Major advances for Oregon transparency - and many challenges too

Jon Bartholomew

As Oregon faces a $3.5 billion budget deficit, it makes it all the more important we can get a clearer picture as to how the state is actually spending money. By doing so, we put the facts on the table instead of merely rhetoric on all sides of the budget debate. The more we can really show where tax dollars go, the more we can talk about real solutions to tough issues. There are several improvements in state transparency recently that will help provide a clearer picture for the public, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

One major improvement is the incorporation of the Oregon Data technology onto the state transparency website. This is a reciprocal deal where the budget data from the transparency site is also available at the Oregon Data website. Now, at long last, you can search state spending through direct expenditures, contracts and salaries – and make charts, download search results, map results and more. It takes a little while to get used to the interface, but it’s a very powerful tool. The important thing here is that it dramatically improves the usability of the state transparency website. The goal is to make the information about spending more understandable to the average citizen. However, I see a lot of room for improvement in really providing enough context for people to fully understand government spending. I’d encourage you to try out the new features and provide your feedback on them.

While this is an improvement, there are still many ways Oregon is spending money that you can’t see on the website. For example, the state spends billions of dollars a year through the tax code, and all we get to understand that spending is a Tax Expenditure Report (TER). To be fair, Oregon’s TER is much better than what is provided in many other states, and this year they are making the basic information about the tax expenditures available on a downloadable spreadsheet. However, there is more information about tax expenditures that is not available in the TER.

Based on what it says in the newest TER, there is likely to be about $600 million in the next biennium in tax breaks for businesses for the purpose of economic development. What you can’t see in the TER or anywhere online is who got these breaks, how much they got, how many jobs they promised to deliver, and what they actually did. If we are to ensure these programs actually create the jobs they said they would, and to ensure these breaks aren’t going to undeserving businesses, we need to be able to see that data.

Seeing that data is exactly what is behind HB 2825, a bipartisan effort to make economic development tax incentives more transparent to the public. As an editorial in the Eugene Register Guard noted, “Oregonians need a clear picture of what they’re getting from these programs, both because of their big price tag and because it’s essential that the expenditures yield actual results.” This bill had its first hearing on February 17th and has broad bipartisan support. However, you can still weigh in on it with your legislators by using OSPIRG’s action tool.

One exciting advance for transparency is that now you can see data online of one of the largest and most controversial of these tax expenditures that businesses benefit from. You can now view who has received and been pre-certified for BETC credits on the Oregon Department of Energy’s website. This information should be mirrored on the state transparency site, but at least it’s available at ODoE’s site. Some improvements that still need to be made are to include the data in a downloadable spreadsheet (instead of a pdf) and to include pass-through partners (where the company that received the credit then sold the credit to another taxpayer).

Another set of data that is not available on the state transparency website is the spending by Oregon’s “quasi public” agencies. Quasis are agencies that are not directly accountable to the voters or to legislators but were created by government to perform public services. They have the power to raise revenues, but outside of the normal budget process of state government, and they are run by appointed – not elected – boards. They include such agencies as TriMet, the Port of Portland, OHSU and the Portland Development Commission. I recently published a report about quasis, noting that while none of them have their budget data at the state transparency website, many of them have very little budget information on their own website, and none of them provide “checkbook-level” spending information.

Transparency is certainly not the silver bullet to ensure the state spends money in the most effective ways, but it is a powerful tool for accountability. Through transparency, active citizens can analyze how we spend, and make suggestions for improvement. The arguments about state spending shift from about rhetoric to about facts. And since sunlight is the best disinfectant, transparency will also prevent the misspending of tax dollars. While there has been a lot of improvement over the last two years, we still need to ensure ALL state spending is transparent, and we need to make it more understandable.

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    Thanks Jon. This article and the links within it were/are useful.

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    I am not sure why it is so important who buys the tax credits when someone sells theirs under the betc passthru program. Anyone private or business that pays taxes in Oregon can buy BETC tax credits. The rate is the same for everyone. It is published, although very hard to find on the ODOE website at the bottom of their fAq page, and even then you had to use a formula to figure it out)They provide a very low pass thru rate for projects under 20K and a higher rate for projects over. This varies somewhat for the different tax credits, retc/betc; efficiency/renewables. The state no matter who buys the credits still pays out the same tax credit, either 35% for efficiency or up to 50% for renewables on the BETC side. As an aside, if the pass thru rate is lower it simply makes it harder to find pass thru partners,(I have looked for years for passthru partners to team up with our non profit, governmental and poorer biz clients) it doesnt save the state any money no matter what the passthru rate is as they still pay out the same tax credit rate either for a pass thru project or non pass thru project. Varying the pass thru rate changes the economics to the customer, which if it is a governmental agency would make a difference in the long run if they are state funded. though in the long run, with cost effective efficiency projects energy savings helps the customer reduce their overhead. Additionally a tax credit is not taxable on the state level, though if you are a business and decide to sell your tax credit, that income to the seller is taxable, which would get some of the money back to the state. So lets see,their have been articles in the paper griping about Walmart and others buying tax credits and making money. When a school sells their tax credits it typically pays for 25.7% of the project cost, which costs the state 35% of the costn(the pass thru partner makes the difference. This puts people to work installing the efficiency measures, in our case employs our workers manufacturing energy efficient lighting that we sell to customers (change the BETC to give a bonus for in state manufactured products: Marvin Windows, Solar World PV, PV Powered inverters, Energy Wise Lighting lights...). I still cant figure out what the big deal is who buys the BETC. What would be more productive is to figure out how to give out grants in lieu of the tax credits at the pass thru rate which would save the state money and get more projects done, save people money and help make business more competitive so they ideally would stick around. Cut the renewable credits and lower the cap as it is killing the rest of the program of efficiency which is magnitudes of order more cost effective, at least as far as $/kwh saved for the Betc dollar goes.

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