Category Archives: Balanced Budget

What’s going on with Alaska’s budget?

Alaska is facing another budget deficit this year – one of $3 billion – and many are skeptical that the process of closing this gap will be without hassle. The state faces declining oil prices and thinning reserves, forcing state legislators to rethink their previous budgeting strategies and to consider checking their spending appetites. This shouldn’t be a surprise to state legislators though – the budget process during the past two years ended in gridlock because of similar problems. And these issues have translated into credit downgrades from the three major credit agencies, each reflecting concern about the state’s trajectory if no significant improvements are made.

Despite these issues, residents have not been complaining, at least not until recently. Every fall, some earnings from Alaska’s Permanent Fund get distributed out to citizens – averaging about $1,100 per year since 1982. Last summer, Governor Walker used a partial veto to reduce the next dividend from $2,052 to $1,022. Although politically unpopular, these checks may be subject to even more cuts as a result of the current budget crisis.

The careful reader might notice that Alaska topped the list of the most fiscally healthy states in a 2016 Mercatus report that ranks the states according to their fiscal condition (using fiscal year 2014 data). For a state experiencing so much budget trouble, how could it be ranked so highly?

The short answer is that Alaska’s budget is incredibly unique.

On the one hand, the state has large amounts of cash, but on the other, it has large amounts of debt. Alaska’s cash levels are what secured its position in our ranking last year. Although holding onto cash is generally a good thing for state governments, there appears to be diminishing returns to doing so, especially if there is some structural reason that makes funds hard to access for paying off debt or for improving public services. It is yet to be seen how these factors will affect Alaska’s ranking in the next edition of our report.

Another reason why Alaska appeared to be doing well in our 2016 report is that the state’s problems – primarily spending growth and unsustainable revenue sources – are still catching up to them. Alaska has relied primarily on oil tax revenues and has funneled much of this revenue into restricted permanent trusts that cannot be accessed for general spending. When the Alaska Permanent Fund was created in the 1980s, oil prices were high and production was booming, so legislators didn’t really expect for this problem to occur. The state is now starting to experience the backlash of this lack of foresight.

The first figure below shows Alaska’s revenue and expenditure trends, drawing from the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs). At first look, you’ll see that revenues have generally outpaced spending, but not consistently. The state broke even in 2003 and revenues steadily outpaced expenditures until peaking at $1,266 billion in 2007. Revenues fell to an all-time low of $241 billion following the recession of 2008 and then fluctuated up and down before falling drastically again in fiscal year 2015.

alaska-revenues-exp4.5.17

The ups and downs of Alaska’s revenues reflect the extremely volatile nature of tax revenues, rents, and royalties that are generated from oil production. Rents and royalties make up 21 percent of Alaska’s total revenues and oil taxes 6 percent – these two combined actually come closer to 90 percent of the actual discretionary budget. Alaska has no personal income tax or sales tax, so there isn’t much room for other sources to make up for struggling revenues when oil prices decline.

Another major revenue source for the state are federal grants, at 32 percent of total revenues. Federal transfers are not exactly “free lunches” for state governments. Not only do they get funded by taxpayers, but they come with other costs as well. There is research that finds that as a state becomes more reliant on federal revenues, they tend to become less efficient, spending more and taxing more for the same level of services. For Alaska, this is especially concerning as it receives more federal dollars than any other state in per capita terms.

Federal transfers as an income stream have been more steady for Alaska than its oil revenues, but not necessarily more accessible. Federal funds are usually restricted for use for federal programs and therefore their use for balancing the budget is limited.

A revenue structure made up of volatile income streams and hard-to-access funds is enough by itself to make balancing the budget difficult. But Alaska’s expenditures also present cause for concern as they have been growing steadily, about 10 percent on average each year since 2002, compared with private sector growth of 6 percent.

In fiscal year 2015, education was the biggest spending category, at 28% of total expenditures. This was followed by health and human services (21%), transportation (11%), general government (10%), the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend (9%), public protection (6%), and universities (5%). Spending for natural resources, development, and law and justice were all less than 5 percent.

The next figure illustrates the state’s biggest drivers of spending growth since 2002. Education and general government spending have grown the most significantly over the past several years. Alaska Permanent Fund spending has been the most variable, reflecting the cyclical nature of underlying oil market trends. Both transportation and health and human services have increased steadily since 2002, with the latter growing more significantly the past several years as a result of Medicaid expansion.

alaska-spendinggrowth4.5.17

Alaska’s spending is significantly higher than other states relative to its resource base. Spending as a proportion of state personal income was 31 percent in fiscal year 2015, much higher than the national average of 13 percent. A high level of spending, all else equal, isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you have the revenues to support it, but as we see from this year’s budget deficit, that isn’t the case for Alaska. The state is spending beyond the capacity of residents to pay for current service levels.

What should Alaska do?

This is a complicated situation so the answer isn’t simple or easy. The Alaska government website provides a Microsoft Excel model that allows you to try and provide your own set of solutions to balance the budget. After tinkering with the state provided numbers, it becomes clear that it is impossible to balance the deficit without some combination of spending cuts and changes to revenues or the Permanent Fund dividend.

On the revenue side, Alaska could improve by diversifying their income stream and/or broadening the tax base. Primarily taxing one group – in this case the oil industry – is inequitable and economically inefficient. Broadening the base would cause taxes to fall on all citizens more evenly and be less distortive to economic growth. Doing so would also smooth revenue production, making it more predictable and reliable for legislators.

When it comes to spending, it is understandably very difficult to decide what areas of the budget to cut, but a good place to start is to at least slow its growth. The best way to do this is by changing the institutional structure surrounding the political, legislative, and budgeting processes. One example would be improving Alaska’s tax and expenditure limit (TEL), as my colleague Matthew Mitchell recommends in his recent testimony. The state could also look into item-reduction vetoes and strict balanced-budget requirements, among other institutional reforms.

Ultimately, whatever steps Alaska’s legislators take to balance the budget this year will be painful. Hopefully the solution won’t involve ignoring the role that the institutional environment has played in getting them here. A narrow tax base reliant on volatile revenue sources, restricted funds, and growing spending are all factors that have led many to think that Alaska is and always will be “different.” But what constitutes sound public financial management is the same regardless of state. Although Alaska’s situation is unique, their susceptibility to fiscal stress absent any changes is not.

Government Spending and Economic Growth in Nebraska since 1997

Mercatus recently released a study that examines Nebraska’s budget, budgetary rules and economy. As the study points out, Nebraska, like many other states, consistently faces budgeting problems. State officials are confronted by a variety of competing interests looking for more state funding—schools, health services and public pensions to name a few—and attempts to placate each of them often leave officials scrambling to avoid budget shortfalls in the short term.

Money spent by state and local governments is collected from taxpayers who earn money in the labor market and through investments. The money earned by taxpayers is the result of producing goods and services that people want and the total is essentially captured in a state’s Gross Domestic Product (GSP).

State GSP is a good measure of the amount of money available for a state to tax, and if state and local government spending is growing faster than GSP, state and local governments will be controlling a larger and larger portion of their state’s output over time. This is unsustainable in the long run, and in the short run more state and local government spending can reduce the dynamism of a state’s economy as resources are taken from risk-taking entrepreneurs in the private sector and given to government bureaucrats.

The charts below use data from the BEA to depict the growth of state and local government spending and private industry GSP in Nebraska (click on charts to enlarge). The first shows the annual growth rates in private industry GSP and state and local government GSP from 1997 to 2014. The data is adjusted for inflation (2009 dollars) and the year depicted is the ending year (e.g. 1998 is growth from 1997 – 1998).

NE GSP annual growth rates 1997-14

In Nebraska, real private industry GSP growth has been positive every year except for 2012. There is some volatility consistent with the business cycles over this time period, but Nebraska’s economy has regularly grown over this period.

On the other hand, state and local GSP growth was negative 10 of the 17 years depicted. It grew rapidly during recession periods (2000 – 2002 and 2009 – 2010), but it appears that state and local officials were somewhat successful in reducing spending once economic conditions improved.

The next chart shows how much private industry and state and local GSP grew over the entire period for both Nebraska and the U.S. as a whole. The 1997 value of each category is used as the base year and the yearly ratio is plotted in the figure. The data is adjusted for inflation (2009 dollars).

NE, US GSP growth since 1997

In 2014, Nebraska’s private industry GSP (red line) was nearly 1.6 times larger than its value in 1997. On the other hand, state and local spending (light red line) was only about 1.1 times larger. Nebraska’s private industry GSP grew more than the country’s as a whole over this period (57% vs 46%) while its state and local government spending grew less (11% vs. 15%).

State and local government spending in Nebraska spiked from 2009 to 2010 but has come down slightly since then. Meanwhile, the state’s private sector has experienced relatively strong growth since 2009 compared to the country as a whole, though it was lagging the country prior to the recession.

Compared to the country overall, Nebraska’s private sector economy has been doing well since 2008 and state and local spending, while growing, appears to be largely under control. If you would like to learn more about Nebraska’s economy and the policies responsible for the information presented here, I encourage you to read Governing Nebraska’s Fiscal Commons: Addressing the Budgetary Squeeze, by Creighton University Professor Michael Thomas.

An Overview of the Virginia State Budget and Economy

By Adam Millsap and Thomas Savidge

Virginia’s economy has steadily grown over time in spite of expenditures outpacing revenues each year since 2007. However, economic growth within the state is not evenly distributed geographically.

We examine Virginia’s revenue and expenditure trends, highlighting the sources of Virginia’s revenue and where it spends money. Then we discuss trends in state economic growth and compare that to recent personal income data by county.

Government Overview: Expenditures and Revenue

Figure 1 shows Virginia’s general spending and revenue trends over the past ten years. According to the Virginia Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), after adjusting for inflation, government expenditures have outpaced revenue every single year as seen in Figure 1 below (with the exception of 2006). The red column represents yearly expenditures while the stacked column represents revenues (the lighter shade of blue at the top represents revenue from “Federal Grants and Contracts” and the bottom darker shade of blue represents “Self-Funded Revenue”).

VA expend and rev 2006-16

During the recession in 2009, expenditures climbed to $40 billion. Expenditures hovered around this amount until 2015 when they reached $41 billion. Then in 2016 expenditures dropped to just under $37 billion, a level last seen in 2006.

On the revenue side, the majority of Virginia’s government revenue is self-funded i.e. raised by the state. Self-funded revenue hovered between $24 and $29 billion over the ten year period.

However, revenue from federal contracts and grants steadily increased over time. There were two sharp increases in federal contracts and grants: 2008-2009 jumping from $8 to $10 billion and then 2009-2010 jumping from $10 to $13 billion. While there was a drop in federal contracts and grants from 2015-2016, the amount of revenue received from federal contracts and grants has not returned to its pre-2009 levels.

What is the state of Virginia spending its revenue on? According to the Virginia CAFR, state spending is separated into six major categories: General Government, Education, Transportation, Resources & Economic Development, Individual & Family Services, and Administration of Justice. The spending amounts from 2006-2016 (adjusted for inflation) are depicted in Figure 2.

VA expend by category 2006-16

As shown, the majority of spending over the ten year period was on Individual and Family Services. Prior to 2008, spending on Education closely tracked spending on Individual and Family services, but from 2008 to 2010 spending on the latter increased rapidly while spending on education declined. From 2010 through 2015 spending on Individual & Family Services was just over $15 billion per year. It dropped from 2015 to 2016, but so did spending on education, which maintained the gap between the two categories.

During the ten year period, Education spending hovered between $10 and $12 billion until it dropped to $9 billion in 2016. With the exception of Transportation (steadily climbing from 2010-2016), spending on each of the other categories remained below $5 billion per year and was fairly constant over this period.

Virginia Economic Growth & County Personal Income

After examining Virginia’s revenue and expenditures in Part 1, we now look at changes in Virginia’s economic growth and personal income at the county level. Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) shows that Virginia’s GDP hovered between $4 and $4.5 billion dollars (after adjusting for inflation), as shown in Figure 3 below. The blue columns depict real GDP (measured on the left vertical axis in billions of chained 2009 dollars) and the red line depicts percent changes in real GDP (measured on the right vertical axis).

VA GDP 2006-15

While Virginia’s GDP increased from 2006-2015, we’ve condensed the scale of the left vertical axis to only cover $3.9-4.35 billion dollars in order to highlight the percent changes in Virginia’s economy. The red line shows that the percent change in real GDP over this period was often quite small—between 0% and 1% in all but two years.

Virginia’s GDP rose from 2006-2007 and then immediately fell from 2007-2008 due to the financial crisis. However, the economy experienced larger growth from 2009-2010, growing from roughly $4.07-$4.17 billion, a 2.3% jump.

Virginia’s economy held steady at $4.17 billion from 2010 to 2011 and then increased each year up through 2014. Then from 2014-2015, Virginia’s economy experienced another larger spike in growth from $4.24-$4.32 billion, a 2% increase.

Virginia’s economy is diverse so it’s not surprising that the robust economic growth that occurred from 2014 to 2015 was not spread evenly across the state. While the BEA is still compiling data on county GDP, we utilized their data on personal income by county to show the intra-state differences.

Personal Income is not the equivalent of county-level GDP, the typical measure of economic output, but it can serve as a proxy for the economic conditions of a county.[1] Figure 4 below shows which counties saw the largest and smallest changes in personal income from 2014 to 2015. The red counties are the 10 counties with the smallest changes while the blue counties are the 10 counties with the largest changes.

VA county pers. inc. map

As depicted in Figure 4 above, the counties with the strongest personal income growth are concentrated in the north, the east and areas surrounding Richmond. Loudon County in the north experienced the most personal income growth at 7%. The counties surrounding Richmond experienced at least 5.5% growth. Total personal income in Albemarle County grew by 5.7% while the rest of the counties—Hanover, Charles City, Greene, Louisa, and New Kent—experienced growth between 6.2% and 6.7%.

With the exception of Northumberland, the counties in which personal income grew the least were along the western border and in the southern parts of the state. Four of these counties and an independent city were concentrated in the relatively rural Southwest corner of the state—Buchanan, Tazewell, Dickenson, Washington and the independent city of Bristol. In fact, Buchanan County’s personal income contracted by 1.14%.

Cross-county differences in personal income growth in Virginia from 2014 to 2015 are consistent with national data as shown below.

US county pers. inc. map

This map from the BEA shows personal income growth by county (darker colors mean more growth). Nationwide, personal income growth was lower on average in relatively rural counties. Residents of rural counties also have lower incomes and less educational attainment on average. This is not surprising given the strong positive relationship between human capital and economic growth.

And during the most recent economic recovery, new business growth was especially weak in counties with less than 100,000 people. In fact, from 2010 to 2014 these counties actually lost businesses on net.

Conclusion:

Government spending on Individual and Family Services increased during the recession and has yet to return to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, spending on education declined while spending on transportation slightly increased. This is consistent with other research that has found that state spending on health services, e.g. Medicaid, is crowding out spending in other areas.

Economic growth in Virginia was relatively strong from 2014 to 2015 but was not evenly distributed across the state. The counties with the smallest percentage changes in personal income are relatively rural while the counties with the largest gains are more urban. This is consistent with national patterns and other economic data revealing an urban-rural economic gap in and around Virginia.


[1] Personal Income is defined by the BEA as “the income received by, or on behalf of, all persons from all sources: from participation as laborers in production, from owning a home or business, from the ownership of financial assets, and from government and business in the form of transfers. It includes income from domestic sources as well as the rest of world. It does not include realized or unrealized capital gains or losses.” For more information about personal income see https://www.bea.gov/newsreleases/regional/lapi/lapi_newsrelease.htm

Local governments reluctant to issue new debt despite low interest rates

The Wall Street Journal reports that despite historically low interest rates municipal governments and voters don’t have the appetite for new debt. Municipal bond issuances have dropped to 20-year lows (1.6 percent) as governments pass on infrastructure improvements. There are a few reasons for that: weak tax revenues, fewer federal dollars, and competing budgetary pressures. As the article notes,

“Many struggling legislatures and city halls are instead focusing on underfunded employee pensions and rising Medicaid costs. Some cash-strapped areas, such as Puerto Rico and the city of Chicago, face high annual debt payments.”

The pressures governments face due to rising employee benefits is likely to continue. The low interest rate environment has already had a negative effect on public pensions. In pursuit of higher yields, investors have taken on more investment risk leaving plans open to market volatility. At the same time investments in bonds have not yielded much. WSJ reporter Timothy Martin writes that public pension returns are, “expected to drop to the lowest levels ever recorded,” with a 20-year annualized return of 7.4 percent for 2016.

The end result of this slide is to put pressure on municipal and state budgets to make up the difference, sometimes with significant tradeoffs.

The key problem for pensions is “baked into the cake,” by use of improper discounting. Linking the present value of guaranteed liabilities to the expected return on risky investments produces a distortion in how benefits are measured and funded. Public sector pensions got away with it during the market boom years. But in this market and bond environment an arcane actuarial assumption over how to select discount rates shows its centrality to the fiscal stability of governments and the pension plans they provide.

Fixing municipal finances in Pennsylvania

Last week I was a panelist at the Keystone Conference on Business and Policy. The panel was titled Fixing Municipal Finances and myself and the other panelists explained the current state of municipal finances in Pennsylvania, how the municipalities got into their present situation, and what they can do to turn things around. I think it was a productive discussion. To get a sense of what was discussed my opening remarks are below.

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Pennsylvania is the 6th most populous state in the US – just behind IL and in front of OH – and its population is growing.

PA population

But though Pennsylvania is growing, southern and western states are growing faster. According to the US census, from 2013 to 2014 seven of the ten fastest growing states were west of the Mississippi, and two of the remaining three were in the South (FL and SC). Only Washington D.C. at #5 was in the Northeast quadrant. Every state with the largest numeric increase was also in the west or the south. This is the latest evidence that the US population is shifting westward and southward, which has been a long term trend.

Urbanization is slowing down in the US as well. In 1950 only about 60% of the population lived in an urban area. In 2010 a little over 80% did. The 1 to 4 ratio appears to be close to the equilibrium, which means that city growth can no longer come at the expense of rural areas like it did throughout most of the 20th century.

urban, rural proportion

2012 census projections predict only 0.66% annual population growth for the US until 2043. The birth rate among white Americans is already below the replacement rate. Without immigration and the higher birth rates among recent immigrants the US population would be growing even slower, if not shrinking. This means that Pennsylvania cities that are losing population – Erie, Scranton, Altoona, Harrisburg and others – are going to have to attract residents from other cities in order to achieve any meaningful level of growth.

PA city populations

Fixing municipal finances ultimately means aligning costs with revenue. Thus a city that consistently runs a deficit has two options:

  1. Increase revenue
  2. Decrease costs

Municipalities must be vigilant in monitoring their costs since the revenue side is more difficult to control, much like with firms in the private sector. A city’s revenue base – taxpayers – is mobile. Taxpayers can leave if they feel like they are not getting value for their tax dollars, an issue that is largely endogenous to the city itself, or they can leave if another jurisdiction becomes relatively more attractive, which may be exogenous and out of the city’s control (e.g. air conditioning and the South, state policy, the decline of U.S. manufacturing/the economic growth of China, Japan, India, etc.). The aforementioned low natural population growth in the US precludes cities from increasing their tax base without significant levels of intercity migration.

What are the factors that affect location choice? Economist Ed Glaeser has stated that:

“In a service economy where transport costs are small and natural productive resources nearly irrelevant, weather and government stand as the features which should increasingly determine the location of people.” (Glaeser and Kohlhase (2004) p. 212.)

Pennsylvania’s weather is not the worst in the US, but it I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s the best either. The continued migration of people to the south and west reveal that many Americans like sunnier climates. And since PA municipalities cannot alter their weather, they will have to create an attractive fiscal and business environment in order to induce firms and residents to locate within their borders. Comparatively good government is a necessity for Pennsylvania municipalities that want to increase – or simply stabilize – their tax base. Local governments must also strictly monitor their costs, since mobile residents and firms who perceive that a government is being careless with their money can and will leave for greener – and sunnier – pastures.

Fixing municipal finances in Pennsylvania will involve more than just pension reform. Act 47 was passed by the general assembly in 1987 and created a framework for assisting distressed municipalities. Unfortunately, its effectiveness is questionable. Since 1987, 29 municipalities have been placed under Act 47, but only 10 have recovered and each took an average of 9.3 years to do so. Currently 19 municipalities are designated as distressed under Act 47 and 13 of the 19 are cities. Only one city has recovered in the history of Act 47 – the city of Nanticoke. The average duration of the municipalities currently under Act 47 is 16.5 years. The city of Aliquippa has been an Act 47 city since 1987 and is on its 6th recovery plan.

Act 47 bar graphAct 47 under pie chartAct 47 recovered pie chart

The majority of municipalities that have recovered from Act 47 status have been smaller boroughs (8 of 10). The average population of the recovered communities using the most recent data is 5,569 while the average population of the currently-under communities is 37,106. The population distribution for the under municipalities is skewed due to the presence of Pittsburgh, but even the median of the under cities is nearly double that of the recovered at 9,317 compared to 4,669.

Act 47 avg, med. population

This raises the question of whether Act 47 is an effective tool for dealing with larger municipalities that have comparatively larger problems and perhaps a more difficult time reaching a political/community consensus concerning what to do.

To attract new residents and increase revenue, local governments must give taxpayers/voters/residents a reason for choosing their city over the alternatives available. Economist Richard Wagner argues that governments are a lot like businesses. He states:

“In order to attract investors [residents, voters], politicians develop new programs and revise old programs in a continuing search to meet the competition, just as ordinary businesspeople do in ordinary commercial activity.” (American Federalism – How well does it support liberty? (2014))

Ultimately, local governments in Pennsylvania must provide exceptional long-term value for residents in order to make up for the place-specific amenities they lack. This is easier said than done, but I think it’s necessary to ensure the long-run solvency of Pennsylvania’s municipalities.

The cost disease and the privatization of government services

Many US municipalities are facing budget problems (see here, here, and here). The real cost of providing traditional public services like police, fire protection, and education is increasing, often at a rate that exceeds revenue growth. The graph below shows the real per-capita expenditure increase in five US cities from 1951 to 2006. (Data are from the census file IndFin_1967-2012.zip and are adjusted for inflation using the US GDP chained price index.)

real per cap spend

In 1951 none of the cities were spending more than $1,000 per person. In 2006 every city was spending well over that amount, with Buffalo spending almost $5,000 per person. Even Fresno, which had the smallest increase, increased per capita spending from $480 to $1,461 – an increase of 204%. Expenditure growth that exceeds revenue growth leads to budget deficits and can eventually result in cuts in services. Economist William Baumol attributes city spending growth to what is known as the “cost disease”.

In his 1967 paper, Baumol argues that municipalities will face rising costs of providing “public” goods and services over time as the relative productivity of labor declines in the industries controlled by local governments versus those of the private sector. As labor in the private sector becomes more productive over time due to increases in capital, wages will increase. Goods and services traditionally supplied by local governments such as police, fire protection, and education have not experienced similar increases in capital or productivity. K-12 education is a particularly good example of stagnation – a teacher from the 1950s would not confront much of a learning curve if they had to teach in a 21st century classroom. However, in order to attract competent and productive teachers, for example, local governments must increase wages to levels that are competitive with the wages that teachers could earn in the private sector. When this occurs, teacher’s wages increase even though their productivity does not. As a result, cities end up paying more money for the same amount of work. Baumol sums up the effect:

“The bulk of municipal services is, in fact, of this general stamp [non-progressive] and our model tells us clearly what can be expected as a result…inexorably and cumulatively, whether or not there is inflation, administrative mismanagement or malfeasance, municipal budgets will almost certainly continue to mount in the future, just as they have been doing in the past. This is a trend for which no man and no group should be blamed, for there is nothing than can be done to stop it.” (Baumol, 1967 p.423)

But is there really nothing than can be done to cure the cost disease? Baumol himself later acknowledged that innovation may yet occur in the relatively stagnant sectors of the economy such as education:

“…an activity which is, say, relatively stagnant need not stay so forever. It may be replaced by a more progressive substitute, or it may undergo an outburst of innovation previous thought very unlikely.” (Baumol et al. 1985, p.807).

The cure for the cost disease is that the stagnant, increasing-cost sectors need to undergo “an outburst of innovation”. But this raises the question; what has prevented this innovation from occurring thus far?

One thing that Baumol’s story ignores is public choice. Specifically, is the lack of labor-augmenting technology in the public-sector industries a characteristic of the public sector? The primary public sector industries have high rates of unionization and the primary goal of a labor union is to protect its dues-paying members. The chart below provides the union affiliation of workers for several occupations in 2013 and 2014.

union membership chart

In 2014, the protective service occupations and education, training, and library occupations, e.g. police officers and teachers, had relatively high union membership rates of 35%. Conversely, other high-skilled occupations such as management, computer and mathematical occupations, architecture and engineering occupations, and sales and office occupations had relatively low rates, ranging from 4.2% to 6.5% in 2014. Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations were in the middle at 14.6%, down from 16.1% in 2013.

The bottom part of the table shows the union membership rate of the public sector in general and of each level of government: federal, state, and local. The highest rate of unionization was at the local level, where approximately 42% of workers were members of a union in 2014, up from 41% in 2013. This is about 14 percentage points higher than the federal level and 12 percentage points higher than the state level. The union membership rate of the private sector in 2014 was only 6.6%.

In addition to the apathetic and sometimes hostile view unions have towards technological advancement and competition, union membership is also associated with higher wages, particularly at the local-government level. Economists Maury Gittleman and Brooks Piece of the Bureau of Labor statistics found that local-government workers have compensation costs 10 – 19% larger than similar private sector workers.

The table below shows the median weekly earnings in 2013 and 2014 for workers in the two most heavily unionized occupational categories; education, training, and library occupations and protective service occupations. In both occupation groups there is a substantial difference between the union and non-union weekly earnings. From the taxpayer’s perspective, higher earnings mean higher costs.

union median wage chart

There needs to be an incentive to expend resources in labor-saving technology for it to occur and it is not clear that this incentive exists in the public sector. In the public sector, taxpayers ultimately pay for the services they receive but these services are provided by an agent – the local politician(s) – who is expected to act on the taxpayer’s behalf when it comes to spending tax dollars. But in the public sector the agent/politician is accountable to both his employees and the general taxpayer since both groups vote on his performance. The general taxpayer wants the politician to cut costs and invest in labor-augmenting technology while the public-employee taxpayer wants to keep his job and earn more income. Since the public-employee unions are well organized compared to the general taxpayers it is easier for them to lobby their politicians/bosses in order to get their desired outcome, which ultimately means higher costs for the general taxpayer.

If Baumol’s cost disease is the primary factor responsible for the increasing cost of municipal government then there is not an easy remedy in the current environment. If the policing, firefighting, and education industries are unreceptive to labor-augmenting technology due to their high levels of unionization and near-monopoly status, one potential way to cure municipalities of the cost disease is privatization. In their 1996 paper, The Cost Disease and Government Growth: Qualifications to Baumol, economists J. Ferris and Edwin West state “Privatization could lead to significant changes in the structure of supply that result in “genuine” reductions in real costs” (p. 48).

Schools, police, and fire services are not true public goods and thus economic efficiency does not dictate that they are provided by a government entity. Schools in particular have been successfully built and operated by private funds for thousands of years. While there are fewer modern examples of privately operated police and fire departments, in theory both could be successfully privatized and historically fire departments were, though not always with great success. However, the failures of past private fire departments in places like New York City in the 19th century appear to be largely due to political corruption, an increase in political patronage, poorly designed incentives, and the failure of the rule of law rather than an inherent flaw in privatization. And today, many volunteer fire departments still exist. In 2013 69% of all firefighters were volunteers and 66% of all fire departments were all-volunteer.

The near-monopoly status of government provided education in many places and the actual monopoly of government provided police and fire protection makes these industries less susceptible to innovation. The government providers face little to no competition from private-sector alternatives, they are highly unionized and thus have little incentive to invest in labor-saving technology, and the importance of their output along with the aforementioned lack of competition allows them to pass cost increases on to taxpayers.

Market competition, limited union membership, and the profit-incentive are features of the private sector that are lacking in the public sector. Together these features encourage the use of labor-augmenting technology, which ultimately lowers costs and frees up resources, most notably labor, that can then be used on producing other goods and services. The higher productivity and lower costs that result from investments in productive capital also free up consumer dollars that can then be used to purchase additional goods and services from other industries.

Privatization of basic city services may be a little unnerving to some people, but ultimately it may be the only way to significantly bring down costs without cutting services. There are over 19,000 municipal governments in the US, which means there are over 19,000 groups of citizens that are capable of looking for new and innovative ways to provide the goods and services they rely on. In the private sector entrepreneurs continue to invent new things and find ways to make old things better and cheaper. I believe that if we allow entrepreneurs to apply their creativity to the public sector we will get similar outcomes.

State government spending hits new heights

There is a large literature in macroeconomics that examines the extent to which federal spending “crowds out” investment in the private sector. Basic theory and common sense lead to the conclusion that government spending must replace some private sector spending. After all, dollars are scarce – if the government taxes Paul and uses his money to build a road Paul necessarily has less money to invest in his landscaping business. In theory government spending on public goods like roads could be a net gain. This would occur if the additional value produced by spending one more dollar on roads was greater than the additional value produced by investing one more dollar in Paul’s landscaping business. But even in this scenario, Paul himself may be worse off – he’s one dollar poorer and he may not use the new road – and there is still a dead-weight loss due to the tax.

In reality, the federal government does a lot more than build roads, especially productive ones. In 2014, only 1.9% of federal income tax revenue was spent on transportation. And most of the other stuff that the government does is way less productive, like shuffling money around via entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – and investing in businesses that later go bankrupt like Solyndra. So while it is possible that a dollar spent by the government is more productive than a dollar spent by a guy like Paul, in a country with America’s spending habits it’s unlikely to be the case.

The same crowding out that occurs at the federal level can occur at the state level. In fact, in many states state spending as a percentage of gross state product (GSP) exceeds federal spending as a percentage of GDP. The graph below shows state spending as a percentage of GSP for all 50 states and Washington D.C. in 1970, 1990, and 2012 (data). The red, dashed line is federal spending as a percentage of GDP in 2012 (21.9%).

state spending gsp graph

As shown in the graph, nearly every state increased their spending relative to GSP from 1970 – 2012 (triangles are above the X’s). Only one state, South Dakota, had lower spending relative to GSP in 2012 than in 1970. In 2012, 15 of the 50 states spent more as a percentage of GSP than the federal government spent as a percentage of GDP (states where the triangle is above the red, dashed line). In 1990 only two states, Arizona and Montana, spent at that level.

It used to be the case that state and local spending was primarily focused on classic government services like roads, water/sewer systems, police officers, firemen, and K-12 education. But state spending is increasingly looking similar to federal spending. Redistributive public welfare expenditures and pension expenditures have increased substantially since 1992. As an example, the tables below provide a breakdown of some key spending areas for two states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in 1992 and 2012 (1992 data here, 2012 data here). The dollar per capita amounts are adjusted for inflation and are in 2009 dollars.

ohio spending table

penn spending table

As the tables show, spending on public welfare, hospitals, and health increased by 120% in Ohio and 86% in Pennsylvania from 1992 to 2012. Pension expenditures increased by 83% and 125% respectively. And contrary to what many politicians and media types say, funding for higher education – the large majority of state education spending is on higher education – increased dramatically during this time period; up 250% in Ohio and 199% in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, funding for highways – the classic public good that politicians everywhere insist wouldn’t exist without them – has increased by a much smaller amount in both states.

The state spending increases of the recent past are being driven in large part by public welfare programs that redistribute money, pensions for government employees, and higher education. While one could argue that higher education spending is a productive public investment (Milton Friedman didn’t think so and I agree) it is hard to make a case that public welfare and pension payments are good investments. This alone doesn’t mean that society shouldn’t provide those things. Other factors like equity and economic security might be more important to some people than economic productivity. But this does make it unlikely that the marginal dollar spent by a state government today is as economically productive as that dollar spent in the private sector. Like federal spending, state spending is likely crowding out productive private investment, which will ultimately lower output and economic growth in the long run.

Paving over pension liabilities, again

Public sector pensions are subject to a variety of accounting and actuarial manipulations. A lot of the reason for the lack of funding discipline, I’ve argued, is in part due to the mal-incentives in the public sector to fully fund employee pensions. Discount rate assumptions, asset smoothing, and altering amortization schedules are three of the most common kinds of maneuvers used to make pension payments easier on the sponsor. Short-sighted politicians don’t always want to pay the full bill when they can use revenues for other things. The problem with these tactics is they can also lead to underfunding, basically kicking the can down the road.

Private sector plans are not immune to government-sanctioned accounting subterfuges. Last week’s Wall Street Journal reported on just one such technique.

President Obama recently signed a $10.8 billion transportation bill that also included a provision to allow companies to continue “pension smoothing” for 10 more months. The result is to lower the companies’ contribution to employee pension plans. It’s also a federal revenue device. Since pension payments are tax-deductible these companies will have slightly higher tax bills this year. Those taxes go to help fund federal transportation per the recently signed legislation.

A little bit less is put into private-sector pension plans and a little bit more is put into the government’s coffers.

The WSJ notes that the top 100 private pension plans could see their $44 billion required pension contribution reduced by 30 percent, adding an estimated $2.3 billion deficit to private pension plans. It’s poor discipline considering the variable condition of a lot of private plans which are backed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

My colleague Jason Fichtner and I drew attention to these subtle accounting dodges triggered by last year’s transportation bill. In “Paving over Pension Liabilities,” we call out discount rate manipulation used by corporations and encouraged by Congress that basically has the same effect: redirecting a portion of the companies’ reduced pension payments to the federal government in order to finance transportation spending. The small reduction in corporate plans’ discount rate translates into an extra $8.8 billion for the federal government over 10 years.

The AFL-CIO isn’t worried about these gimmicks. They argue that pension smoothing makes life easier for the sponsor, and thus makes offering a defined benefit plan, “less daunting.” But such, “politically-opportunistic accounting,” (a term defined by economist Odd Stalebrink) is basically a means of covering up reality, like only paying a portion of your credit card bill or mortgage. Do it long enough and you’ll eventually forget how much those shopping sprees and your house actually cost.

Municipalities in fiscal distress: state-based laws and remedies

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.

 

 

 

Strong words from the SEC on Public Sector Pensions

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. Here’s part of the remarks worth considering:

 …for years, state and local governments have used lax governmental accounting standards to hide the yawning chasm in their balance sheets…

The riskiness of a pension obligation depends on state law.[32]  If pension obligations have the same preference as general obligation debt, then the municipality’s own municipal bond yield (generally around 5%) would be the proper discount rate.[33]  Or, if as we’ve seen from Detroit, pensions will be saved before all else, then we should use a default-free measure to discount the liability:  specifically, the Treasury zero-coupon yield curve.[34]  This would result in a discount rate in the low 3% range.

Obviously, the higher the discount rate, the lower the present value of the liability.  The difference between a discount rate in the range of seven percent and one in the range of three percent is in large part responsible for the hidden $3 trillion in unfunded liabilities that are currently going unreported.

This lack of transparency can amount to a fraud on municipal bond investors, and it does a disservice to state and local government workers and retirees by saving elected officials from making the hard choices either to fully fund the pension promises that were made to public employees,[35] or not to make the promises in the first place.

In the private sector, the SEC would quickly bring fraud charges against any corporate issuer and its officers for playing such numbers games.  And, we would also pursue and punish the so-called fiduciaries who recklessly seek yield to meet unrealistic accounting assumptions.  We should not treat municipalities any differently.”

GASB 68 asks that sponsors use a high- yield, tax exempt 20-year municipal GO bond only on the unfunded portion of the liability. This will reveal bigger funding gaps in public sector pension plans. But it does not reveal the full value of the liability since it allows sponsors to continue using the higher discount rates on the funded portion of the liability.

 In addition to using the new GASB standards, Commissioner Gallagher advises that governments should also disclose their pension liabilities on a risk-free basis. This would have the effect of showing the value of these promises on a ‘guaranteed-to-be-paid’ basis. Commissioner Gallagher’s suggestions are extremely sensible and a call to basic transparency in public sector liability reporting.

Ignoring the value of pension benefits is not going to make them cheaper to fund, and the longer a state waits to accurately measure the liabilities and payments, the worse it gets. Just ask New Jersey –  which is struggling to balance its budget and meet a fraction of a fraction of the required annual pension contribution to its state pension system. The situation is so dire that it could trigger yet another downgrade for the Garden State.