Category Archives: Tax and Budget

State tax refunds and limiting spending growth

This fall eligible Alaskans will be receiving a check of $1,100 from their state government. Although the amount of the check can vary, Alaskans receive one every fall – no strings attached. Other state residents are probably more familiar with IRS tax refunds that come every spring, but this “tax refund” that Alaskans receive is unique. It’s a feature that residents have benefited from for decades, even in times when the government has experienced fiscal stress. Considering the state’s unique and distressed budget situation that I’ve described in an earlier post, I think it warrants a discussion of the fiscal viability of their refunds.

A narrow tax base reliant on volatile revenue sources, restricted funds, and growing spending are all factors that made closing Alaska’s budget gap this year very difficult. It even contributed to pulling down Alaska from 1st in our 2016 ranking of states by fiscal condition to 17th in our 2017 edition. Given this deterioration, it will be helpful to look into how and why Alaska residents receive dividend payments each year. There is no public finance rule that says giving refunds to residents is fiscally irresponsible, but there definitely are better ways to do it, and Alaska certainly hasn’t proven to display best practices.

Another state that we can look at for comparison is Colorado, which has a similar “tax refund” for residents but is structured very differently. Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) requires that higher than expected tax revenues each year be refunded to taxpayers and acts as a restraint on government spending growth. In contrast, Alaska’s check comes from the state’s Permanent Fund’s earnings that are generated from oil severance taxes each year, and acts more like a dividend from oil investment earnings.

Are distributing these refunds to taxpayers fiscally responsible? I am going to take a deeper look at these mechanisms to find out.

First, Alaska’s refund.

The figure below displays Alaska’s Permanent Fund checks since 2002 overlaid with the state’s revenue and expenditure trends, all adjusted for inflation. The highest check (in 2015 dollars) was $2,279 in 2008 and the lowest was $906 in 2012, with the average over this time period being about $1,497 per person. Although the check amounts do vary, Alaska has kept on top of delivering them, even in times of steep budget gaps like in 2002, 2009, and 2015. The Permanent Fund dividend formula is based on net income from the current plus the previous four fiscal years, so it makes sense that the check sizes are also cyclical in nature, albeit in a slightly delayed fashion behind oil revenue fluctuations.

Alaska’s dividend payments often end up on the chopping block during yearly budget debates, and there is growing pressure to at least have them reduced. Despite this, Alaska’s dividends are very popular with residents (who can blame them?) and probably won’t be going away for a long time; bringing a new meaning to the Permanent Fund’s name.

The Alaska Permanent Fund was established in 1976 by constitutional amendment and was seen as an investment in future generations, who might no longer have access to oil as a resource. Although this may have been decent forward-thinking, which is rare in state budgets, it does illustrate an interesting public finance story.

Alaska is a great example of a somewhat backwards situation. They generate high amounts of cash each year, but because of the way many of their funds are restricted they are forced to hoard much of it, and give the rest to citizens in the form of dividends. If a different state were to consider a similar dividend before dealing with serious structural budget flaws would be akin to putting the cart before the horse.

Luckily for Alaskan dividend recipients, there are many other areas that the state could reform first in order to improve their budget situation while avoiding cutting payments. As my colleague Adam Millsap has recommended, a fruitful area is tax reform. Alaska doesn’t have an income or sales tax; two of the most common sources of revenue for state governments. These are two potentially more stable sources of income than what the state currently has.

How does Colorado’s “tax refund” compare?

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) has a feature that requires any tax revenue growth beyond inflation and population growth be refunded to taxpayers. It was adopted by Colorado voters in 1992 and it essentially restricts revenues by prohibiting any tax or spending increases without voter approval.

A recent example of this playing out was in 2014 when the state realized higher than expected tax revenues as a result of marijuana legalization. At the point of legalization, the plan was to direct tax revenues generated from the sale of marijuana towards schools or substance abuse program funding. But because of the higher than expected revenues, TABOR was triggered and it would require voter approval to decide if the excess revenues would be sent back to taxpayers or directed to other state programs.

In November of 2015, Colorado voters approved a statewide ballot measure that gave state lawmakers permission to spend $66.1 million in taxes collected from the sale of marijuana. The first $40 million was sent to school construction, the next $12 million to youth and substance abuse programs, and the remainder $14.2 billion to discretionary spending programs. A great example that although TABOR does generally restrain spending, citizens still have power to decline refunds in the name of program spending they are passionate about.

 

The second figure here displays TABOR refunds compared with state revenues and expenditures over time. Adjusted for inflation, checks have varied from $18 in 2005 to $351 in 1999, much smaller than the Alaska dividend checks. TABOR checks have only tended to be distributed when revenues have exceeded expenses. The main reason why checks weren’t distributed between 2006 and 2009, despite a revenue surplus, was because of Referendum C which removed TABOR’s revenue limit for five years, allowing the state to keep collections exceeding the rule. The revenue limit has since been reinstated, but some question the effectiveness of TABOR given an earlier amendment in 2000 which exempts much of education spending from TABOR restrictions.

The main distinguishing factor between Colorado’s refund and Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend is that the former also acts as a constraint on spending growth. By requiring the legislature to get voter approval before any tax increase or spending of new money, it implements automatic checks on these activities. Many states attempt to do this through what are called “Tax and Expenditure Limits” or TELs.

The worry is that left unchecked, state spending can grow to unsustainable levels.

Tax and Expenditure Limits

A review of the literature up to 2012 found that although the earliest studies were largely skeptical of the effectiveness of TELs, as time has passed more research points to the contrary. TELs can restrain spending, but only in certain circumstances.

My colleague Matt Mitchell found in 2010 that TELs are more effective when they (1) bind spending rather than revenue, (2) require a super-majority rather than a simple majority vote to be overridden, (3) immediately refund revenue collected in excess of the limit, and (4) prohibit unfunded mandates on local government.

Applying these criteria to Colorado’s TABOR we see that it does well in some areas and could improve in others. TABOR’s biggest strength is that it immediately refunds revenue collected in excess of the limit in its formula, pending voter approval to do otherwise. Automatically refunding surpluses makes it difficult for governments to use excess funds irresponsibly and also gives taxpayers an incentive to support TABOR.

Colorado’s TABOR does well to limit revenue growth according to a formula, rather than to a fixed number or no limitation at all. The formula partially meets Mitchell’s standards. It stands up well with the most stringent TELs by limiting government growth that exceeds inflation and population growth, but could actually be improved if it limited actual spending growth rather than focusing on tax revenue. When a TEL or similar law limits revenues, policymakers can respond by resorting to implementing more fees or borrowing. There’s some evidence of this occurring in Colorado, with fees becoming more popular as a way to raise revenue since TABOR’s passing. A spending-based TEL is more difficult to evade.

Despite its faults, Colorado’s TABOR structure appears to be doing better than attempts to constrain spending growth in other states. The National Conference of State Legislatures still considers it one of the strictest TELs in the nation. Other states, like Arkansas, could learn a lot from Colorado. A recent Mercatus study analyzes Arkansas’ Revenue Stabilization Law and suggests that it is missing a component similar to Colorado’s TABOR formula to refund excess revenues.

How much a state spends is ultimately up to its residents and legislature. Some states may have a preference for more spending than others, but given the tendency for government spending to grow towards an unsustainable direction, having a conversation about how to slow this is key. Implementing TEL-like checks allows for spending to be monitored and that tax dollars be spent more strategically.

Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend is not structured as well as Colorado’s, but perhaps the state’s saving grace is that it has a relatively well structured TEL. Similarly to Colorado’s TABOR, Alaska’s TEL limits budget growth to the sum of inflation and population growth and is codified in the constitution. Alaska’s TEL doesn’t immediately refund revenue that is collected in excess of the limit to taxpayers as Colorado’s TABOR does, but it does target spending rather than revenues.

Colorado’s and Alaska’s TELs can compete when it comes to restraining spending, but Colorado’s is certainly more strict. Colorado’s expenditures have grown by about 55 percent over the last decade, while Alaska’s has grown approximately 120 percent.

The Lesson

Comparing Colorado and Alaska’s situations reveals two different ways of giving tax refunds to residents. Doing so doesn’t necessarily have to be fiscally irresponsible. Colorado has provided refunds to residents when state revenues have exceeded expenses and as a result this has acted as a restraint on over-spending higher than expected revenues. Although Colorado’s TABOR has been amended over time, its general structure illustrates the effectiveness of institutional restrains on spending. The unintended effects of TABOR, such as the increase in fees, could be well addressed by specifically targeting spending rather revenue, like in the case of Alaska’s TEL. Alaska may have had their future residents’ best intent in mind when they designed their Permanent Fund Dividend, but perhaps this goal of passing forward oil investment earnings should have been paired with preparing for the potential of cyclical budget woes.

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

Eight years after the financial crisis: lessons from the most fiscally distressed cities

You’d think that eight years after the financial crisis, cities would have recovered. Instead, declining tax revenues following the economic downturn paired with growing liabilities have slowed recovery. Some cities exacerbated their situations with poor policy choices. Much could be learned by studying how city officials manage their finances in response to fiscal crises.

Detroit made history in 2013 when it became the largest city to declare bankruptcy after decades of financial struggle. Other cities like Stockton and San Bernardino in California had their own financial battles that also resulted in bankruptcy. Their policy decisions reflect the most extreme responses to fiscal crises.

You could probably count on both hands how many cities file for bankruptcy each year, but this is not an extremely telling statistic as cities often take many other steps to alleviate budget problems and view bankruptcy as a last resort. When times get tough, city officials often reduce payments into their pension systems, raise taxes – or when that doesn’t seem adequate – find themselves cutting services or laying off public workers.

It turns out that many municipalities weathered the 2008 recession without needing to take such extreme actions. Studying how these cities managed to recover more quickly than cities like Stockton provides interesting insight on what courses of action can help city officials better respond to fiscal distress.

A new Mercatus study examines the types of actions that public officials have taken under fiscal distress and then concludes with recommendations that could help future crises from occurring. Their empirical model finds that increased reserves, lower debt, and better tax structures all significantly improve a city’s fiscal health.

The authors, researchers Evgenia Gorina and Craig Maher, define fiscal distress as:

“the condition of local finances that does not permit the government to provide public services and meet its own operating needs to the extent to which these have been provided and met previously.”

In order to determine whether a city or county government is under fiscal distress, the authors study the actual actions taken by city officials between 2007 and 2012. Their approach is unique because it stands in contrast with previous literature that primarily looks to poorly performing financial indicators to measure fiscal distress. An example of such an indicator would be how much cash a government has on hand relative to its liabilities.

Although financial indicators can tell someone a lot about the fiscal condition of their locality, they are only a snapshot of financial resources on hand and don’t provide information on how previous policy choices got them to their current state. A robust analysis of a city’s financial health would require a deeper look. Looking at policy decisions as well as financial indicators can paint a more complete picture of just how financial resources are being managed.

The figure here displays the types of actions, or “fiscal distress episodes”, that the authors of the study found were the most common among cities in California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As expected, you’ll see that bankruptcy occurs much less frequently than other courses of action. The top three most common attempts to meet fundamental operating needs and service requirements during times of fiscal distress include (1) large across-the-board budget cuts or cuts in services, (2) blanket reduction in employee salaries, and (3) unusual tax rate or fee increases.

fiscal-distress-episodes

Another thing that becomes clear from this figure is that public workers and taxpayers appear to be adversely affected by the most common fiscal episodes. Cuts in services, reductions in employee salaries, large tax increases, and layoffs all place much of the distress on these groups. By contrast, actions like fund transfers, deferring capital projects, or late budget enactment don’t directly affect public workers or taxpayers (at least in the short term).

I decided to break down how episodes affected public workers and taxpayers for each state examined in the sample. 91% of California’s municipal fiscal distress episodes directly affected public employees or the provision of public services, while the remaining 9% indirectly affected them. Michigan and Pennsylvania followed with 85% and 66% of episodes, respectively, directly affecting public workers or taxpayers through cuts in services, tax increases, or layoffs.

Many of these actions surely happen in tandem with each other in more distressed cities, but it seems that more often than not, the burden falls heavily on public workers and taxpayers.

The city officials who had to make these hard decisions obviously did so under financially and politically intense circumstances; what many, including researchers like Gorina and Maher, consider to be a fiscal crisis. In fact, 32 percent of the communities across the three states in their sample experienced fiscal distress which, on its own, sheds light on the magnitude of the 2007-2009 recession. A large motivator of Gorina and Maher’s research is to understand what characteristics of the cities who more quickly rebounded from the Great Recession allowed them to prevent hitting fiscal crisis stage in the first place.

They do so by testing the effect of a city’s pre-existing fiscal condition on their likelihood to undergo fiscal distress. After controlling for things like government type, size, and local economic factors, they found that cities that had larger reserves and lower debt tended to weather the recession better relative to other cities. More specifically, declining general revenue balance as a percent of general expenditures and increases in debt as a share of total revenue both increase the odds of fiscal distress for a city.

Additionally, the authors found that cities with a greater reliance on property taxes managed to weather the recession better than governments reliant on other revenue sources. This suggests that revenue structure, not just the amount of revenue raised, is an important determinant of fiscal health.

No city wants to end up like Detroit or Scranton. Policymakers in these cities were forced to make hard choices that were politically unpopular; often harming public employees and taxpayers. Officials can look to Gorina and Maher’s research to understand how they can prevent ending up in such dire situations.

When approaching municipal finances, each city’s unique situation should of course be taken into consideration. This requires looking at each city’s economic history and financial practices, similar to what my colleagues have done for Scranton. Combining each city’s financial context with principles of sound financial management can surely help more cities find and maintain a healthy fiscal path.

Fixing decades of fiscal distress in Scranton, PA

In new Mercatus research, Adam Millsap and I and unpack the causes for almost a quarter of a century of fiscal distress in Scranton, Pennsylvania and offer some recommendations for how the city might go forward.

Since 1992, Scranton has been designated as a distressed municipality under Act 47, a law intended to help financially struggling towns and cities implement reforms. Scranton is now on its fifth Recovery plan, and while there are signs that the city is making improvements, it still has to contend with a legacy of structural, fiscal and economic problems.

We begin by putting Scranton in historical context. The city, located in northeastern Pennsylvania was once a thriving industrial hub, manufacturing coal, iron and providing T-rails for railroad tracks. By 1930, Scranton’s population peaked and the city’s economy began to change. Gas and oil replaced coal. The spread of the automobile and trucking diminished demand for railroad transport. By the 1960s Scranton was a smaller service-based economy with a declining population. Perhaps most relevant to its current fiscal situation is that the number of government workers increased as both the city’s population and tax base declined between 1969 and 1980.

An unrelenting increase in spending and weak revenues prompted the city to seek Act 47 designation kicking off two decades of attempts to reign in spending and change the city’s economic fortunes.

Our paper documents the various recovery plans and the reasons the measures they recommended either proved temporary, ineffective, or simply “didn’t stick.” A major obstacle to cost controls in the city are the hurdle of collective bargaining agreements with city police and firefighters, protected under Act 111, that proved to be more binding than Act 47 recovery plans.

The end result is that Scranton is facing rapidly rising employee costs for compensation, health care and pension benefits in addition to a $20 million back-pay award. These bills have led the city to pursue short-term fiscal relief in the form of debt issuance, sale-leaseback agreements and reduced pension contributions. The city’s tax structure has been described as antiquated relying mainly on Act 511 local taxes (business privilege and mercantile business tax, Local Services Tax (i.e. commuter tax)), property taxes and miscellaneous revenues and fees.

Tackling these problems requires structural reforms including 1) tax reform that does not penalize workers or businesses for locating in the city, 2) pension reform that includes allowing workers to move to a defined contribution plan and 3) removing any barrier to entrepreneurship that might prevent new businesses from locating in Scranton. In addition we recommend several state-level reforms to laws that have made it harder to Scranton to control its finances namely collective bargaining reform that removes benefits from negotiation; and eliminating “budget-helping” band-aids that mask the true cost of pensions. Such band-aids include state aid for municipal pension and allowing localities to temporarily reduce payments during tough economic times. Each of these has only helped to sustain fiscal illusion – giving the city an incomplete picture of the true cost of pensions.

To date Scranton has made some progress including planned asset monetizations to bring in revenues to cover the city’s bills. Paying down debts and closing deficits is crucial but not enough. For Pennsylvania’s distressed municipalities to thrive again reforms must replace poor fiscal institutions with ones that promote transparency, stability and prudence. This is the main way in which Scranton (and other Pennsylvania cities) can compete for businesses and residents: by offering government services at lower cost and eliminating penalties and barriers to locating, working and living in Scranton.

Loyalton, CA and the cost of faulty actuarial assumptions

The New York Times has an interesting piece on the pension troubles facing the small town of Loyalton, California (population 769). Loyalton has seen little economic activity since its sawmill closed in 2001. In 2010 the city made a decision to exit Calpers saving the city $30,000. The City Council thought that the decision to exit would only apply to new hires and for the next three years ceased paying Calpers. Four of the the pension plan’s participants are retired and one is fully vested.

In response, Calpers sent the town a bill for $1.6 million – the hypothetical termination liability – for exiting the plan. For years Loyalton operated under the assumptions built into Calpers’ system which values the liability based on asset returns of 7.5 percent. This actuarial value concealed reality. Once a plan terminates Calpers presents employers with the real bill: or the risk-adjusted value of its pension promises based on a bond rate of 3.25 percent.

To see how big a difference that makes to the bottom line for cities, Joe Nation, Stanford professor, has built a very helpful tool that compares the actuarial liability of pension plans with the market value for individual governments in California.

The judge in the Stockton bankruptcy case Christopher Klein characterized the termination liability as presenting struggling towns with a “poison pill” for leaving the system. Another way to look at it is that the risks and costs that were hidden by faulty accounting assumptions based on risky discount rates are coming due as Calpers fails to hit its investment target. The annual costs may start to be shifted, and in the case of termination, fully imposed on local employers.

The four retirees of Loyalton are facing the possibility of drastically reduced pensions. In a town with annual revenues of $1.17 million, Calpers’ bill is far beyond the town’s ability to pay. Negotiations between Calpers and Loyalton are likely to continue. Some ideas floated include putting a lien on the town’s assets or revenues.

 

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.

Are state lotteries good sources of revenue?

By Olivia Gonzalez and Adam A. Millsap

With all the hype about the Powerball jackpot, we decided to look at the benefits and costs of state lotteries from the taxpayer’s perspective. The excitement around yesterday’s drawing is for good reason, with the jackpot reaching $1.5 billion – the largest thus far. But most taxpayers will never benefit from the actual prize money, with odds of winning as low as one in 292.2 million for the jackpot. So if few people will ever hit it big, there must be other benefits for taxpayers to justify the implementation of lotteries, right?

Of the 43 states that implement lotteries, the majority of lottery revenues – about 58% on average – go to awarding prizes. A relatively small proportion (7%) is used to pay for administration costs, such as salaries of government workers and advertising. The remaining category, and the primary purpose of implementing state lotteries, is revenue for government services. On average, about one third of state lottery revenues is directed to state funds for this purpose. The chart below displays the state-level breakdown of lottery revenue for the most recent year that data are available (2013).

lottery sales breakdown

It is surprising that such a small portion of state lottery sales actually make it to state funds, especially considering how much politicians advertise the benefits of state lotteries. A handful of states direct more than 50% of lottery revenues towards state funds: Rhode Island, Delaware, West Virginia, Oregon, and South Dakota. The other 38 states allocate significantly less with Arkansas and Massachusetts contributing the smallest percentage, only 21%.

Many states direct their lottery revenues towards education programs. The largest lottery system, New York’s, usually directs about 30% of their lottery sales to this area. Similarly, Florida’s lottery system transferred about one third of their funds, totaling $1.50 billion, to their Educational Enhancement Trust Fund (EETF) in 2013.

The data presented here are from 2013, so it will be interesting to see how the recent Powerball jackpot revenues will affect lottery revenues more broadly in the future, especially since the Multi-State Lottery Association reduced the odds of winning in October of 2015 in the hope of boosting revenues. State officials argue that reducing the chances of winning allows the prize to grow larger, which increases the demand for tickets and revenue.

The revenue-generating function of state lotteries makes them implicit taxes. The portion of revenue generated from a state lottery that is not used to operate the lottery is just like tax revenue generated from a regular sales or excise tax. So even if lotteries are effective at raising revenue, are they effective tax policy?

Effective tax policy should take into account the tax’s ability to generate revenue as well as its efficiency, equity, transparency, and collectability. Research shows that state lotteries fall short in most of these categories.

The practice of dedicating portions of tax revenue to specific expenditure categories, also known as earmarking, can be detrimental to state budgets. Research that looks specifically at the earmarking of lottery revenues finds that educational expenditures remain unaffected, and sometimes even decline, following the implementation of a state lottery.

This result is due to how earmarking changes the incentives facing politicians. A 1999 study compares the results of lottery revenues directed specifically to fund education with revenues going to a state’s general fund. Patrick Pierce, one of the co-authors, explains that when funds are earmarked for education they go to the intended program but, “instead of adding to the funds for those programs, legislators factor in the lottery revenue and allocate less government money to the program budgets.”

Earmarking also affects total government expenditures, even though from a theoretical perspective it should have little effect since one source of funding is just as good as another. Nevertheless, many empirical studies find the opposite. Mercatus research corroborates this by demonstrating that earmarking tends to result in an increase in total government spending while having little effect on the program expenditures to which the funds are tied. This raises serious transparency concerns because it obscures increases in total government spending that voters may not want.

Last but not least, about four decades of studies have examined lottery tax equity and the majority of them find that lottery sales disproportionately draw from lower-income groups, making them regressive taxes. This only adds to the aforementioned concerns about the transparency, collectability, and revenue raising capabilities of lottery taxes.

Perhaps the effectiveness of lottery taxes can be best summed up by the authors of a 1993 study who wrote that “lotteries as a source of funding are neither efficient nor equitable substitutes for more traditional tax sources.”

Although at least three people walked away with millions of dollars yesterday, many taxpayers are not getting any benefits from their state’s lottery system.

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.