to high-cost construction projects. For example, the tax will add an estimated $2 million to Lincoln High School’s $200 million renovation costs.

Voters may be unaware that they are already paying for similar clean energy projects through a surcharge on their utility bills known as the Public Purpose Charge (PPC). The tax rate from the PPC has grown to over 6% for many electric utility customers and up to 5.8% for ratepayers who consume natural gas.

ETO uses funds from the surcharge to support energy efficiency projects for low-income families (low-income weatherization), rehabilitation and construction of low-income housing, above-market renewable energy, and energy conservation and market transformation. Not only will the Portland Clean Energy Fund be completing similar projects to ETO’s, but ETO projects that involve construction, such as their affordable housing and school green infrastructure projects, will now be further taxed to support energy efficiency. Some ETO ratepayer-funded clean energy projects will be taxed to further fund clean energy projects. And many Portland area residents will be caught paying for both.

In addition to the ETO, the Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) agency also benefits from the PPC surcharge to fund additional low-income weatherization projects, arguably the same demographic the Portland Clean Energy Fund aims to help.

One of these tax programs should be repealed: either the Portland Clean Energy Fund or the Public Purpose Charge. Doing so will ensure that Portland residents are not double- or triple-taxed for multiple programs that provide the same services.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Public Debt for Public Housing

By Vlad Yurlov

In the 2018 general election, voters approved a bond measure that enabled Metro to borrow about $652 million for low-income public housing in the tri-county area. This money will be given out to localities within Metro. With the minimum of 3,900 housing units to be built, the price-tag would be more than $165,000 per unit.

When pressed for completion times for this project, a high-level Metro staffer stated new units can be expected to be used in eight to ten years. This schedule should not surprise anyone who has dealt with government bureaucracies, but a decade is a long time to wait for a crisis we’re having today.

For comparison, more than 6,700 housing units were constructed per year between 2010 and 2018 in the tri-county area, based on the U.S. Census Annual Housing Estimates. This means that even a target of 3,900 units would be roughly 60% of just one year’s worth of private construction. In addition, if Metro does build homes, private companies have less incentive to build, thereby compounding the current crisis.

A good government delivers public services on time and on budget. Right now, Metro is taking the bucks, without making much of a bang.

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

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Portland’s Ill-Considered Climate Action Tax

By Micah Perry

Last fall, Portland voters approved a new 1% tax on large retailers to help the city achieve the goals of its Climate Action Plan. This measure has had serious consequences for Portland businesses.

Before the vote, proponents of the new tax described large retailers as places like Walmart or Fred Meyer. But, according to Dan Drinkward of Hoffman Construction, the city’s implementation of the measure “has gone beyond the clear intent of the measure as it was communicated to voters.”

Because of the measure’s broad language, many construction companies are defined as retailers and will have to pay the tax. Their clients will ultimately bear the cost increases—clients like Portland Public Schools, low-income housing developers, and the City of Portland itself.

Portland’s schools will especially suffer. The district’s projects have already increased in price because of the tax, with the Lincoln High School rebuild now costing an extra $2 million.

While certain foods, medicines, and health care services are exempt, other necessities like clothing and toiletries are subject to the tax, making Portland’s cost of living even higher, especially for low-income residents.

It would only take three commissioners from the Portland City Council to revise or repeal this poorly-thought-out tax. For the sake of the city, Portland’s voters must call on them to do so.

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

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Metro Wants More Money—For Parks You May Never See

By Helen Cook

How much would you be willing to spend to buy parkland that would ban your dog?

Metro hopes Portland area taxpayers will spend $475 million to buy land kept from public use for many years. That’s the purpose of a Metro bond measure on the ballot in November.

Much of the new tax money would go to acquiring natural areas that will be unusable by the public for an unspecified amount of time. If this feels like déjà vu, that’s because Metro passed a similar bond measure in 2006.

Rather than let the previous tax increases sunset, Metro wants more money, ostensibly to create parks for historically underserved communities. But much of the land Metro plans to buy is located far from the communities it’s intended to serve.

Metro also claims the new bond measure won’t increase taxes. This is not true. If the bond measure fails, property owners’ tax bills will go down. A “yes” vote is a vote for higher taxes. A “no” vote will save the average homeowner about $48 a year.

Metro’s new bond is neither the beginning nor the end of a cycle of buying remote natural areas that won’t allow recreational uses. Make sure to look for this measure on your ballot in November and vote no.

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

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Oregon Legislator to Oregon Business: “Let ‘em Leave!”

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

“Let ’em leave. Someone else’ll come in.” That was Oregon state senator James Manning’s response when told that new business taxes will cause some firms to leave the state.

Unfortunately, the senator is not alone with the let-them-leave attitude. That seems to be the attitude of the supermajority in the legislature as well as the city of Portland, who have both recently passed massive business taxes.

The legislature just passed a billion dollar a year “corporate activities tax.” The new tax is triggered once a business hits one million dollars in sales. This may seem like a lot to a legislator; but many small businesses such as restaurants, retailers, and consulting firms can easily generate a million dollars in sales. In fact, the Census Bureau reports about a quarter of Oregon employers have sales of a million or more a year. Thousands small firms will be subject to thousands of dollars in new sales taxes on top the income taxes they already pay.

Last year, Portland voters approved their own tax on business revenues, with money earmarked for so-called clean energy projects. Firms who thought they were exempt are now learning that they, too, will face a steep tax bill.

These new taxes will be a good test of Senator Manning’s let-them-leave theory, as owners look to other states for a better business environment. However, I’m not confident someone else will come in to replace the ones that leave.

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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SW Corridor Project: A Net Negative for the Environment

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland politicians claim to be concerned about carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. That’s why so many of them support TriMet’s proposed 12-mile light rail line from Portland to Bridgeport Village near Tigard. They think it will reduce fossil fuel use.

Their assumptions are wrong.

According to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project, energy used during construction of the rail project will equal 5.9 trillion Btu. Much of this will be in the form of fossil fuels needed to power the heavy equipment. Additional energy will be used to manufacture the rail cars, tracks, and overhead wires.

The EIS claims that the negative environmental consequences of construction will be made up by energy saved from operations of the train. However, the operational savings are so small it would take 61 years to mitigate the carbon dioxide emissions of construction.

2035 Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled and Energy Consumption 

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

With Light Rail

Million Btu/Day

With Light Rail

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

                                          Source: Draft EIS, SW Corridor Project

Unfortunately, all of the light rail cars will need to be replaced before then. Building new cars will require more energy, resulting in additional CO2 emissions and a longer payback period.

Light rail is not a solution to a perceived climate change problem; it IS a climate change problem. Any further planning for the SW Corridor project should be terminated.

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

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Press Release: Multi-year case study of Multnomah County’s Sellwood Bridge explains the history behind worsening traffic congestion in the SE Portland bridge corridor

June 6, 2019

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.
503-242-0900
john@cascadepolicy.org

PORTLAND, OR – Today Cascade Policy Institute released the results of a seven-year case study of the Sellwood Bridge reconstruction, The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled.

The evidence shows that even though the new Sellwood Bridge is more than twice as wide as the original bridge, it moves fewer people at peak hours. Moreover, use of the bridge by cyclists and pedestrians has not increased significantly, despite the generous facilities provided for them.

As a result, traffic congestion in the bridge corridor is worse than it was in 2012, and cut-through traffic in the Sellwood neighborhood has seriously degraded the quality of life for those living and working there.

The increase in traffic congestion was actually planned for by Metro more than 20 years ago, when the regional agency placed a moratorium on any new Willamette River bridge capacity for motor vehicles between the Marquam Bridge and Oregon City. Metro believed that if a bridge cap was imposed, significant numbers of people could be diverted from auto travel to biking, walking, or transit.

Their assumptions were wrong. During two years of intensive field monitoring by Cascade Policy Institute, the combined travel share for biking and walking never exceeded three percent, as shown below:

Sellwood Bridge Travel Patterns, 2017-18

Based on hourly sampling

Year Total observed passenger-trips Auto share Transit share Bike share Pedestrian share
2017 13,593 95.1% 2.2% 2.2% 0.5%
2018 19,888 95.2% 1.9% 2.4% 0.6%

 

Although the new Sellwood Bridge was marketed as a cutting-edge example of the Portland commitment to “multi-modalism,” the bridge itself is not even a multi-modal facility. Heavy trucks are prohibited, and there is no bus service most of the time. Average daily travel is actually more reliant on the private automobile than it was in 1993.

According to Cascade Policy Institute President John A. Charles, Jr., who directed the study,

“Portland-area planners have long believed they could change travel behavior by starving the road system while promoting alternative modes such as transit, walking, and biking. The evidence from the Sellwood Bridge reconstruction shows that wider sidewalks are not a substitute for increased road capacity.”

John Charles is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute and has written about transportation policy for more than 30 years. The focus of his research is utilizing field studies to determine how the built environment influences urban travel behavior. Charles received a BA degree with honors from University of Pittsburgh and an MPA degree from Portland State University.

The full report, The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled, can be downloaded here.

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free-market public policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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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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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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