Tag Archives: fiscal institutions

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.

Maryland’s Fiscal Slide

Maryland Journal has released its first issue. A publication of the Maryland Public Policy Institute the inaugural issue features my article on Maryland’s Fiscal Slide which examines the state’s fiscal institutions and current budgetary problems.

Additionally the journal features an interesting case study of the city of Baltimore, How to Make Baltimore a Superstar City, by Stephen K. Walters and Louis Miserendino.

Rudolph Giuliani to Albany: Constitutional Convention to Fix State Government

Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani makes the case in an op-ed in today’s New York Times for a state constitutional convention to address the state’s economic ills. New York is just behind New Jersey with the second highest state and local tax burden in the nation. And like other ailing states (California and New Jersey), New York is dealing with the recession by hiking taxes.

A constitutional convention would consider the rules and incentives under which the state and its elected officials operate. Giuliani makes seven specific recommendations including reforming the budget process, term limits, and a supermajority vote for tax increases.

The specific proposals he offers are not necessarily silver bullets. For instance, ensuring the budget adheres to generally accepted accounting principles is an excellent idea. A supermajority vote for tax increases may or may not be effective, depending on how it is linked to other rules — such as spending limits.

A strong tax and expenditure limit, like the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) in Colorado, requires that voters approve any spending beyond what population growth and inflation allow.

Giuliani’s proposal is a good one because it gets to heart of the matter: the rules under which elected officials create fiscal policy. New York’s fiscal institutions need review and reform. It is something other states would do well to also consider.