Writings and observations


I’m a member of a small group of citizen activists in Washington County named the “Taxpayer Return on Investment Coalition”. We spent hours over the past 18 months drafting a bill we named the “Taxpayer Return on Investment Act” (TRIA).

The premise is pretty straight forward and a simplistic version is this: If any private business applies for and accepts tax credits, special tax reductions, government grants, or subsidized loans, it would be deemed an investment by the taxpayers (Isn’t that what businesses always tell us their tax breaks are?). The would have to promise that the taxpayer provided incentives would pay for themselves through job creation and more taxes collected form the increased economic activity. Again, that’s the rational for most business tax breaks. The State would audit the results (paid for by the businesses through a small fee based on the percent of the benefits received), and if the business didn’t substantially meet their goals, the business would have to refund the grants or incentives or they could lose their special tax exemptions.

And we included transparency provisions. All of the information on the deals, taxes forgone, credits, SIP and enterprise zone benefits, jobs promised, audits, from any governemtn agency, whether a Port District the State, or a County, would all be on the State of Oregon government transparency website. So citizens could access the information. If someone wanted to know how many various tax dollars ABC Inc. received over the past three years from all sources, they could do a search and bingo! Or if someone wanted to know how many tax dollars the Hillsboro Enterprise zone cost the State, they could search by that parameter as well. Did you know that Daimler Chrysler received tax breaks, loans, and property from six different agancies? And that to find out the total they received one would have to ask for information from each individual agency? And that it promised different numbers of jobs to different agencies and no one knows if they promised the same jobs twice?

Under TRIA, There would be no secret special deals. Complete transparency on where tax breaks were going. And what the people received. No more simple statements such as: “Tax cuts create jobs”, or “Lower taxes and businesses will grow”. We would have data. And with that data, it could be that we’d find that some tax inventive programs worked better than others. And some were just a waste of money. Maybe we could expand those that work, and terminate those that didn’t. If people wanted to have government act more like a business, this is exactly what the TRIA did.

So what happened to TRIA? Nothing. We found no sponsors in Salem. And today the only “transparency” bill that’s still alive is barely on life support. The TRIA coalition reluctantly abandoned TRIA this session to help Rep. Ann Lininger’s pass HB 2077. That bill would require the 100 largest corporations doing business in Oregon to reveal how much they pay in taxes. The TRIA coalation hoped that HB2077 would be something for us to build on.

And as HB2077 went through committee, there was amazingly little opposition. However all the business lobbyists made sure to attend every hearing, they offered no testimony. It seemed that the bill could make it through. Then a fellow TRIA member Prof. Russ Dondero posted a story on his blog.

Russ ran into a CEO of a large business group on the golf course recently. Here’s the gist of their encounter:

His comment to me which I’m paraphrasing was “Russ what are you up to, still trying to hold business accountable?” My answer was “yes” but our transparency bill HB 2077 is stuck in the House Revenue committee. As he walked away from me headed to his tee box he said “that bill would destroy Oregon’s economy.” ….

… this brief 30 second “conversation” on a golf course sums up what one needs to know about Oregon politics these days. Basically, when you mess around with “corporate Oregon” don’t expect them to roll over the play dead. OK I never expected that to happen. But in the many hearings on various transparency bills which ask for disclosure of Oregon taxes corporations pay and how they use billions in state subsidies, the “corporate” suits aka lobbyists while in the room have been silent in the hearings.

But my fellow golfer now business leader let it out of the bag – the hired gun lobbyists and their legislator supporters are watching us and have no plans to let Oregonians know what state income (i.e. excise) taxes the likes of Nike, Intel et al pay nor do they intend to allow for an accounting of how they are using our SIP, enterprise zone and urban renewal subsidies.

And there you have it. Taxpayers trying to hold politicians and big business accountable for the special tax provisions, exemptions, grants, loans and giveaways of public property to big business (Small businesses simply don’t qualify for these programs). But you can’t have an open and transparent debate when the special interests have no interest in debating in public. Even when the issue is transparency.

Maybe especially when the issue is transparency.

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First Take

Two inquiries into state officials, and two responses from the state attorneys general. In Washington, state Auditor Troy Kelley – who is on unpaid leave though he still holds the job, turning aside many requests that he quit – has been for weeks at least under federal investigation on various finance-related issues. Yesterday, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he will launch a state investigation as well. South of the Columbia, former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has been for several months under federal investigation (how much longer should that take, anyway?), but there state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum shut down an initially-launched state inquiry in deference to the federal. What’s the difference? Maybe in Washington’s case, the material under state investigation may be difference from what the feds are checking out, while in Oregon they more directly overlap.

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First Take

Well, of course, as Oregon state Senator Alan Olsen said, it’s about people. Last week Olsen was in his office and his chest didn’t feel right. He thought it might be heartburn, but it persisted. Unsure whether it was something serious, he sent a request for another senator, Alan Bates – who is a primary care physician. Bates and a lobbyist who happens to be an EMT came to Olsen’s office and quickly diagnosed the ongoing heart attack, which was close to killing Olsen. They got him out to a nearby hospital, where Olsen recovered. He’s now returned to the Senate. It happens that Olsen is a Republican and Bates a Democrat, and the two are nearly at opposite ends of most matters political. But as Olsen said, this is about people. And so it is. Politics actually can be like that too. (photo/Seattle hospital, 1973)

Another announcement of a campaign? Probably you could say that Hillary Clinton’s first announcement she’s running for president, a couple of months ago, didn’t really include an announcement speech, which is ordinarily part of the announcement package. But she’s been out there campaigning for weeks now. Isn’t it a little late for an initial campaign announcement? On the other hand, calling the speech a “do-over,” as it is being described in some places doesn’t seem exactly right if it wasn’t done once in the first place . . . – rs

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First Take

Another take on charter schools (see also a Washington state report last week), this time by Levi B Cavener, a special education teacher in Caldwell, Idaho. He also manages the education blog IdahosPromise.Org.

60 years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. On May 17, 1954, the High Court ruled unanimously that U.S. public schools must be desegregated, that separate school systems for blacks and whites are inherently unequal and a violation of the “equal protection clause” of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s now more than a half century later. Here, we have Idaho.
On April 29, 2015, the Idaho Public Charter School Commission released their first ever Annual Report. A damning self-indictment, it paints a painfully grim picture for minority student enrollment in Idaho’s public charter schools. The Commission’s comprehensive report was unequivocal in its findings: Idaho charter schools are consistently and disproportionately unreflective of their surrounding communities’ demographics.

A few takeaways from the report: 55% of Idaho charters under enroll Special Education students; 77% of charters under enroll Free and Reduced Lunch students; 87% under enroll Limited English Proficiency students; and 90% under enroll non-white students. What does this mean? It means Idaho has reversed course and is heading back to 1955, back to the Civil Rights era, and back to schools that are both separate and unequal. It means, apparently, “white flight”?

Beyond a moral and legal argument to ensure equity in public charter schools, here’s why every property owner in Idaho should care about the Commission’s recent findings: When public charter schools fail to share an equitable burden for providing expensive minority student services — such as special education and English Language Learner instruction – local public schools end up enrolling a disproportionate number of these students. Local public schools are then forced to levy property owners to pay for expensive minority instruction and support.

While some may point to the current imbalance as merely a byproduct of so called “school choice,” the Commission’s findings should, at minimum, create pause to ensure that charter facilities are actually “a choice” for minority student populations. Remember, Jim Crow laws and segregated schools were also a product of active policy “choices” by lawmakers.

Remember, the bargain that charters made with Idaho is enhanced instructional freedom in order to experiment with new pedagogy and curriculum. However, that bargain also requires charters to provide equitable access and appropriate minority service instruction as required by civil rights law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Terry Ryan, President of the Idaho Charter School Network (the lobbying arm of Idaho’s charters), recently wrote an op-ed declaring that the solution to this inequity problem is…wait for it…to build more charters! Said Mr. Ryan, “The best way to help charter schools serve more diverse populations is to help them grow.” Throw more money at the problem. Where have we heard this before?

Idaho Ed News reported that Idaho Charter Commission Chairman Alan Reed said of the report’s findings, “Before approving new charters, we ask petitioners, ‘What are your strategies for reaching special and underserved populations?’”

Chairman Reed’s question should be modified: Before approving any new charters we need to fix the imbalance that exists today. After all, shouldn’t minority students be entitled to the same freedom and legal opportunity “to choose” charters as any other kiddo?

It’s time for a moratorium on any new charters until we address this chronic imbalance. It’s time we fully recognize that regular public schools are shouldering the heavy burden of educating special education, minority and low income student populations. And it’s past time that funding for Idaho charter schools be withheld until they can demonstrate they are following the law.

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Will this be a big fire year in Idaho and in the Northwest? Every year it seems to be a crap shoot, but the potential is there. A spate of recent rain in the state isn’t enough to eliminate the basic dryness in the system; the state’s snowpack remains low. And, while wildfire season still doesn’t really kick in for a bit yet, there actually is a (mostly unheralded) wildfire in Idaho, one of only three in the west: the Celebration fire (odd name) covering 7,400 acres near Murphy.

Hot days for an early part of June: Record-breaking, in a number of places around the Northwest. Is this an indicator of things to come?

(photo by Boise National Forest. From front cover of today’s edition of the Idaho Weekly Briefing.)

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First Take


At the risk of yet another “negative GUARDIAN rant,” we feel compelled to comment on two developments which crossed our desk today.

The DAILY PAPER posted a story informing us the City Council approved a proposed 173-home development IN THE FOOT HILLS adjacent to the Harris Ranch subdivision east of downtown.

The current zoning is either “open space” or agricultural (grazing). Team Dave just announced a proposal to seek $10,000,000 through a serial levy to preserve open space and conservation areas.

Wouldn’t it be a lot cheaper to simply deny the development and need for more schools, roads, sewers etc.? The deer and antelope could play without a discouraging word–as they do now in that area…no need to buy foot hills land to keep developers out.

The Vista Neighborhood is subject of a “do good rescue” project on the part of our City fathers (and mothers). Seems the area has a disproportionate number of poor folks, free lunches in the schools, (“title one”) and other problems which a Federal grant will supposedly help upgrade or cure.

At the same time, a new 300-resident development with “affordable housing” (which means subsidized for low income) is about to be approved for the big vacant lot along Federal Way by the Overland Trail Post Office. If they offer housing for low income residents, it would seem logical that more low income people will move into the neighborhood, causing more free lunches at Hawthorn School, increased traffic, etc. No telling if they will include 23 sex offenders like those at Canal and Vista in the City-owned motel.

Wouldn’t it be better to put a low-income project in Harris Ranch or on the ridges off Bogus Basin Road in an effort to disperse various economic classes? Just curious.

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