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The Great Recession of 2008 “stress tested” many policies and institutions including the effectiveness of laws meant to handle municipal fiscal crises. In new Mercatus research professor Eric Scorsone of Michigan State University assess the range and type of legal remedies offered by states to help local governments in financial trouble.

“Municipal Fiscal Emergency Laws: Background and Guide to State-Based Approaches,” begins with some brief context. Most municipal fiscal laws trace their lineage through the 1975 New York City fiscal crisis, the Great Depression and the 19th century railroad bankruptcies. Writing in 1935, attorney Edward Dimock articulated three pieces to addressing municipal insolvency:  1) oversight of the municipality’s financial management 2) stop individual creditors from undermining the distressed entity and 3) put together a plan of adjustment for meeting the creditor’s needs.

These general parameters are at work in state laws today. The details vary. Some states are passive and others much more “hands-on” in dealing with local financial troubles. Scorsone documents these approach with a focus on the “triggers” states use to identify a crisis, the remedies permitted (e.g. can a municipality amend a collective bargaining agreement?), and the exit strategies offered. Maine has the most “Spartan” of fiscal triggers. A Maine municipality that fails to redistribute state taxes, or misses a bond payment triggers the state government’s attention. Michigan also has very strong municipal distress laws which create, “almost a form of quasi-bankruptcy” allowing the state emergency manager to break existing contracts. Texas and Tennessee, by contrast, are relatively hands-off.

How well these laws work is a live issue in many places, including Pennsylvania. In 1987 the state passed Act 47 to identify distressed municipalities. While Act 47 appears to have diagnosed dozens of faltering local governments, the law has proven ineffective in helping municipalities right course. Many cities have remained on the distressed list for 20 years. Recent legislation proposes to allow a municipality that can’t “exit Act 47″ the option of disincorporating. Is there a middle ground? As the PA State Association of Town Supervisors put it, “If we can’t address the labor issues, if we can’t address the mandates, if we can’t address the tax exempt properties, we go nowhere.”

Municipalities end up in distress for a complex set of reasons: self-inflicted policy and governance failures, uncontrollable social and economic shifts, and external shocks. Unwinding the effects of decades of interlocking problems isn’t a neat and easy undertaking. The purpose of the paper isn’t to evaluate the effectiveness various approaches to helping municipalities out of distress, it is instead a much-needed guide to help navigate and compare the states’ legal frameworks in which municipal leaders make decisions.

 

 

 

Before winning this year’s World Cup championship, Germany faced a dilemma during its qualifying match against the United States. Both teams could ensure their advancement in the tournament by colluding to do nothing. If they tied, both would advance. If one of them won, the other might not advance. However, neither could ensure that the other would cooperate. And as a result, they were both forced to compete.

This situation, known a “prisoner’s dilemma,” is one that manifests itself in all sorts of situations, frombusiness to politics to World Cup qualifying games.

It also helps explain where we find ourselves with the Export-Import Bank,or “Ex-Im,” a federal agency tasked with subsidizing U.S. exports. The bank’s charter is set to expire in a few months, and some are making the case that it should be reauthorized to help U.S. manufacturers “compete internationally” by“leveling the playing field.” This is simply another prisoner’s dilemma playing out in the real world.

That is my latest, coauthored with Chris Koopman, at US News.

This July marks the 100-year anniversary of the American Jitney. An early incarnation of Uber and Lyft, it was an enormously popular service that was at one point found in 175 U.S. cities. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because most major cities quickly regulated it out of existence.

My colleague, Michael Farren, and I explore the short life and death of the American jitney in tomorrow’s LA Times.

With the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission recently issuing cease-and-desist letters to ride-share services Lyft and Uber, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto invoked the Age of Reptiles to describe the decision:

“Technologies like ride-sharing evolve with the times and state regulators must, too,” said Mayor Peduto in a prepared statement. “While the commission may wish for Pennsylvania to cling to a Jurassic Age of transportation options, people in Pittsburgh and other communities know our state must adapt or die in the global marketplace.”

That is Christopher Koopman and me, writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Click here to read the rest.

Corporate Bailouts: the REAL Trickle-down Economics

July 7, 2014

Advocates of corporate welfare often claim that when governments privilege a handful of firms, the rest of the economy somehow benefits. This is how the Bush Administration sold the bank bailouts. It’s how the current Administration sold the auto bailouts. And it’s how the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is trying to sell the Export-Import Bank. […]

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Some private sector pensions also face funding trouble

July 2, 2014

A new report by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC) warns that while the market recovery has helped many multiemployer pension plans improve their funding there remain some plans that,”will not be able to raise contributions or reduce benefits sufficiently to avoid insolvency,” affecting between 1 and 1.5 million of ten million enrollees. Multiemployer plans are […]

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Delaware Senate votes to bail out three casinos

June 26, 2014

Delaware’s state senate has voted to redirect $10 billion in economic development funding to bail out three gambling casinos. The measure now goes to the House. Two reasons the casinos are failing: increased competition from Maryland and Pennsylvania and having to share a large chuck of revenue with the state. Lawmakers admit the bailout is only a […]

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What to do when technology outpaces the law?

June 17, 2014

The recent cease-and-desist letters from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to taxi alternatives Uber Technologies and Lyft remind me of my first trip to D.C. in 1997. An awkward high school junior traveling alone, I landed at National Airport, followed the signs and hopped into a filthy Virginia-sanctioned taxicab. The heavy stench of stale […]

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The barriers to brewing

June 16, 2014

Recently, Evan Feinberg of Generation Opportunity described some of the barriers craft brewers face. In one instance, a brewer — who does not prepare any food — was told he had to install a hood for a food oven that he did not even own. Another brewer — who does not use poultry in his beer — […]

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Strong words from the SEC on Public Sector Pensions

June 3, 2014

As state and local governments begin to pull back the curtain on the true value of their pension liabilities with the implementation of GASB 68, Daniel Gallagher, Commissioner of the SEC issued an important statement last week, noting in plain terms that how governments measure their liabilities would have serious repercussions in the private sector. […]

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