Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tax Credit Auction, Take 2!

After coming up well short of expectations earlier this fall in an effort to auction off $1.5 million in tax credits, the Oregon Departments of Revenue and Energy will re-open the bidding tomorrow for a second tax credit auction. The first attempt drew few bidders and raised less than one-third of projections.

Like the first go-round, the new auction will accept opening bids of $950 for the chance to win a $1,000 tax credit. (That is, for $950 you would get a $1,000 tax credit on your next Oregon income tax return, making it a $50 profit in your favor.) Bidding opens at 9 a.m. tomorrow and runs through December 9.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Kitzhaber Halts Haugen Execution

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber made a stunning announcement today:  He's halting the execution of Gary Haugen. The two-time murderer was scheduled to die by lethal injection on December 6 at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. But Kitzhaber is using his executive power to keep Haugen alive, at least for now. The governor is not commuting Haugen's sentence. Instead, Kitzhaber says he's putting a temporary halt to executions for the remainder of his time as governor.

The decision marks a change in direction for Kitzhaber. The Democrat allowed two executions to proceed during his first two terms in office. In each case, like Haugen, the convicted killers had dropped their appeals. But Kitzhaber says he's concluded since then that Oregon's capital punishment system "fails to meet the basic standards of justice." The governor says he favors "replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole." In a statement, the governor called upon the legislature to "bring potential reforms before the 2013 legislative session." 

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Narrated Tour Of Oregon's Execution Chamber

On Friday, I was part of a media tour of Oregon's seldom-used execution room. Officials at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem are preparing for the upcoming execution of Gary Haugen. It's scheduled for December 6, but since Haugen is "volunteering" for the execution by way of dropping all remaining legal appears, he has the power to stop it (for now) by simply changing his mind. (The governor can also call it off, and there's a pending legal request before the Oregon Supreme Court to halt the execution, filed by an anti-death penalty group.)

The Department of Corrections did not permit reporters to bring video or audio reporters, but the agency did distribute "B-roll" of the death chamber. So using that footage, we created a narrated tour of the execution room:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Revenue Forecast: First Look

Oregon economists said this morning that expected state revenues have dropped another $107 million since the last revenue forecast. The state Office of Economic Analysis released the latest numbers this morning at a meeting of the House Interim Revenue Committee. The drop is not enough to use up the remaining cushion that lawmakers built into the current budget, but it leaves budget-writers with much less wiggle room over the remaining 19 months of the biennium. In response, Governor John Kitzhaber announced a limited hiring freeze at large agencies, and told those agencies not to expect to receive a 3.5% "holdback" that was written into the budget.

Monday, November 14, 2011

DMV Record Fee Could Nearly Quintuple

The cost of accessing an Oregon DMV record could soon quintuple. As I outlined in a report earlier this year, the state is moving to a new model for online commerce--one that will shift the cost of conducting businesses with the state online over to consumers, and away from the state's general fund. The move could save millions of tax dollars a year. State officials have said all along that most transactions will not be assessed an additional fee--that is, if a certain license or permit costs $50, that's the price you'll pay whether you buy it through the mail, online, or in-person. But some types of transactions will incur an additional "convenience fee" for the privilege of conducting business online. The idea is that consumers--mainly businesses--will happily pay a little extra if it the process is faster and easier than, say, writing a check and putting it in the mail.

Until now, the state has been mum on what kinds of "convenience fees" will be levied. But we're getting our first look at a solid proposal. Check out page 20 of this Power Point presentation, which will be presented Friday afternoon at a meeting of the Oregon E-government Portal Advisory Board. In it, the state recommends raising the fee for accessing a DMV record from $2 to $9.68, which represents a nearly five-fold increase.

State e-government officials point out that the current fee is among the lowest in the nation. The new charge would be $1.25 higher than the national average, but lower than the fee charged in Washington state. Of the proposed $9.68 charge, $3 would go to the Kansas-based company that the state has contracted with to run e-government services starting next year.

How does this affect you? In the short-term, you probably won't see any difference. For one thing, the higher fee will be charged only to companies called "disseminators" who purchase DMV records in bulk. Citizens will still be able to purchase their own DMV record for $2 (though I can't say I've met anyone who's actually done this). The disseminators typically buy records by the thousands and re-package them for sale to insurance companies. So it's possible the higher DMV record fee will be eventually be passed along to people who purchase car insurance. Of course, even if your insurance company purchases a new copy of your driving record every year, the extra $7.68 will represent a tiny fraction of most insurance policies. 

The E-government Portal Advisory Board will consider the proposal on Friday. If members approve, the recommendation will be passed along to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services, which gets final say. Oregon E-government manager Wally Rogers tells me there are no additional fee recommendations at this time.

Friday, November 4, 2011

No Heart-Pounding Finish For State Tax Credit Auction

If you bid on items at online auction sites such as eBay, you know that the final moments of bidding can lead to heartburn. With a few seconds left, you can be outbid by some stranger on that rare tchotchke you've had your eye on. While the state has long auctioned off surplus state property on eBay (just a few days left to get your hands on this Pavement Density Indicator!), a pair of state agencies is choosing a different tactic to auction off what is admittedly a rather different kind of product:  Tax Credits.

In short, the Department of Energy is teaming up with the Department of Revenue to auction off 1,500 tax credits worth $1,000 each. Opening bids start at $950, meaning there isn't a lot of breathing room between the minimum bid and the point at which it isn't worth your time. But unlike eBay and many live auctions, there's no way of knowing what's already been bid. Department of Revenue spokeswoman Rosemary Almond wouldn't tell me how many bids have come in so far, saying that revealing that information "might give people who haven’t bid yet an edge." (I'm guessing a $951 bid would serve you well at this point, but you didn't hear it from me...)

If all the credits are sold (i.e. bid on) the auction would raise a minimum of $1.4 million for the state to fund grants for renewable energy projects. Of course, the state will turn around and return that money (and likely more) to tax credit purchasers next spring when people file taxes. Bidding on the tax credits opened on October 24, and the deadline (as of this writing) is just 75 minutes away.