Portland Oregonian/Oregon Live
A collection of legislative, business and environmental leaders met for the first time last week to discuss transportation, The (Bend) Bulletin reported. The goal of the group, assembled by Gov. Kate Brown, is to generate support for a funding package to be considered during the 2017 legislative session. Looming in the background, meanwhile, are the Legislature's failure to pass a funding package in 2015 and the reason for that failure: the extension of an expensive low-carbon fuel standard, which Republicans refused to follow up with a hike in the gas tax. Their constituents, they reasoned, could take only so much.
The governor's timing couldn't be better. Brainstorming on something as significant as road funding can't start early enough. Let's hope, too, that the discussions will encourage public debate on two fronts. The first involves transportation funding and the trade-offs lawmakers will have to consider to that end. The second, long overdue, involves Oregon's values.
Specifically, is affordability a core Oregon value? Do Oregon's elected leaders — and Oregonians themselves — believe it's important to consider the cumulative costs of state and local mandates, fees and so forth on lower- and middle-income people?
The question is worth asking at a time when many Oregonians struggle to make ends meet, whether because the cost of housing has soared, as it has in and around Portland, Bend and a few other places, or because lucrative employment is scarce, as is the case in many rural areas. Affordability is something everyone seems to be talking about these days, but there's little evidence it matters to policymakers and interest groups nearly as much as, say, environmental protection or the preservation of farmland and forestland.
Start with the transportation-funding debate. Lawmakers supported a fuel mandate with a minuscule environmental benefit that is expected to raise fuel costs by up to 19 cents per gallon. They did this knowing that the mandate's passage would erode legislative support for a gas tax increase, which would have been at the heart of a transportation package. The episode was, and remains, an instructive display of relative values: Environmental protection (largely symbolic here) mattered more than the maintenance of core infrastructure and the price of fuel, which is not a trivial matter to many.
Particularly telling is the stock response of the fuel standard's supporters to the double-taxation problem (a gas tax on top of the mandate's cost). The low-carbon fuel standard has nothing to do with road funding, they insist, and should be considered separately. This is a convenient fiction, as anyone filling his or her tank 10 years from now will attest. Unfortunately, the reluctance of lawmakers and interest groups to consider the costs of well-intended policies is all too common, and those who are affected most are those who have the least.
The phenomenon repeated itself during the 2016 legislative session with the passage of the so-called “coal to clean” bill, which will raise rates for Oregonians without doing much for the environment. When state utility commissioners tried to point this out, the governor muzzled them. Clearly, preserving affordability for lower- and middle-income Oregonians mattered less than securing a win for utilities and environmental groups.
Even this year's minimum-wage hike raises worrisome questions about affordability, which, naturally, went virtually unexamined during the Legislature's rush to passage. The hike will help some lower-income Oregonians, to be sure. But it will hurt others as employers shed jobs. Rising labor costs will have other effects as well, among them higher expenses for public universities, which are likely to respond by either raising tuition or cutting the hours of working students. . . .
Affordability is not a core value no matter how frequently elected officials may emote about the struggles of people with moderate incomes. Inevitably, it seems, something else just matters more.
If Oregonians want this to change, they need to start demanding that their representatives acknowledge the costs of proposed policies and weigh them honestly against their likely benefits. They also need to push their representatives to look honestly at the costs and benefits of existing policies — and, when the former outweigh the latter, do something about it.