Author Archives: Eileen Norcross

Local control over transportation: good in principle but not being practiced

State and local governments know their transportation needs better than Washington D.C. But that doesn’t mean that state and local governments are necessarily more efficient or less prone to public choice problems when it comes to funding projects, and some of that is due to the intertwined funding streams that make up a transportation budget.

Emily Goff at The Heritage Foundation finds two such examples in the recent transportation bills passed in Virginia and Maryland.

Both Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley propose raising taxes to fund new transit projects. In Virginia the state will eliminate the gas tax and replace it with an increase in the sales tax. This is a move away from a user-based tax to a more general source of taxation, severing the connection between those who use the roads and those who pay. The gas tax is related to road use; sales taxes are barely related. There is a much greater chance of political diversion of sales tax revenues to subsidized transit projects: trolleys, trains and bike paths, rather than using revenues for road improvements.

Maryland reduces the gas tax by five cents to 18.5 cents per gallon and imposes a new wholesale tax on motor fuels.

How’s the money being spent? In Virginia 42 percent of the new sales tax revenues will go to mass transit with the rest going to highway maintenance. As Goff notes this means lower -income southwestern Virginians will subsidize transit for affluent northern Virginians every time they make a nonfood purchase.

As an example, consider Arlington’s $1 million dollar bus stop. Arlingtonians chipped in $200,000 and the rest came from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). It’s likely with a move to the sales tax, we’ll see more of this. And indeed, according to Arlington Now, there’s a plan for 24 more bus stops to compliment the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar, a light rail project that is the subject of a lively local debate.

Revenue diversions to big-ticket transit projects are also incentivized by the states trying to come up with enough money to secure federal grants for Metrorail extensions (Virginia’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and Maryland’s Purple Line to New Carrolton).

Truly modernizing and improving roads and mass transit could be better achieved by following a few principles.

  • First, phase out federal transit grants which encourage states to pursue politically-influenced and costly projects that don’t always address commuters’ needs. (See the rapid bus versus light rail debate).
  • Secondly, Virginia and Maryland should move their revenue system back towards user-fees for road improvements. This is increasingly possible with technology and a Vehicle Miles Tax (VMT), which the GAO finds is “more equitable and efficient” than the gas tax.
  • And lastly, improve transit funding. One way this can be done is through increasing farebox recovery rates. The idea is to get transit fares in line with the rest of the world.

Interestingly, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo have built rail systems at a fraction of the cost of heavily-subsidized projects in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Stephen Smith, writing at Bloomberg, highlights that a big part of the problem in the U.S. are antiquated procurement laws that limit bidders on transit projects and push up costs. These legal restrictions amount to real money. French rail operator SNCF estimated it could cut $30 billion off of the proposed $68 billion California light rail project. California rejected the offer and is sticking with the pricier lead contractor.

 

 

 

 

Civil Disobedience and Detroit’s financial manager

Michigan’s Governor Rick Synder may be greeted by protestors when he arrives for a meeting today on Detroit’s financial condition. His recent appointment of Kevyn Orr as the city’s emergency financial manager has angered many of Detroit’s residents who are afraid he has powers that are far too sweeping and is thereby destroying local control. The purpose of the financial manager law is to help the city stave off bankruptcy and allows the emergency manager the ability to renegotiate labor contracts and potentially sell city assets. The last recession has worsened the already-struggling city’s financial outlook. Detroit has a $327 million budget deficit and $14 billion in long-term debt and has shown very little willingness to make the kind of structural changes it needs in order to stay solvent.

Detroit’s problems are acute. The city’s population has fallen from 1.8 million to 700,000, giving the city, “a look and feel that rivals post World War II Europe.” But as Public Sector Inc’s Steve Eide writes, the real problem is that local leaders have proven unable to deal with fiscal realities for far too long. His chart shows the consequences. The gap between estimated revenues and expenditures over time is striking. In sum, Detroit overestimates its revenues and underestimates its spending, by a lot, when it plans for the budget. That is a governance and administration crisis and one that the state has decided needs outside intervention to set straight.

Standard & Poors likes the appointment and has upgraded Detroit’s credit rating outlook to “stable.”

Public pension plan portfolios: pursuing higher risk at what cost?

How should a public sector pension plan invest its assets? A trend since the 2007 financial crisis is public pension funds making up for losses by seeking higher returns in riskier portfolios. Michael Corkery at The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the Texas Teachers’ Retirement Fund which is placing more of its assets in private equity in an attempt to “hit its target” of 8 percent annual returns. Therein lies the problem.

Due to how public pension liabilities (i.e. the benefits owed to retirees) are valued (based on the expected return on plan assets), there is pressure to invest plan assets to achieve a targeted return that is linked to how the liability is valued. This approach is deeply flawed and been criticized often. Instead, plan assets should be invested in a way that hedges the risks inherent in the liability. These risks include changes in wages and interest rates since the value of the retiree’s benefits is affected by changes to wages and are usually indexed to inflation.

In a recent paper in the Journal of Pension Economics and Finance entitled Portfolio Allocation for Public Pension Funds, George Pennachhi and Mahdi Rastad find that a “benchmark” portfolio for public pensions would consist of 160 percent fixed income, with a 9 percent short position in equities, a 67 percent short position in hedge funds and a 24 percent investment in private equity. A short position implies the fund should borrow in other asset categories to increase its holdings in fixed income. Where short selling isn’t feasible or permitted  one would take a 100 percent position in fixed income.

Instead public plans tend to invest assets with a view towards meeting a numerical goal. Over time, this has led plans to increase their exposure to higher risk investments, changing the composition of pubic sector plan portfolios from being more heavily invested in bonds (almost exclusively so in 1952) to more heavily invested in high-return, high-risk investments like real estate, with the average plan exposed to a 21 percent investment in alternatives.

There are two inter-related problems here. Firstly, the liability is undervalued based on high-risk discount rates and secondly, the asset investment strategy is focused on targeting returns rather than hedging risks in the liability. An unfortunate but predictable result of this flawed linkage between liability valuation and asset investments is that during a downturn, plans have opted to “double-down” on risk and expose plans to potentially bigger losses down the road.

Indeed, as plans continue to fall short of return expectations many are turning to alternative investments including “exotics,” a strategy  that shows no sign of abating, according to Pensions & Investments.

 

 

Virginia’s transportation plan under the microscope

Last week Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell shared his plan to address the state’s transportation needs. The big news is that the Governor wants to eliminate Virginia’s gas tax of 17.5 cents/gallon. This revenue would be replaced with an increase in the state’s sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent. This along with a transfer of $812 million from the general fund, a $15 increase in the car registration fee, a $100 fee on alternative fuel vehicles and the promise of federal revenues should Congress pass legislation to tax online sales brings the total amount of revenue projected to fund Virginia’s transportation to $3.1 billion.

As the Tax Foundation points out, more than half of this relies on a transfer from the state’s general fund, and on Congressional legislation that has not yet passed.

Virginia plans to spend $4.9 billion on transportation. As currently structured, the gas tax only brings in $961 million. There are a few reasons why. First, Virginia hasn’t indexed the gas tax to inflation since 1986. It’s currently worth 40 cents on the dollar. In today’s dollars 17.5 cents is worth about 8 cents. Secondly, while there are more drivers in Virginia, cars are also more fuel efficient and more of those cars (91,000) are alternative fuel. In 2013, the gas tax isn’t bringing in the same amount of revenue as it once did.

But that doesn’t mean that switching from a user-based tax to a general tax isn’t problematic. Two concerns are transparency and fairness. Switching from (an imperfect) user-based fee to a broader tax breaks the link between those who use the roads and those who pay, shorting an important feedback mechanism. Another issue is fairness. Moving from a gas tax to a sales tax leads to cross-subsidization. Those who don’t drive pay for others’ road usage.

The proposal has received a fair amount of criticism with other approaches suggested. Randal O’Toole at Cato likes the idea of Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) which would track the number of miles driven via an EZ-Pass type technology billing the user directly for road usage. It would probably take at least a decade to fully implement. And, some have strong libertarian objections. Joseph Henchman at the Tax Foundation proposes a mix of indexing the gas tax to inflation, increased tolls, and levying a local transportation sales tax on NOVA drivers.

The plan opens up Virginia’s 2013 legislative session and is sure to receive a fair amount of discussion among legislators.

Don’t make us drive these cattle over the cliff

First a brief note: I am now blogging at the American Spectator on economic issues. I invite you to visit the inaugural posts. Last week, I covered the fiscal cliff. Like many others, I also marvel at the audacity of the pork contained therein.

Lately the headlines have given me a flashback to 1990 and those first undergrad economics classes. And not just econ but also U.S. history and the American experience with price floors and ceilings. In this post I’ll discuss the floors.

As I note at The Spectacle one of the matters settled by the American Taxpayer Relief Act is the extension of dairy price supports from the 2008 farm bill. Now, Congress won’t be “forced to charge $8 gallon for milk.” To me, nothing screams government price-fixing more than this threat aimed to scare small children and the parents who buy their food.

Chris Edwards explains how America’s dairy subsidy programs work in Milk Madness. Since the 1930’s the federal government  has set the minimum price to be charged for dairy. A misguided idea from the start, the point of the program was to ensure that dairy farmers weren’t hurt by falling prices during the Great Depression. When market prices fall below the government set price the government agrees to buy up any excess butter, dry milk or cheese that is produced. Thusly, dairy prices are kept artificially high which stimulates more demand.

According to Edwards’ study, the OECD found that U.S. dairy policies create a 26 percent “implicit tax” on milk, a regressive tax that affects low-income families in particular. Taxpayers pay to keep food prices artificially high, generate waste, and prevent local farmers from entering a caretlized market.

Now for the cows. The recession revealed that the nation has an oversupply of them. The New York Times reports that rapid expansion in the U.S. dairy market driven by increased global demand for milk products came to a sudden halt in 2008. Farmers were left with cows that needed to be milked regardless of the slump in world prices. The excess dry milk was then sold to the government but only at a price that was set above what the market demanded.

In other words, in a world without price supports, farmers could have sold the milk for less at market and consumers would have enjoyed cheaper butter, cheese and baby formula. Instead, the government stepped in, bought $91 million in milk powder so the farmer could get an above-market price and keep supporting an excess of milk cows. Rather than downsize the dairy based on market signals (and sell part of the herd to other dairy farmers, or the butcher) farmers take the subsidy and keep one too many cows pumping out more milk than is demanded.

It turns out auctioning a herd is not something all farmers are anxious to do. Some may look for additional governmental assistance to keep their cattle fed in spite of dropping prices, increased feed costs, and bad weather. To be sure eliminating farm subsidies would produce a temporary shock (a windfall for farmers and sticker shock for consumers), but in the long run as markets adjust everyone benefits.Dairy cows in the sale ring at the Warragul cattle sales, Victoria, [2]

New Zealand did it. Thirty years later and costs are lower for consumers, farmers are thrivingenvironmental practices have improved, and organic farming is growing. While politicians and the farm lobby may continue pushing for inefficient agricultural policy in spite of the nation’s fiscal path,as Robert Samuelson at Real Clear Politics writes, “If we can’t kill farm subsidies, what can we kill?”

 

Maryland’s budget troubles continue into the New Year

Each year a committee made up of Maryland state legislators gets together to set a spending growth limit for Maryland’s general fund budget. The Spending Affordability Committee (SAC) has been in place for 30 years. Originally created to avoid instituting a Tax and Expenditure Limit (TEL), the SAC has proven unable to stop the persistent structural deficit which emerged in 2007. This year the SAC recommends a budget of $37 billion, one billion more than last year. That’s an increase in spending of 4 percent

In a paper for the Maryland Journal entitled, “The Appearance of Fiscal Prudence” Benjamin Van Metre and I detail the flaws of the SAC process based on our read of the official reports. The main problem with the process is that lawmakers have convinced themselves that the SAC imposes fiscal prudence on the legislature. We find while there is some formulaic guidance in the form of a limit based on the growth in personal income, it only applies to part of  the budget. The SAC also involves policymakers deliberating over spending “needs” while referring to revenue estimates. The result is not a hard limit on spending but a recipe for a budget soufflé. To be fair, the SAC wasn’t designed to be a hard limit. It was built to be flexible.That’s fine if the SAC is clear about its own limitations in setting a spending limit.

What’s interesting is that over the years there’s been a bit of hand-wringing in the SAC reports about fast-growing areas of the budget – the Transportation Trust Fund, Medicaid, and a growing reliance on debt finance. Debt limits are covered by a separate legislative committee, the Capital Debt Affordability Committee (CDAC). But, the SAC’s warnings about debt tiered up with the CDAC’s increase in the debt cap. It leads one to conclude that these two committees are, at best, talking past one another.

Given the recent history of Maryland it’s more likely legislators will continue finding ways to fund “increased needs.” And they will do so by seeking more revenues in the form of new taxes, tax rate increases, and debt.  As one legislator put it with this year’s SAC recommendation, “we’re setting our citizens up for massive tax increases.”

 

 

Eileen Norcross on News Channel 8 Capital Insider discussing Virginia and the fiscal cliff

Last week I appeared on NewsChannel 8’s Capital Insider to discuss how the fiscal cliff affects Virginia. There are several potential effects depending on what the final package looks like. Let’s assume the deductions for the Child Care Tax Credit, EITC, and capital depreciation go away. This means, according to The Pew Center, where the state’s tax code is linked to the federal (like Virginia) tax revenues will increase. That’s because removing income tax deductions increases Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) on the individual’s income tax filing (or on the corporation’s filing) thus the income on which the government may levy tax increases. According to fellow Mercatus scholar, Jason Fichtner, that could amount to millions of dollars for a state.

On the federal budget side of the equation,the $109 billion in potential reductions is now equally shared between defense and non-defense spending. Of concern is the extent to which the region’s economy is dependent on this for employment. Nearly 20 percent of the region’s economy is linked to federal spending. Two points: The cuts are reductions in the rate of growth in spending. For defense spending, they are relatively small cuts representing a return to 2007 spending levels as Veronique points out. So, these reductions not likely to bring about the major shakeup in the regional economy that some fear. Secondly, the fact that these cuts are causing worry is well-taken. It highlights the importance of diversification in an economy.

Where revenues, or GDP, or employment in a region is too closely tied to one industry, a very large and sudden change in that industry can spell trouble. An analogy: New Jersey’s and New York’s dependence on financial industry revenues via their income tax structure led to a revenue shock when the market crashed in 2008, as the New York Fed notes.

On transportation spending there are some good proposals on the table in the legislature and the executive. Some involve raising the gas tax (which hasn’t been increased since 1986), and others involve tolls. The best way to raise transportation revenues is via taxes or fees that are linked to those using the roads. Now is no time to start punching more holes in the tax code to give breaks to favored industries (even if they are making Academy-award quality films) or to encourage particular activities.

Virginia’s in a good starting position to handle what may be in store for the US over the coming years. Virginia has a relatively flat tax structure with low rates. It has a good regulatory environment. This is one reason why people and businesses have located here.

Keep the tax and regulatory rules fair and non-discriminatory and let the entrepreneurs discover the opportunities. Don’t develop an appetite for debt financing. A tax system  is meant to collect revenues and not engineer individual or corporate behavior. Today, Virginia beats all of its neighbors in terms of economic freedom by a long shot. The goal for Virginia policymakers: keep it this way.

Here’s the clip

Illinois conjures Squeezy the Pension Python

Illinois Office of the Governor has released a video aimed at school kids. It’s subject: the importance of paying workers their government pensions. It’s meant to get Illinoisans excited about pension reform. Illinois has the worst pension system in the country. The pension liability grew by $12 billion this year. According to Illinois official accounting the unfunded liability is $100 billion. Under market valuation the unfunded liability is over $200 billion. The Civic Federation calls the system, “Unfixable.”

Enter, Squeezy the Pension Python.

Cute.

There’s some history about the Romans, the American Revolution, and World War I. There’s a basic message about why we (i.e. government on your behalf)  should make sure promises are kept. But, not surprisingly, this video totally misdiagnoses why the pension fund is running on empty. I didn’t expect it to contain much in the way of discount rates. Instead the blame is shifted to yesterday’s politicians and the 2008 Wall Street crash (and the fact that people live longer). There is barely a mention of why the economic assumptions that drive the valuation and accounting really matter. Sure, it’s not easy to explain arbitrage, present value, discounting, or the time value of money to second graders. So, instead the video makes the case for how the buck has been passed time and time again, for the children.

Reactions to the video have been decidedly mixed.

 

The most egregious budget gimmicks of 2012: pension underfunding

Bob Williams at State Budget Solutions has a nice chart that shows by how much states are underfunding their pensions. Budgets are always about tradeoffs. But not funding the pension is similar to skipping credit card payments without cutting into your daily expenses at all (or figuring out how to boost your income).

Here’s the link.

In addition, the article notes all the other ways states  have of papering over deficits – floating bonds, revenue estimates, shifting dates around. This isn’t confined to the usual suspects (Illinois, New Jersey, California). There are plenty of examples to share from across the country.