Category Archives: Public Finance

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.

 

 

 

Delaware Senate votes to bail out three casinos

Delaware’s state senate has voted to redirect $10 billion in economic development funding to bail out three gambling casinos. The measure now goes to the House. Two reasons the casinos are failing: increased competition from Maryland and Pennsylvania and having to share a large chuck of revenue with the state. Lawmakers admit the bailout is only a “Band Aid,” and not enough to salvage the operations.

Supporters defend SB 220 as a jobs protection measure. But the real incentive is more likely the revenues involved. Lottery receipts are the fourth largest source of Delaware’s revenues at about 7 percent of the total bringing in $277 billion in 2013, right behind Income taxes, Franchise taxes, and Abandoned Property.

The casinos are certainly in trouble. According to Delaware Newszap.com Dover Downs Gaming & Entertainment saw a $1 million loss in Q1 2014 and is $46 million in debt. During that same first quarter the casino paid the state $16 million in revenue.

Revenue sharing between the state and the casinos has grown more onerous over the past 20 years. In 1997, the casino claimed 50.2 percent of the revenue and the state took 25.2 percent. In 2009, that split reversed, with the state claiming 43.5 percent of revenues and the casino keeping 37.8 percent.

The incentive for the bailout is fairly clear though the economic thinking is convoluted. Why not reduce the tax rate instead? Economist James Butkiewicz at the University of Delaware notes that as a voluntary tax it’s easy revenue and the state doesn’t have to raise taxes elsewhere.

But do casinos deliver for state coffers and economies?  Economists Douglas Walker (whose field is casino economics) and John Jackson find that while lotteries and horse racing tend to increase state revenues, casinos and greyhound racing tend to decrease it. Using recent data, Walker and Jackson find casinos have a positive economic impact. There are many other things to consider when thinking about the effects of casinos. As state creations there is ample opportunity for corruption and regulatory capture. Walker and Calcagno find just such a link in their paper in the journal Applied Economics (Dec 2013), “Casinos and Political Corruption in the United States: A Granger Causality Analysis.” And as a recent article by the WSJ notes oversaturation of casinos on the East Coast has also triggered an interstate “war” for revenues. Delaware’s gaming revenues are down 29 percent since 2011. A Delaware Casino Executive laments that the business model they are using is simply, “unworkable.”

 

 

 

Is American Federalism conducive to liberty?

In new Mercatus research, Dr. Richard E. Wagner, Harris professor of Economics at George Mason University tackles a fascinating question: Is the American form of federalism supportive of liberty?

His answer is a qualified ‘yes.’ Under certain conditions, American federalism does support liberty, but that very same system can also be modified resulting in the expansion of political power relative to the liberty of citizens. The question of what results from the gradual constitutional transformation of the American federalist system is a salient one for not only students of government but also policymakers.

The important conditions that determine which form of federalism prevails (liberty-supporting or liberty-eroding) are rooted in competition among governments. Today we are experiencing a very different kind of federalism than the one instituted by the Founders. For the better part of a century, the US constitution has often been amended in a way to encourage collusion among the states thus undermining a key feature of a liberty-supporting federalism.

Restoring a liberty-supporting federalism first requires a deeper diagnosis of the American federalist system. Dr. Wagner develops that possibility through a very engaging synthesis of public choice theory, Austrian and new institutional economics.  Student of Dr. Wagner may be familiar with many of these concepts, developed in his public finance books including Deficits, Debt and Democracy (2012, Elgar). Rather than summarize the paper in today’s blog post, for now I encourage you to read the piece in full.

Hercules, California’s Herculean debts

What lead the city of Hercules, California to default on its debts? Guest poster Marc Joffe, Principal Consultant at Public Sector Credit, finds a case of mission-creep in the “dynamic city on the Bay’s”  decision to issue debt to finance power plants and affordable housing.

(For more of Marc Joffe’s research on modeling credit risk, read his 2013 Mercatus Working paper comparing Illinois and Indiana)

Hercules, California Public Power Failure Leads to Default

by Marc Joffe

Cities can default on obligations to their creditors without filing for Chapter IX bankruptcy protection.  This is the lesson of Hercules, California – a 25,000-resident San Francisco suburb whose finances are not quite as mighty as its name implies. Hercules experience is also illustrative of the risks that cities take when they expand beyond their core functions of public safety and public works.

The city is threatening to default on $12.8 million of municipal bonds as early as this August.  In a tender offer issued earlier this month, Hercules offered holders of these bonds 90% of their securities’ face value. According to the bondholder notice, “If an insufficient number of bonds are not tendered, the City anticipates it will soon default on the bonds.” Offering bondholders 90 cents on the dollar in order to avoid facing the risk of non-payment is, for all intents and purposes, a default.

In fact, it is the city’s third default in recent years. In 2011, Hercules failed to repay a $3.75 million loan from the California Housing Financing Agency (CHFA). The state loan was intended to support a mixed use development Hercules planned to build. The development, which included a large affordable housing component, was stymied by neighborhood opposition to low income housing and the City’s inability to acquire a portion of the intended construction site from a nearby homeowner’s association. Earlier this year, Hercules sold the site to a developer who plans to build market rate housing. It has also agreed to repay the CHFA loan in installments through 2026 at a reduced interest rate.

Hercules’ second default occurred on February 1, 2012, when it failed to make a $2.4 million interest payments on Redevelopment Agency (RDA) bonds. The default was absorbed by Ambac, the agency’s municipal bond insurer. Ambac filed suit against the city claiming it had failed to remit RDA related property tax collections to the bond trustee as required. In March 2012, Ambac and the City settled the litigation with the City pledging two parcels of land to the insurer. The City further agreed to place these two properties on the market, apparently to offset the $4.05 million property tax remittance the city had failed to make earlier.

The most recent default (or, more euphemistically, the current tender offer) involves bonds issued to finance a failed public power scheme. In 2001, the City established a public power company – the Hercules Municipal Utility (HMU) – on the assumption that it could replace the area’s for-profit utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). The expectation was that HMU would generate a similar rate of profit to PG&E, but under public ownership, those profits could fund other city spending priorities. Unfortunately for Hercules creditors and taxpayers, things did not work out as planned.

In a 2011 expose, the Huffington Post reported that HMU was serving only 840 customers, charging rates 17% higher than PG&E and had lost money in every year since its 2003 inception. In 2010, the City issued $13.5 million in new bonds to finance HMU, but the proceeds were never invested. Now the City has agreed to sell its power plant to the local utility – Pacific Gas & Electric. Unfortunately, PG&E’s bid was insufficient to retire the $12.8 million in 2010 bonds still outstanding and (for reasons discussed below) the city lacks reserves that could be used to fully redeem these remaining bonds. Thus the need for a 90% tender offer.

Municipal bond analysts often assess a city’s fiscal well-being by reviewing its audited financial statements. Unfortunately, Hercules routinely files its audited financials on a delayed basis. Currently, the latest available statements for Hercules are for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011. Many California cities have already filed their 2013 audits. The failure to file audited financials on a timely basis is part of a larger financial management issue in Hercules. In May and November 2012, the State Controller’s Office issued three audits highly critical of the city’s fiscal controls. One report “found the City of Hercules’ administrative and internal accounting control deficiencies to be serious and pervasive.” These insufficient controls may explain why RDA tax revenues could be directed away from debt service, thereby subjecting the city to costly litigation.

As shown in the accompanying table, Hercules has persistently run large General Fund deficits since 2008.  The city’s inability to balance its books has resulted in the depletion of its financial reserves. According to Hercules most recent budget, the city had a negative unassigned General Fund balance at the end of FY 2012 and FY 2013, meaning it had no reserves that had not already been earmarked for one purpose or another. Despite having borrowed over $150 million, the city thus lacked liquid assets to cover contingencies.

Hercules General Fund Performance (FY 2008-FY2013)

Year

Revenues

Expenditures

Surplus/(Deficit)

2008

13,927,154

15,238,000

(1,310,846)

2009

14,738,289

17,274,960

(2,536,671)

2010

16,422,677

20,683,147

(4,260,470)

2011

11,823,076

16,232,313

(4,409,237)

2012

10,754,530

12,893,983

(2,139,453)

2013

11,151,014

12,288,943

(1,137,929)

Sources: Hercules Audited Financial Statements (FY 2008-2011), FY 2014 Budget.
FY 2012 and FY 2013 are unaudited estimates.

 

Hercules fiscal straitjacket appears to be the result of government overreach. Instead of focusing on efficient delivery of basic services and providing effective financial oversight, City leaders ventured into enterprises attractive to many of their Progressive constituents: publicly owned power and publicly-financed affordable housing. Lacking the skills to properly manage these undertakings, city leadership squandered large sums of borrowed money and ran down their financial reserves. The result for Hercules will be years of higher taxes, subpar real estate performance and reduced access to the municipal bond market.

 

The “pension tapeworm” and Fiscal Federalism

In his annual report to shareholders, Warren Buffett cites the role that pension underfunding is playing in governments and markets:

“Citizens and public officials typically under-appreciated the gigantic financial tapeworm that was born when promises were made. During the next decade, you will read a lot of news –- bad news -– about public pension plans.”

He zones in on pension mathematics – “a mystery to most Americans” – as a possible reason for accelerating liabilities facing state and local governments including Puerto Rico, Detroit, New Jersey and Illinois. I might go further and state that pension mathematics remains a mystery to those with responsibility for, or interest in, these systems. It’s the number one reason why reforms have been halting and inadequate to meet the magnitude of the problem. But as has been mentioned on this blog before: the accounting will eventually catch up with the economics.

What that means is unrelenting pressure building in municipal budgets including major cities. MSN Money suggests the possibility of bankruptcy for Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City based on their growing health care and pension liabilities.

In the context of this recent news and open talk of big municipal bankruptcy, I found an interesting analysis by Paul E. Peterson and Daniel J. Nadler in “The Global Debt Crisis Haunting U.S. and European Federalism.”(Brookings Institution Press, 2014).

In their article, “Competitive Federalism Under Pressure,” they find a positive correlation between investors’ perception of default risk on state bonds and the unionization rate of the public sector workforce. While cautioning that there is much more at work influencing investors’ views, I think their findings are worth mentioning since one of the biggest obstacles to pension reform has been the reluctance of interested parties to confront the (actual) numbers.

More precisely, it leads to a situation like the one now being sorted out in federal bankruptcy court in Detroit. Pensioners have been told by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr that if they are willing to enter into a “timely settlement” with the city and state, they may see their pensions reduced by less than the 10 to 30 percent now suggested. Meanwhile bondholders are looking at a haircut of up to 80 percent.

If this outcome holds for Detroit, then Peterson and Nadler’s findings help to illuminate the importance of collective bargaining rules on the structure of American federalism by changing the “rules of the game” in state and local finances. The big question for other cities and creditors: How will Detroit’s treatment of pensions versus bonds affect investors’ perception of credit risk in the municipal debt market?

But there are even bigger implications. It is the scenario of multiple (and major) municipal bankruptcies that might lead to federalism-altering policy interventions, Peterson and Nadler conclude their analysis with this observation:

[public sector] Collective bargaining has, “magnified the risk of state sovereign defaults, complicated the resolution of deficit problems that provoke such crises, heightened the likelihood of a federal intervention if such crises materializes, and set the conditions for a transformation of the country’s federal system.”

Does statehood trigger Leviathan? A case study of New Mexico and Arizona

I was recently asked to review, “The Fiscal Case Against Statehood: Accounting for Statehood in New Mexico and Arizona, by Dr. Stephanie Moussalli for EH.net (the Economic History Association).

I highly recommend the book for scholars of public choice, economic history and accounting/public finance.

As one who spends lots of time reading  state and local financial reports in the context of public choice, I was very impressed with Moussalli’s insights and tenacity. In her research she dives into the historical accounts of territorial New Mexico and Arizona to answer two questions.  Firstly, did statehood (which arrived in 1912) lead to a “Leviathan effect” causing government spending to grow. And secondly, as a result of statehood, did accounting improve?

The answer to these questions is yes. Statehood did trigger a Leviathan effect for these Southwestern states –  findings that have implications for current policy – in particular the sovereignty debates surrounding Puerto Rico and Quebec. And the accounts did improve as a result of statehood, an outcome that controls for the fact that this occurred during the height of the Progressive era and its drive for public accountability.

A provocative implication of her findings that cuts against the received wisdom:  Are the improved accounting techniques that come with statehood a necessary tool for more ambitious spending programs? Does accounting transparency come with a price?

What makes this an engaging study is Moussalli’s persistence and creativity in bringing light to a literature void. She stakes out new research territory, and brings a public choice-infused approach to what might otherwise be bland accounting records. She rightly sees in the historical ledgers the traces of the political and social choices of individuals; and the inescapable record of their decisions. In her words, “people say one thing and do another.” The accounts speak in a way that historical narrative does not.

For more read the review.

 

How are your state’s finances?

Just how well do your state’s finances compare to those of other states?

I sat down with our state policy group last week to discuss recent Mercatus research that ranks states’ fiscal condition based on the their 2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR). The findings contained in State Fiscal Condition: Ranking the 50 States by Dr. Sarah Arnett are aimed at helping states apply basic financial ratios to get a general picture of fiscal health. Dr. Arnett’s paper uses four solvency criteria developed in the public finance literature – cash solvency, budgetary solvency, long-run solvency and service-level solvency. In this podcast, I discuss how legislators and policy analyst might use the study and the limitations of ratios and rankings in understanding a state’s deeper financial picture.

The farm bill: a lesson in government failure

As a consumer and as a taxpayer, the farm bill is a monstrosity. But as someone who teaches public finance and public choice economics, it is a great teaching tool.

Want to explain the concept of dead-weight loss? The farm bill’s insurance subsidies are a perfect illustration of the concept. They transfer resources from taxpayers to farm producers; but taxpayers lose more than producers gain.

Want to illustrate the folly of price controls? Sugar supports which force Americans to pay twice what global consumers pay are a fine illustration.

Want to explain Gordon Tullock’s transitional gains trap? Walk your students through the connection between subsidies and land prices: much of the value of the subsidy is “capitalized” into the price of farmland, meaning that new farmers have to pay exorbitant prices to buy an asset that entitles them to subsidies. This means new farmers are no better off as a result of the subsidies. As David Friedman puts it, “the government can’t even give anything away.” The only ones to gain are those who owned the land when the laws were created. But those who paid for the land with the expectation that it would entitle them to subsidies would howl if politicians tried to do right by consumers and taxpayers and get rid of the privileges.

Want to illustrate Mancur Olson’s theory of interest group formation? Look no further than sugar loans. Taxpayers loan about $1.1 billion to producers every year. Spread among 313 million of us, that is a cost of about $3.50 per taxpayer. And who benefits? Last year just three (!) firms received the bulk of these subsidies, each benefiting to the tune of $200 million. As Olson taught us long ago, the numerous and diffused losers face a significant obstacle in organizing in opposition to this while the small and concentrated winners have every incentive to get organized in support.

Want to show how a “legislative logroll” works? Explain to your students that members representing dairy and peanut interests are statistically significantly likely to vote in the interests of peanut farmers and vice versa.

Want to explain Bruce Yandle’s bootlegger and Baptist theory of regulation? Note that catfish farmers want inspection of “foreign” catfish in the name of safety (the Baptist rationale) when the real reason for supporting additional inspections is self-interested protectionism (the bootlegger motivation).

This week’s lesson is on the power of agenda setters to block even modest reforms. Buried in the dross of privileges to wealthy farmers, both the Senate and the House versions of the bill contained a small glimmer of reform. Both included language capping the amount of subsidies that farmers and their spouses receive at “only” $250,000 per year. Right now, House and Senate conferees are working to reconcile the two versions of the Farm Bill passed this summer. And according to the latest reports, they plan to strip these modest reforms that were agreed to by both chambers.

Unfortunately, kids, this is how modern democracy works.

Credit Warnings, Debt Financing and Dipping into Cash Reserves

As 2013 comes to an end recent news brings attention to the structural budgetary problems and worsening fiscal picture facing several governments: New Jersey, New York City, Puerto Rico and Maryland.

First there was a warning from Moody’s for the Garden State. On Monday New Jersey’s credit outlook was changed to negative. The ratings agency cited rising public employee benefit costs and insufficient revenues. New Jersey is alongside Illinois for the state with the shortest time horizon until the system is Pay-As-You-Go. On a risk-free basis the gap between pension assets and liabilities is roughly $171 billion according to State Budget Solutions, leaving the system only 33 percent funded. This year the New Jersey contributed $1.7 billion to the system. But previous analysis suggests New Jersey will need to pay out $10 billion annually in a few years representing one-third of the current budget.

New Jersey isn’t alone. The biggest structural threat to government budgets is the unrecognized risk in employee pension plans and the purely unfunded status of health care benefits. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his final speech as New York City’s Mayor, pointed to the “labor-electoral complex” which prevents employee benefit reform as the single greatest threat to the city’s financial health. In 12 years the cost of employee benefits has increased 500 percent from $1.5 billion to $8.2 billion. Those costs are certain to grow presenting the next generation with a massive debt that will siphon money away from city services.

Public employee pensions and debt are also crippling Puerto Rico which has dipped into cash reserves to repay a $400 million short-term loan. The Wall Street Journal reports that the government planned to sell bonds, but retreated since the island’s bond values have, “plunged in value,” due to investor fears over economic malaise and the territory’s existing large debt load which stands at $87 billion, or $23,000 per resident.

This should serve as a warning to other states that continue to finance budget growth with debt while understating employee benefit costs. Maryland’s Spending Affordability Committee is recommending a 4 percent budget increase and a hike in the state’s debt limit from $75 million to 1.16 billion in 2014. Early estimates by the legislative fiscal office anticipate structural deficits of $300 million over the next two years – a situation that has plagued Maryland for well over a decade. The fiscal office has advised against increased debt, noting that over the last five years, GO bonds have been, “used as a source of replacement funding for transfers of cash” from dedicated funds projects such as the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund.

 

What the Affordable Care Act Can Teach Us about Government Failure

Most people probably believe that the recent failures of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are an anomaly, and that most areas the federal government involves itself in, from education to transportation, operate quite smoothly, or at least adequately well. This belief is misguided, however, and the issues we see from the ACA should not be viewed as anomalies. Problems like unintended consequences of policy, privilege granting to special interests, adverse selection in insurance markets, and other issues, are widespread in countless areas of public policy. It just so happens that we usually fail to associate the pernicious effects of laws with their source: public policy.

First, public policies create many unintended consequences. People will change their behavior in response to altered incentives from policies and when these behavior changes are not anticipated by lawmakers, unintended consequences occur. As an example, the ACA has altered incentives for many employers. Business owners are now likely to cut worker hours and keep their staffs under 50 employees in order to avoid paying penalties imposed by the law. The intention was that people will get insurance through their jobs, while a result is that many people will lose their jobs or work fewer hours.

A similar effect occurred after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This well-intentioned Act of Congress was supposed to level the playing field for disabled workers by requiring that businesses with disabled workers provide accommodations, such as wheelchair access. The Act also sought to prevent discrimination of disabled workers, such as firing someone for having a disability. The reality once the law was in place was very different, however. Economists have found that the law was followed by a steep decline in employment among disabled workers, likely because of increased costs associated with hiring them, exactly the opposite result the law intended. Perhaps the most famous unintended consequence of all is the fact that minimum wage laws actually hurt low skilled workers.

A lot of these effects, while unintentional, are actually quite predictable and any good economist should be able to identify potential unintended consequences before a law is even implemented. So why do these policies get adopted? A big reason is because special interests have enormous influence in shaping policy. The Affordable Care Act literally has provisions allowing handouts to insurance companies to make up for losses they face in the new government health insurance exchanges. Unfortunately, cronyism like this shapes policy at all levels. For example, a recent USDA regulation will require additional food safety inspection of imported catfish. This may sound like a sensible idea, until one finds out there is no evidence of a significant problem from tainted catfish. The new program was actually lobbied for by domestic catfish producers who wanted to hurt their foreign competitors by driving up the price of imports, all at the expense of American consumers.

A final problem created by the Affordable Care Act relates to adverse selection in insurance markets. Adverse selection occurs because of information problems between buyers and sellers of insurance. Healthy people may have trouble signaling that they are a low risk to insurers, and so the healthy drop out of insurance markets when insurers don’t offer them a low priced product that serves their needs. This can lead to mostly sick people signing up for insurance coverage, while the healthy decide to go without coverage. Over time this leads to higher prices, causing more healthy people to decline coverage and the pool of insured to become ever sicker.

The ACA creates this problem through community rating requirements and other regulations, like guaranteed issue, that don’t allow insurance companies to price policies based on the riskiness of the applicant. As insurance premiums rise (because of regulations and because insurance companies must cover many new services), more and more healthy people will find these policies unattractive. The insurance pool will become ever sicker over time. To avoid this problem, the ACA includes a mandate that everyone purchase insurance. However, it is far from clear whether the current mandate is strong enough to prevent adverse selection problems from taking place.

This problem is hardly new. New York State passed extremely strict community rating regulations several decades ago. This led to higher premiums and lots of young, healthy people dropping out of the insurance pool. I should know, I lived in New York and went without insurance for most of my 20s. The prices of policies were simply too high for me to justify paying.

The list of government failures likely to result from the Affordable Care Act is too long for one blog post. The ACA also has regressive effects that tend to favor the wealthy at the expensive of the middle class, and the law will add to moral hazard problems in our healthcare system (i.e. people over-utilizing medical services or not taking adequate care of themselves because the costs of their behavior are passed on to others).

The ACA may have serious problems, but it works great as a teaching device. Nearly every day we see another example of government failure in action.  Maybe once Americans see the effects of the ACA, they will look more closely at the effects of other policies as well.