Tag Archives: budget

The unseen costs of Amazon’s HQ2 Site Selection

Earlier this year Amazon narrowed down the list of potential cities to site its second headquarters. Applicants are now waiting out the selection process. It’s unclear when Amazon will make its choice, but that hasn’t stopped many from speculating who the likely contenders are. Varying sources report Atlanta, Boston, and Washington D.C. at the top of the list. The cities that didn’t make the cut are no doubt envious of the finalists, having just missed out on the potential for a $5 billion facility and 50,000 jobs. The second HQ is supposed to be as significant for economic growth as the company’s first site, which according to Amazon’s calculations contributed an additional $38 billion to Seattle’s economy between 2010 and 2016. There is clearly a lot to be gained by the winner.  But there are also many costs. Whichever city ends up winning the bid will be changed forever. What’s left out of the discussion is how the bidding process and corporate incentives affect the country.

Although the details of the proposals are not made public, each finalist is likely offering some combination of tax breaks, subsidies, and other incentives in return for the company’s choice to locate in their city. The very bidding process necessitates a lot of time and effort by many parties. It will certainly seem “worth it” to the winning party, but the losers aren’t getting back the time and effort they spent.

This practice of offering incentives for businesses has been employed by states and localities for decades, with increased usage over time. Targeted economic development incentives can take the form of tax exemptions, abatements, regulatory relief, and taxpayer assistance. They are but one explicit cost paid by states and cities looking to secure business, and there is a growing literature that suggests these policies are more costly than meets the eye.

First, there’s the issue of economic freedom. Recent Mercatus research suggests that there may be a tradeoff to offering economic development incentives like the ones that Amazon is receiving. Economists John Dove and Daniel Sutter find that states that spend more on targeted development incentives as a percentage of gross state product also have less overall economic freedom. The theoretical reasoning behind this is not very clear, but Dove and Sutter propose that it could be because state governments that use more subsidies or tax breaks to attract businesses will also spend more or raise taxes for everyone else in their state, resulting in less equitable treatment of their citizens and reducing overall economic freedom.

The authors define an area as having more economic freedom if it has lower levels of government spending, taxation, and labor market restrictions. They use the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of North America Index (EFNA) to measure this. Of the three areas within the EFNA index, labor market freedom is the most affected by targeted economic development incentives. This means that labor market regulation such as the minimum wage, government employment, and union density are all significantly related to the use of targeted incentives.

Economic freedom can be ambiguous, however, and it’s sometimes hard to really grasp its impact on our lives. It sounds nice in theory, but because of its vagueness, it may not seem as appealing as a tangible economic development incentive package and the corresponding business attached to it. Economic freedom is associated with a series of other, more tangible benefits, including higher levels of income and faster economic growth. There’s also evidence that greater economic freedom is associated with urban development.

Not only is the practice of offering targeted incentives associated with lower economic freedom, but it is also indicative of other issues. Economists Peter Calcagno and Frank Hefner have found that states with budget issues, high tax and regulatory burdens, and poorly trained labor forces are also more likely to offer targeted incentives as a way to offset costly economic conditions. Or, in other words, targeted development incentives can be – and often are – used to compensate for a less than ideal business climate. Rather than reform preexisting fiscal or regulatory issues within a state, the status quo and the use of targeted incentives is the more politically feasible option.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Amazon’s bidding process is the effect it has on our culture. Ideally, economic development policy should be determined by healthy economic competition between states. In practice, it has evolved into more of an unhealthy interaction between private interests and political favor. Economists Joshua Jansa and Virginia Gray refer to this as cultural capture. They find increases in business political contributions to be positively correlated with state subsidy spending. Additionally, they express concern over the types of firms that these subsidies attract. There is a selection bias for targeted incentives to systematically favor “flighty firms” or firms that will simply relocate if better subsidies are offered by another state, or potentially threaten to leave in an effort to extract more subsidies.

None of these concerns even address the question of whether targeted incentives actually achieve their intended goals.  The evidence does not look good. In a review of the literature by my colleague Matthew Mitchell, and me, we found that of the studies that evaluate the effect of targeted incentives on the broader economy, only one study found a positive effect, whereas four studies found unanimously negative effects. Thirteen studies (half of the sample) found no statistically significant effect, and the remaining papers found mixed results in which some companies or industries won, but at the expense of others.

In addition to these unseen costs on the economy, some critics are beginning to question whether being chosen by Amazon is even worth it. Amazon’s first headquarters has been considered a catalyst for the city’s tech industry, but local government and business leaders have raised concerns about other possibly related issues such as gentrification, rising housing prices, and persistent construction and traffic congestion. There is less research on this, but it is worth considering.

It is up to each city’s policymakers to decide whether these trade-offs are worth it. I would argue, however, that much of the evidence points to targeted incentives – like the ones that cities are using to attract Amazon’s business – as having more costs than benefits. Targeted economic development incentives may seem to offer a lot of tangible benefits, but their unseen costs should not be overlooked. From the perspective of how they benefit each state’s economy as a whole, targeted incentives are detrimental to economic freedom as well as our culture surrounding corporate handouts. Last but not least, they may often be an attempt to cover up other issues that are unattractive to businesses.

The use of locally-imposed selective taxes to fund public pension liabilities

Many eyes are on Kentucky policymakers as they grapple with finding a solution to their $40 billion state-reported unfunded public pension liability. As talks of a potential pension bill surface, various proposals have been made by legislators, but very few have gained traction. One such proposal stands out from the rest. A proposal that has since been shut down suggested imposing selective taxes on tobacco, prescription opiates, and outsourced labor to generate revenue to direct towards paying down the state’s pension debt. Despite its short-lived tenure, this selective tax proposal reflects a recent trend in pension funding reform; a trend that policymakers should be wary of. Implementing new taxes on select goods or services may seem like a good idea as it could, in theory, potentially raise additional revenues, but experience at the local level suggests otherwise.

In chapter 12 of a new Mercatus book on sin taxes, NYU professor Thad Calabrese examines the practice of locally-imposed selective taxes that are used to fund public pension liabilities and doesn’t find much evidence to support their continued usage.

Selective taxes are sales taxes that target specific goods and are also known as ‘sin taxes’ because of their popular usage in taxing less healthy goods such as cigarettes, junk food, or alcohol. In the examples that Calabrese examines, selective taxes are used to target insurance premiums as revenue sources for pensions.

Only a select few states have begun this practice – including Illinois, Pennsylvania, as well as municipalities in West Virginia and Missouri – but it may become more popular if courts begin to restrict the way in which current pension benefits can be modified. Once benefits are taken off the table as an avenue for reform, like in Illinois, policymakers will feel more pressure to find new revenue sources.

The proposal in Kentucky may seem appealing to policymakers, especially because of its potential to raise $600 million a year, but this estimate overlooks the unintended effects that such new taxes could facilitate. Thankfully, the proposal did not go through, but I think some time should be spent looking at what similar proposals have looked like at the local level, so that other states do not get tempted pick up where Kentucky left off.

Calabrese draws on the experiences in Pennsylvania and Illinois to examine how these taxes have operated, how the decoupling of setting and financing employee benefits tends to lead to these taxes, and how the use of these taxes is associated with significantly underfunded pension systems. Below I highlight Pennsylvania’s experience and caution against further usage of this mechanism for pension funding.

How it works (or doesn’t)

In 1895, Pennsylvania implemented a 2 percent tax on out-of-state fire and casualty insurance companies’ premiums on in-state property and then earmarked this for distribution to local governments to pay for pensions. Act 205 of 1984 replaced the original act in which the state of Pennsylvania allocated pension aid based on where the insured property was located and instead the new allocation was based on the number of public employees in a locality.

Calabrese explains how the funds were distributed:

“Each public employee was considered a ‘unit,’ and uniformed employees (such as police and fire) each represented two units. The pool of insurance tax revenue collected by the state was then divided by the sum of municipal units to arrive at a unit value. This distribution could subsidize local governments’ pension expenditures up to 100 percent of the annual cost. In 1985, this tax generated $62.3 million in revenues; as a result, each unit value was worth $1,146 – meaning that local governments received $1,146 for pension funding for each public employee and an additional $1,146 for pension funding for each uniformed public employee. Importantly, 75 percent of municipalities received enough funding from this revenue in 1985 to fully offset their pension costs.”

The new mechanism raised more funds, but it also unexpectedly raised costs. If a municipality had to contribute less than the $1,146 annually for a regular employee or $2,292 for a uniformed employee, for example, the municipality was essentially incentivized to increase benefits to public employees up to this limit, because local public employees would receive increased benefits at no direct budgetary cost to the municipality.

“…the tax likely increased insurance costs for residents and businesses (and then only a small fraction of the cost), but not directly for the government employer. Further, this system privileged benefits relative to other compensation, because these payments (borne at least statutorily by out-of-state companies) could only be used for financing pensions and not other forms of compensation.”

A tax originally implemented to fund pension costs statewide resulted in a system that encouraged more generous benefits.

Despite increased subsidies from the state, only 38 percent of municipalities received sufficient allocated funds from the pool to fully offset the costs of pensions. This was because annual pension contributions were growing at a faster rate than the rate at which the subsidy from the state insurance tax was growing.

To highlight a city with severely distressed pension plans, Philadelphia continued to struggle even following the implementation of the state insurance tax. The police pension plan, nonuniformed plan, and firefighter pension plan were all only 49, 47, and 45 percent funded, respectively. In 2009, the City Council passed a temporary 1 percentage point increase in their sales tax and when the temporary rate was renewed in 2014, any revenue in excess of $120 million was dedicated to the city’s pension plans. Additionally, the state permitted the city to pass a $2 per pack cigarette tax to fund a planned budget deficit for the school system; likely because its income tax capacity was largely exhausted.

Philadelphia’s new taxes technically generated new revenues, but they did little to improve the funding of the city’s pension plans.

The selective taxes implemented to fund pension liabilities in Pennsylvania were effectively a Band-Aid that was two small for the state’s pension funding problem, which in turn required the addition of more, insufficient pension Band-Aids. It merely created a public financing system that encouraged pension benefit growth which led to the passage of additional laws requiring certain pension funding levels. And when these funding levels were not met, even more laws were passed that provided temporary pension funding relief, which further grew liabilities for distressed municipalities.

Act 44 became law in 1993 and provided plan sponsors pension funding relief, but primarily by allowing sponsors to alter actuarial assumptions and thereby reduce required pension contributions. Another law delayed funding by manipulating how the required contribution was calculated, rather than providing any permanent fix.

Moving forward

Selective taxes for the purpose of funding pensions are still a relatively rare practice, but as pension liabilities grow and the landscape of reform options changes, it may become increasingly attractive to policymakers. As Calabrese has demonstrated in his book chapter, however, we should be wary of this avenue as it may only encourage the growth of pension liabilities without addressing the problem in any meaningful way. Reforming the structure of the pension plan or the level of benefits provided to current or future employees would provide the most long-term solution.

A solution with the long-term in mind and that doesn’t involve touching current beneficiaries includes moving future workers to defined contribution plans; plans that are better suited to keeping costs contained. The ballooning costs aren’t stemming solely from overly generous plan benefits, but more seriously are the result of their poor management and incentives for funding, only exacerbated by poor accounting practices. The problem is certainly complicated and moving towards the use of defined contribution plans wouldn’t eliminate all issues, but it would at least set governments on a more sustainable path.

At the very least, policymakers interested in long-term solutions should be cautioned against using selective taxes to fund pensions.

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.

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.

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.

 

Properly funding a defined benefit plan requires solid average returns and some luck

Saving for retirement is something most workers do – either on their own or through an employer – and most are aware that the rate of return on their retirement investment matters. For example, if I save $100 today and it earns 10% per year in interest for the next 20 years I will have $672.75 at the end of 20 years. If the money earns 6% instead I will only have $320.71 at the end of 20 years.

Moreover, if I wanted to have $672 at the end of 20 years and the interest rate was only 6% I would have to save $209.54 today rather than $100. This demonstrates that the higher the interest rate is, the less money I will have to save today in order to have a specific amount of money in the future. This simple truth has important implications for pension funding.

For many years state pension plans assumed average returns of around 8% per year when calculating pension liabilities. Assuming this relatively high rate of return meant that pension plans required less contributions today in order to meet their future goals. But this also came with significant risk – if the average rate of return fell short of 8% then the pensions would not be able to pay out the benefits that were promised. This is demonstrated in the previous example; if a person wanted $672 after 20 years and assumed a 10% rate of return they would have only saved $100. However, if the rate of return turned out to be 6% per year instead of 10%, they would have ended up over $300 short of their goal ($672 – $320 = $352).

It turns out that an expected rate of return of 8% was unachievable and many pension plans are lowering their expected returns. This can generate large pension shortfalls, since a lower rate of return means that more money needed to be saved all along. In many states the budget is tight and it’s not clear where the additional money will come from, but there’s a good chance that taxpayers are going to have make up the difference.

Assuming too high of a return is an obvious problem. But there is a more subtle issue that doesn’t get as much attention yet generates similar results; even if a pension plan gets an 8% return on average, the plan may still fall short of its goal. This is because different returns have different effects on the actual amount of money over time. The chart below provides a simple example, where the goal is to accumulate $100,000 in 10 years.

Based on the $100,000 goal and an 8% yearly return one can calculate that (approximately) $6,400 must be contributed to the plan at the beginning of each year, which is the contribution amount I used. In each scenario in the table the average annual return is 8%, but not every plan returns 8% each year.

pension-avg-return-table2

Scenario 1 is the most straightforward; the plan actually earns 8% each year and the $100,000 goal is reached by year 10. But while this is the simplest scenario, it’s also the most unrealistic. Anyone who follows the stock market knows that it’s volatile – some years it’s up, some years it’s down. Standard pension accounting, however, assumes scenario 1 will occur even though that’s incredibly unlikely.

In scenario 2, the plan earns 8% in each of the first two years, then loses 15% the third year. After that returns are above average and plan actually exceeds its goal of $100,000 at the end of 10 years. In scenario 3 the plan earns 8% for the first 6 years, then 14%, before losing 15% in year 8. In this scenario, even the exceptional gains in years 9 and 10 are not enough to reach the $100,000 goal. And finally, in scenario 4 the gains fluctuate more often – there are some high return years in the beginning and the loss year is relatively late (year 7). In this scenario the plan ends up over $6,500 short of its $100,000 goal.

There are infinite ways a plan could get an 8% return on average, but these 4 examples demonstrate the different dollar amounts that can result even if the average return goal is met. In two of the scenarios (3 and 4) the plan falls short of its actual dollar goal and is underfunded even though it met its return goal. This exemplifies the inherent risk in any pension plan that promises a specific amount of money in some future period, as defined benefit plans do. As the previous example shows, even if the required contributions are made each year AND the plan’s average return goal is met, there is still a chance the plan will be underfunded.

The risks associated with the variability in returns is another reason why many pension reform advocates recommend defined contribution plans rather than defined benefits plans. Defined contribution plans don’t promise a specific amount of benefits, which means they are not subject to the same underfunding risks as defined benefit plans. Switching from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans needs to be a part of the solution to public sector pension problems. Otherwise there’s a good chance that taxpayers will be required to pick up the tab when plans inevitably miss their funding goals.

 

The cost disease and the privatization of government services

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

real per cap spend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

union membership chart

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

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

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

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

union median wage chart

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

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

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

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

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

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

More reasons why intergovernmental grants are harmful

In a recent blog post I explained how intergovernmental grants subsidize some businesses at the expense of others. But that is just one of several negative features of intergovernmental grants. They also make local governments less accountable for their fiscal decisions by allowing them to increase spending without increasing taxes. The Community Development Blog Grant (CDBG) money that local governments spend on city services or use to subsidize private businesses is provided by taxpayers from all over the country. Unlike locally raised money, when cities spend CDBG money they don’t have to first convince local voters to provide them with the funds. This lack of accountability often results in wasteful spending.

These grants also erode fiscal competition between cities and reduce the incentive to pursue policies that create economic growth. If local governments can receive funds for projects meant to bolster their tax base regardless of their fiscal policies, they have less of an incentive to create a fiscal environment that is conducive to economic growth. The feedback loop between growth promoting policies and actual economic growth is impaired when revenue can be generated independently of such policies e.g. by successfully applying for intergovernmental grants.

Some of the largest recipients of CDBG money are cities that have been declining since the 1950s. The graph below shows the total amount of CDBG dollars given to nine cities that were in the top 15 of the largest cities in the US by population in 1950. (Click on graphs to enlarge. Data used in the graphs are here.)

CDBGs 9 cities 1950

None of these cities were in the top 15 cities in 2014 and most of them have lost a substantial amount of people since 1950. In Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Buffalo the CDBG money has not reversed or even slowed their decline and yet the federal government continues to give these cities millions of dollars each year. The purpose of these grants is to create sustainable economic development in the recipient cities but it is difficult to argue that such development has occurred.

Contrast the amount of money given to the cities above with that of the cities below:

CDBGs 9 cities 2014

By 2014 the nine cities in the second graph had replaced the other cities in the top 15 largest US cities by population. Out of the nine cities in the second graph only one, San Antonio, has received $1 billion or more in CDBG funds. In comparison, every city in the first graph has received at least that much.

While there are a lot of factors that contribute to the decline of some cities and the rise of others (such as the general movement of the population towards warmer weather), these graphs are evidence that the CDBG program is incapable of saving Detroit, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc. from population and economic decline. Detroit alone has received nearly $3 billion in CDBG grants over the last 40 years yet still had to declare bankruptcy in 2013. St. Louis, Cleveland, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Milwaukee are other examples of cities that have received a relatively large amount of CDBG funding yet are still struggling with population decline and budget issues. Place-based, redistributive policies like the CDBG program misallocate resources from growing cities to declining cities and reduce the incentive for local governments to implement policies that encourage economic growth.

Moreover, if place-based subsidies, such as the CDBG program, do create some temporary local economic growth, there is evidence that this growth is merely shifted from other areas. In a study on the Tennessee Valley Authority, perhaps the most ambitious place-based program in the country’s history, economists Patrick Kline and Enrico Moretti (2014) found that the economic gains that accrued to the area covered by the TVA were completely offset by losses in other parts of the country. As they state, “Thus, we estimate that the spillovers in the TVA region were fully offset by the losses in the rest of the country…Notably, this finding casts doubt on the traditional big push rationale for spatially progressive subsidies.” This study is further evidence for what other economists have been saying for a long time: Subsidized economic growth in one area, if it occurs, comes at the expense of growth in other areas and does not grow the US economy as a whole.

Institutions matter, state legislative committee edition

Last week, Mercatus published a new working paper that I coauthored with Pavel Yakovlev of Duquesne University. It addresses an understudied institutional difference between states. Some state legislative chambers allow one committee to write both spending and taxing bills while others separate these functions into two separate committees.

This institutional difference first caught my eye a few years ago when Nick Tuszynski and I reviewed the literature on institutions and state spending. Among 16 different institutions that we looked at—from strict balanced budget requirements to term limits to “item reduction vetoes”—one stood out. Previous research by Mark Crain and Timothy Muris had found that states in which separate committees craft taxing and spending bills spend significantly less per capita than states in which a single committee was responsible for both kinds of bills. As you can see from the figure below (click to enlarge), the effect was estimated to be many times larger than that found for almost any other institution:

InstitutionsBut as large as this effect seems to be, the phenomenon has largely been ignored. To our knowledge, Crain and Muris are the only ones to have studied it. Their paper was now two decades old and was based on a relatively small sample of years from the 1980s.

As I wrote in yesterday’s Economics Intelligence column for US News:

To get a fresh look at the phenomenon, my colleagues and I consulted state statutes, legislative rules, committee websites and members’ offices. We created a unique data set that for some states spans 40 years. We took a cautious approach, coding taxing and spending functions as not separate in any chambers in which it was possible for a tax bill to come out of a spending committee and vice versa. We found that in 25 states, these functions are separate in both chambers, in 7 states they are separate in one chamber, and in the rest, these functions are separate in neither chamber.

To control for other confounding factors, we also gathered data on economic, demographic, and institutional differences between the states. Controlling for these factors, we found that separate taxing and spending committees are, indeed, associated with less spending. To be precise:

Other factors being equal, we find that those states with separate taxing and spending committees spend between $300 and $450 less per capita (between $790 and $1,200 less per household) than other states.

Our full paper is here, a summary is here, and my post at US News is here. Comments welcome.