Friday, August 28, 2015

Kickers, Rainy-Days and Rising Seas

The news that $400 million will be returned by the State of Oregon to taxpayers has aroused me from my hibernating slumber.  Plus, it is going to be a rainy-day so it all just seems too perfect an opportunity to miss to moan about our ridiculous revenue policy in the state.  Fred Thompson and I have written in these pages extensively about the Kicker and its folly.

The kicker system is one-sided - in unexpectedly good revenue years the government has to shed excess revenue, but in unexpectedly bad revenue years the government has no way to make up of the lost revenue.  This system ensures the state will always have to endure painful and grossly inefficient cuts during lean times.  Which is just stupid.

Economies are cyclical, revenues are cyclical too (no matter how you rearrange the tax structure - sales taxes don't help).  What a good manager does (just like any household) is create a system where highly variable revenues don't cause highly variable spending.  A good analogy is a realtor who has an unexpectedly exceptional year - prudence requires stuffing some of that money in a savings account to have ready for those unexpectedly bad years.

So why doesn't Oregon behave the same way?  It is not a crazy thought - many states have rainy-day funds that are very effective in smoothing out fiscal spending.  The kicker should cause us to think about how we manage our budget as a state and our woeful performance on a vast number of metrics regarding public education as well as the condition of our roads should be enough to convince us that what we are doing is not working.

Conveniently, we are also seeing, quite dramatically the effects of a warmer planet.  It is too late to stop the immediate impacts like dramatically rising sea levels (something not inconsequential for a coastal state) but folly not to try and address the root cause.Similarly, we also need to repair and maintain our fragile transportation infrastructure.  Both of these facts seems to provide the perfect opportunity to sell a rainy-day fund and to sell a carbon tax by highlighting the good work that could be done with the revenues.

So I will restate a basic policy proposal I made a few months ago:

1. Convert the kicker into a permanent rainy-day fund for the state.

2. Institute a carbon tax with revenues dedicated to transportation infrastructure (including mass transit) and public education.

3. End the ban on self-service gas to lower the cost of retail gas and help offset the impact of the carbon tax.

Seems like a good referendum, eh?


Unknown said...
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Patrick Emerson said...

Oops, no it should read "End the ban..."