Category Archives: Balanced Budget

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.”

 

 

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.

 

 

States Look to Rainy Day Funds to Avoid Future Crises

For the past nine quarters, state revenue collections have been increasing and are now approaching 2008 levels after adjusting for inflation. Many state policymakers are no longer facing the near-ubiquitous budget gaps of fiscal year 2012, but at the moment those memories seem to remain fresh in their minds.

Many states are looking to rainy day funds as a tool to avoid the revenue shortfalls they have experienced since the recession. In Wisconsin, for example, Governor Walker recently made headlines by building up the states’ fund to $125.4 million. In Texas, the state’s significant Rainy Day Fund has reached over $8 billion, behind only Alaska’s fund that holds over $18 billion.

A June report from the Tax Foundation shows Texas and Alaska are the only states with funds that are significant enough to protect states from budget stress in future business cycle downturns. As the Tax Foundation analysis explains, state rainy day funds can be a useful to smooth spending over the business cycle. Research that Matt Mitchell and Nick Tuszynski cite demonstrates that rainy day funds governed by strict rules about when they may be tapped do achieve modest success in smoothing revenue volatility. Because most states have balanced budget requirements, when tax revenues fall during business cycle downturns, states must respond by raising taxes or cutting spending, both pro-cyclical options. If states are required to contribute to rainy day funds when they have revenue surpluses and then are able to draw on these savings during downturns in order to avoid tax increases or spending cuts, this pro-cyclical trend can be avoided.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation points out some of the benefits of large rainy day funds:

Maintaining large “rainy day” funds  benefits Texas and Alaska in three ways:

1) These states do not rely  on large pots of one-time funding to pay for ongoing expenses, but rather balance their books by bringing spending in line with revenues;

2) These states  have reserves on hand to deal with emergencies; and

3) Having a large “rainy day” fund improves the states’ bond rating which means lower interest rates for borrowing.

However, even as more states begin making significant contributions to their rainy day funds, they have not fulfilled their pension obligations. According to states’ own estimates of their pension liabilities, states’ unfunded pension liabilities total about $1 billion. However using private sector accounting methods, states are actually on the hook for over $3 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities. Because states do not use the risk-free discount rate to value these liabilities, the surpluses they think they have to contribute to rainy day funds are illusions.

Even if states were already contributing appropriately to their pension funds and systematically contributed to rainy day funds during revenue upswings, it’s not clear that rainy day funds are a path toward fiscal discipline.  Because of the perpetual tendency for government to grow, it’s unlikely that state policymakers will take any steps to reduce the growth of government during times of economic growth. If states successfully save tax revenues in rainy day funds to avoid having to make spending cuts during recessions, states will not have to decrease spending at any point during the business cycle. States’ balanced budget requirements can provide a mechanism that helps states cut spending in some areas when revenues drop off, but rainy day funds obviate this requirement. Successful use of rainy day funds could contribute to the trend of states’ spending growing fast than GDP.

Supporters of substantial rainy day funds should acknowledge that these cushions — which on the one hand may provide significant benefits to taxpayers — come at the expense of cyclical opportunities to cut the size of state governments to bring them in line with tax revenues. Without the necessity of cutting spending at some point, state budgets might grow more rapidly that they already are, hindering economic growth in the long run. Whether or not rainy day funds increase the growth rate is an empirical question that advocates should research before recommending this strategy, and this possible drawback should be weighed against their potential to reduce revenue volatility.

The lessons of bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the plenary session for the Association for Budgeting and Financial Management (ABFM)’s annual meeting in New York. My co-panelists included NYU finance professor Dall Forsythe who as Budget Director for the State of New York during the fiscal crisis that pushed New York City to near bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, gave us an inside look of what went into staving off fiscal collapse.  Professor Forsythe explained New York City may not be a generalizable example of municipal bankruptcy but it is an excellent study of  how a major city avoided collapse and rebuilt itself into a financial powerhouse over the following decades.

Ted Orson also spoke. As lead legal council for Central Falls’ recent bankruptcy proceedings, Mr. Orson gave a riveting talk about how leaders in Central Falls worked with the state government and retired workers to come to terms with the city’s empty coffers. It was not easy. Retired firemen and police officers were asked to take a 55 percent cut in their pension benefits. I think his talk underscored the importance of transparency and truth in pension accounting. No one wants to have it get to this point.

Newsmakers 9/23: Gallogly, Orson

My talk zoned in on pension accounting – the new GASB rules and what they mean. In a followup post I’ll explore how GASB 67 and GASB 68 are likely to affect government’s accounts. And also the role that Moody’s decision to discount pensions using a corporate bond rate is going to change the way we view municipal and state finances.

 

Giving Illinois local governments control over their workers’ pensions

The Chicago Tribune makes a “modest proposal” this week. Discouraged by the inaction of the Illinois General Assembly on state-wide pension reform, the editorial board supports the idea that costs for teacher pensions should be shifted and shared with local governments. Republicans, fearful of property tax hikes, don’t like the notion. But the Tribune makes a good point: the cost shift should be accompanied with the ability of local governments to directly negotiate with their employees minus the influence of Springfield. It’s an interesting idea.

Ultimately, pension reform must proceed according to certain principles that clarify the following:

a) What is the true and full value of the benefit? The market valuation principle.

b) How do you incentivize such a system to properly value, steward, and fund benefits? The principal-agent problem.

c) How do you connect the full employee wage/benefit bill with taxpayers who enjoy the services? The fiscal illusion problem.

Right now, it’s a mess. Government accounting is a still a jumble. (But the real value is always knowable via market valuation.) No entity currently has the incentive to properly value and fund these systems. And in fact, we continue to see risk-taking and the shifting of assets into alternative investments, the issuance of Pension Obligation Bonds, and the deferral of reforms. Politicians have a short-term horizon.

And then there is the problem of “disjointed finance.”

Take the case of New Jersey. Local governments negotiate with their employees over wages. But pension policy is set by the state. New Jersey municipalities get an annual bill to fund their employee pensions based on the state actuary’s calculations. Local officials don’t have any sense of what those obligations look like going forward. The state’s annual funding calculations low-ball what is needed to fund the benefits. Could it be that such opacity leads local governments to offer wage enhancements, or hiring increases, that translate into total compensation packages that they can’t afford?

The Chicago Tribune’s idea only works if Illinois local governments accurately calculate what is needed on an annual basis to fund the pensions they negotiate with their workers and to have a full assessment of the value of compensation packages over time. How is market valuation incentivized? Perhaps Moody’s move to calculate pensions based on a corporate bond yield will have an effect. Or perhaps plans need to be managed by a third-party, as Roman Hardgrave and I suggest in our 2011 paper. 

Tying local costs to local taxpayers is a good idea. Another phenomenon the pension problem has revealed is gradual separation of taxing and spending in American public finance over the course of the past half century. That has produced a growing fiscal illusion in finance – where things seem less expensive than they actually are since the costs are spread over larger groups of taxpayers. Local costs are spread among state taxpayers, and now the worry is that state pension costs and debts will be spread across national taxpayers. At least, it’s been suggested.

In his 2012 budget, Governor Quinn alluded to a federal government guarantee  of Illinois’ pension debt. It’s not a popular idea with Congress at the moment. But it appears to have been part of the political calculations of those who are responsible designing and enforcing the rules that guide Illinois’ budget and determine pension policy.

 

 

 

 

The Problem with States’ Rights

This week, Eileen Norcross hosted a fiscal federalism symposium, bringing together scholars of various disciplines to discuss some of the challenges that our system of federalism faces today. Part of the discussion centered around Michael Greve’s new book The Upside-Down Constitution.

One of his key points is a reminder of the reason federalists believed that states’ rights are important. We shouldn’t care about states’ rights for the sake of states’ rights — states are merely groups of residents. Rather, we should care about people’s rights, and how these can be better protected in a federalist system than under a centralized government. This distinction sometimes gets lost when people advocate states’ rights rather than states’ enumerated powers. The problem with advocating states’ rights is that this nuance paves the way for states to collude rather than to compete.

A clear example of this collusion happened in 1984 when Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Because setting a drinking age does not fall under the federal government’s enumerated powers, when Congress wanted to change the rules in this area, it had to bargain using tax dollars. States that kept a drinking age in place below 21 would have lost 10-percent of their federal highway funding dollars.

While this may sound like the federal government is coercing the states, it’s key to remember that the goal of federalism is individuals’ rights. With the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, the states and federal government colluded to bring an end to competition in policy. This Act made state policy in this area the same, taking away Americans’ opportunity to choose to live in states with lower drinking ages.

When multiple levels of government pay for a given service, such as roads, many opportunities arise for this type of collusion, leading to the growth of government and the erosion of competition between governments. A competitive federalism means both that governments have incentives to provide the policy environments that their residents want and that people will have greater variety of policy climates to choose from. If the drinking age is an important issue to a family, competitive federalism could provide them with the option of living in a city or state with a higher or lower minimum age.

In the coming year, we hope to pursue research exploring what institutions limit competition within American federalism and what institutions prevent collusion between the federal, state, and local jurisdictions.

 

SEPTA and interest rate swaps

Interest rate swaps became a relatively popular means for municipal governments to save some money during the 1990s and into the 2000s. The basic idea is that an issuer (the government) enters into a contract with a bank to exchange interest rate payments on a cash flow. These can be structured to exchange a fixed payment for a variable payment in return, or vice versa.

These interest payments are calculated based on an underlying asset or instrument, such as a bond. That makes interest rate swaps a derivative, as their value is derived from an underlying financial instrument.

The issuer’s goal is to hedge against fluctuating interest rates and impart some stability to their budget.The bank’s incentive is to make a fee. It works for the issuer when they guess correctly and – by way of example -the issuer agrees to a payment based on a fixed rate of interest that is low relative to the adjustable rate of interest the bank pays to the municipality in return.

But that’s not what happened as rates began to fall after 2008. Many municipal issuers found themselves paying banks a fixed rate that was high relative to the variable rate the bank was paying in return. Jefferson County, Alabama is the most notorious example, as my recent article in US News explains. At work in this larger story is the role the LIBOR interest rate rigging scandal played in suppressing the variable rate leading some governments to sue banks for damages.

Pennsylvania governments were particularly keen on interest rates swaps, with 626 swaps having been entered into across the Commonwealth. Depending on how they were structured, some entities have come out ahead. The majority have lost on the contracts. That includes SEPTA, as Pennsylvania Watchdog explains.

Is the problem with the interest rate swap concept? I’d argue that the answer lies in how they are used. What might be a good hedging instrument for the financial sector exposes the public sector to a set of risks that aren’t fully appreciated. The risks -including the real hazard that the municipality incorrectly guessed the direction interest rates would travel- are passed on to taxpayers or service users.

 

 

Strategy and politics in the of phrasing of bond referendum

How detailed should bond referendum be? The Arlington County Board heard comments from the public on the FY 2013 capital spending plan a few weeks ago. At issue was $153 million in local GO bond referendum that will be on the ballot on November 6th. The Arlington Sun Gazette reports there are four major “bundles.”

  • $31.946 million for Metro, neighborhood traffic calming, paving and other transportation projects
  • $50.533 million for parks, including the Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center and parkland acquisition
  • $28.306 million for Neighborhood Conservation and other “community infrastructure” projects
  • $42.62 million for design and construction of various school projects.

At issue was the language accompanying the bond packages. The Arlington County Civic Federation contends the $45 million dedicated to the acquatics center be listed as a separate item rather than bundled under the general category of park improvements.

Scott McCaffrey writes that the County Board has been bundling bonds under thematic groupings for many years as a strategy to lessen voter opposition, an interesting claim.

How explicit does language have to be in municipal General Obligation bond offerings? States typically require GO bond debt be subject to voter approval before issuance, but how does ballot language matter to the outcome?

While not addressing the matter specifically a few related questions have been pursued in the literature. Damore, Bowler and Nicholson in their paper, “Agenda Setting by Direct Democracy: Comparing the Initiative and the Referendum” (State Politics and Policy Quaterly, forthcoming) considers if agenda setters use the referendum process to extract greater spending than the median voter desires. Some of this research indicates that voters are less likely to support state referendum for tax increases but that between 1990 and 2008, 80 percent of bond referendum received voter approval.

As to the need for particular language, there are strategies. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) lists six steps governments can take to improve their chances of getting a bond approved. This includes, “measure design” or “developing ballot language that appeals to voters and clearly explains how this measure addresses the particular issue targeted by the bonds meets the needs of the community.”

I did find anecdotal evidence that politicians struggle with language on ballot questions, in an effort to strike a balance between clarity and increased likelihood of passage. The Rockford Illinois School Board appears to be hemmed-in by how it phrases bond questions. The more detailed the questions the more legally-bound the board is to spend the money as specifically approved by voters.

Speaking of language, in writing this post I was unsure if I should be using”referenda” as the plural of “referendum”. “Referenda” sounds more natural to me but “referendum” appears to be used more often.

Given the difficulty of the original Latin grammar (referendum is a “gerund” and has no plural), it turns out there is an unsettled debate over this. Either is correct according to the Irish paper The Daily Edge. I felt better knowing that even The British Parliament debated over which plural form to use back in 1998. It turns out whether one uses the Latin “referenda” or the Anglicized “referendum” is purely a matter of taste.

State Revenue Uncertainty

Yesterday the National Conference of State Legislatures released its State Budget Update for 2012, projecting that states’ revenues are approaching levels not seen since before the recession. This means that the budget deficits that have been common in most states over the past few years will hopefully be rare this fiscal year. As Reuters reports:

The situation is now turning around. Only California and the state of Washington currently are projecting deficits for fiscal 2012, according to NCSL. At the same time, resource-rich states like Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota expect big balances for fiscal 2012, which ended on June 30 for most states.

For fiscal 2013, none of the states are projecting deficits, with 10 states and Washington, D.C., eyeing balances equal to 10 percent or more of general fund spending, the NCSL reported. However, year-end balances of just 0.1 percent to 4.9 percent are projected in nearly a quarter of the states.

Not everyone is as optimistic about state budgets in the coming year. This new report contrasts sharply with a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which earlier this summer found that 31 states faced budget gaps in 2012, and that states face a combined $55 billion shortfall for 2013. However, if the NCSL findings are correct, this is very good news for states that have had to resort to midyear cuts and tax increases to balance budgets in the post-recession years.

If states can more easily meet their constitutionally required balanced budgets this year, policymakers should take this opportunity to look at their long-run debt challenges. As I wrote in a USA Today op ed last week, state debt levels are headed to levels that will threaten economic growth. Mounting interest costs will also mean that tax dollars increasingly go to pay for past services, rather than current services.

Whether or not states are in a better position for avoiding deficits in the current year, they need to address their debt levels for long run economic growth. Outspending current revenues is a constant temptation for elected officials who want to stay in office through public support of state programs. However, voters should demand responsible fiscal policy to address debt problems now, before this becomes even more difficult to do down the road.

The Ravitch Volker report: State Budget Crisis is Real

The recession of 2008 pulled the mask off of state budget pathologies that had been identified as institutional weaknesses in the decades leading to the crisis.

The “new normal” for state and local governments does not look like the booming 1980s and 1990s but in fact is riddled with many fiscal challenges.  Revenues aren’t what they were before 2008 though they are expected to reach pre-recession levels in FY 2013. The Medicaid and employee benefits bill is rising. The stimulus pushed forward budgetary reforms. These are some of the findings of the Ravitch-Volker Report, an effort of the State Budget Crisis Task Force which assembled in 2010-2012 to diagnose the major problems facing six states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia.

Much of the analysis is non-controversial: Medicaid is eating up budgets, as are pensions costs and health care benefits.

Medicaid, currently at 24 percent of state spending, will continue to increase as enrollment, medical inflation and the increasing caseloads that come with higher unemployment increase costs. This is not a surprise. What is new is that the federal government is making it harder for cost-saving measure to be enacted, and “entrenched provider groups in each state resist reductions in Medicaid provider rates….”  I do not believe this is the intention of the authors of the report but the diagnosis of Medicaid’s future highlights the dysfunctional aspects of this federal-state pact which has led to the creation of special interests that benefit from inflating costs.

On the pension front the Ravitch-Volker report points to the the role discount rates have played in the pension funding problems facing the state and local governments, in particular in New Jersey. And they also note the reliance on budgetary gimmicks that may even result in a kind of budgetary “cynicism.” A point I have made in the past.

But the report also makes a few assumptions about the interplay of federal, state and local spending that I think could benefit from an expanded debate. The authors warn that cuts in federal discretionary spending will doom subsidiary governments. On the surface, that’s true. Cuts in aid mean less money in state coffers for education, transportation and other areas. But the larger question is what are the fiscal effects of grants-in-aid between governments? There is the public choice literature to consider on the role of fiscal illusion in finances. And further, does the current model of delivering these services actually work as intended?

Their recommendations are largely sound. Many of them have been made before: more transparent accounting, a tightening of rainy day fund rules (see our recent paper on Illinois), broad-based tax systems should replace narrow ones, the re-establishment of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR). Abolished in 1995 ACIR was concerned with evaluating the fiscal impact of federal policies in the states. Further the commission recommends the federal government work with the states to help control Medicaid costs, and the re-evaluation by states of their own local needs including municipal finances and infrastructure spending.

The report is timely, contains good information and brings many challenges to the fore. But this discussion can also benefit from a larger debate over the current federal-state-local spending model which dates largely to the middle of last century. This debate is not merely about how books are balanced but how citizens are governed in our federalist system. The Ravitch-Volker report is sober but cautious in this regard. The report sketches out the fiscal picture of the U.S. in broad strokes and offers general principles for states to follow and it is sure to create discussion among policymakers in the coming months.