Tag Archives: Florida

High-speed rail: is this year different?

Many U.S. cities are racing to develop high speed rail systems that shorten commute times and develop the economy for residents. These trains are able to reach speeds over 124 mph, sometimes even as high as 374 mph as in the case of Japan’s record-breaking trains. Despite this potential, American cities haven’t quite had the success of other countries. In 2009, the Obama administration awarded almost a billion dollars of stimulus money to Wisconsin to build a high-speed rail line connection between Milwaukee and Madison, and possibly to the Twin Cities, but that project was derailed. Now, the Trump administration has plans to support a high-speed rail project in Texas. Given so many failed attempts in the U.S., it’s fair to ask if this time is different. And if it is, will high-speed rail bring the benefits that proponents claim it to have?

The argument for building high-speed rail lines usually entails promises of faster trips, better connections between major cities, and economic growth as a result. It almost seems like a no-brainer – why would any city not want to pursue something like this? The answer, like with most public policy questions, depends on the costs, and whether the benefits actually realize.

In a forthcoming paper for the Mercatus Center, transportation scholar Kenneth Button explores these questions by studying the high-speed rail experiences of Spain, Japan, and China; the countries with the three largest systems (measured by network length). Although there are benefits to these rail systems, Button cautions against focusing too narrowly on them as models, primarily because what works in one area can’t necessarily be easily replicated in another.

Most major systems in other countries have been the result of large public investment and built with each area’s unique geography and political environment kept in mind. Taking their approaches and trying to apply them to American cities not only ignores how these factors can differ, but also how much costs can differ. For example, the average infrastructure unit price of high-speed rail in Europe is between $17 and $24 million per mile and the estimated cost for proposals in California is conservatively estimated at $35 million per mile.

The cost side of the equation is often overlooked, and more attention is given to the benefit side. Button explains that the main potential benefit – generating economic growth – doesn’t always live up to expectations. The realized growth effects are usually minimal, and sometimes even negative. Despite this, proponents of high-speed rail oversell them. The process of thinking through high-speed rail as a sound public investment is often short-lived.

The goal is to generate new economic activity, not merely replace or divert it from elsewhere. In Japan, for example, only six percent of the traffic on the Sanyo Shinkansen line was newly generated, while 55 percent came from other rail lines, 23 percent from air, and 16 percent from inter-city bus. In China, after the Nanguang and Guiguang lines began operating in 2014, a World Bank survey found that many of the passengers would have made the journey along these commutes through some other form of transportation if the high-speed rail option wasn’t there. The passengers who chose this new transport method surely benefited from shorter travel times, but this should not be confused with net growth across the economy.

Even if diverted away from other transport modes, the amount of high-speed rail traffic Japan and China have generated is commendable. Spain’s system, however, has not been as successful. Its network has only generated about 5 percent of Japan’s passenger volume. A line between Perpignan, France and Figueres, Spain that began services in 2009 severely fell short of projected traffic. Originally, it was expected to run 19,000 trains per year, but has only reached 800 trains by 2015.

There is also evidence that high speed rail systems poorly re-distribute activity geographically. This is especially concerning given the fact that projects are often sold on a promise of promoting regional equity and reducing congestion in over-heating areas. You can plan a track between well-developed and less-developed regions, but this does not guarantee that growth for both will follow. The Shinkansen system delivers much of Japan’s workforce to Tokyo, for example, but does not spread much employment away from the capital. In fact, faster growth happened where it was already expected, even before the high-speed rail was planned or built. Additionally, the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansan line in particular has strengthened the relative economic position of Tokyo and Osaka while weakening those of cities not served.

Passenger volume and line access are not – and should not be – the only metrics of success. Academics have exhibited a fair amount of skepticism regarding high-speed rail’s ability to meet other objectives. When it comes to investment value, many cases have resulted in much lower returns than expected. A recent, extreme example of this is California’s bullet train that is 50 percent over its planned budget; not to mention being seven years behind in its building schedule.

The project in California has been deemed a lost cause by many, but other projects have gained more momentum in the past year. North American High Speed Rail Group has proposed a rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities, and if it gets approval from city officials, it plans to finance entirely with private money. The main drawback of the project is that it would require the use of eminent domain to take the property of existing businesses that are in the way of the planned line path. Private companies trying to use eminent domain to get past a roadblock like this often do so claiming that it is for the “public benefit.” Given that many residents have resisted the North American High Speed Rail Group’s plans, trying to force the use of eminent domain would likely only destroy value; reallocating property from a higher-value to a lower-value use.

Past Mercatus research has found that using eminent domain powers for redevelopment purposes – i.e. by taking from one private company and giving to another – can cause the tax base to shrink as a result of decreases in private investment. Or in other words, when entrepreneurs see that the projects that they invest in could easily be taken if another business owner makes the case to city officials, it would in turn discourage future investors from moving into the same area. This ironically discourages development and the government’s revenues suffer as a result.

Florida’s Brightline might have found a way around this. Instead of trying to take the property of other businesses and homes in its way, the company has raised money to re-purpose existing tracks already between Miami and West Palm Beach. If implemented successfully, this will be the first privately run and operated rail service launched in the U.S. in over 100 years. And it doesn’t require using eminent domain or the use of taxpayer dollars to jump-start that, like any investment, has risk of being a failure; factors that reduce the cost side of the equation from the public’s perspective.

Which brings us back to the Houston-to-Dallas line that Trump appears to be getting behind. How does that plan stack up to these other projects? For one, it would require eminent domain to take from rural landowners in order to build a line that would primarily benefit city residents. Federal intervention would require picking a winner and loser at the offset. Additionally, there is no guarantee that building of the line would bring about the economic development that many proponents promise. Button’s new paper suggests that it’s fair to be skeptical.

I’m not making the argument that high-speed rail in America should be abandoned altogether. Progress in Florida demonstrates that maybe in the right conditions and with the right timing, it could be cost-effective. The authors of a 2013 study echo this by writing:

“In the end, HSR’s effect on economic and urban development can be characterized as analogous to a fertilizer’s effect on crop growth: it is one ingredient that could stimulate economic growth, but other ingredients must be present.”

For cities that can’t seem to mix up the right ingredients, they can look to other options for reaching the same goals. In fact, a review of the economic literature finds that investing in road infrastructure is a much better investment than other transportation methods like airports, railways, or ports. Or like I’ve discussed previously, being more welcoming to new technologies like driver-less cars has the potential to both reduce congestion and generate significant economic gains.

Northern Cities Need To Be Bold If They Want To Grow

Geography and climate have played a significant role in U.S. population growth since 1970 (see here, here, here, and here). The figure below shows the correlation between county-level natural amenities and county population growth from 1970 – 2013 controlling for other factors including the population of the county in 1970, the average wage of the county in 1970 (a measure of labor productivity), the proportion of adults in the county with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1970 and region of the country. The county-level natural amenities index is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and scores the counties in the continental U.S. according to their climate and geographic features. The county with the worst score is Red Lake, MN and the county with the best score is Ventura, CA.

1970-13 pop growth, amenities

As shown in the figure the slope of the best fit line is positive. The coefficient from the regression is also given at the bottom of the figure and is equal to 0.16, meaning a one point increase in the score increased population growth by 16 percentage points on average.

The effect of natural amenities on population growth is much larger than the effect of the proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is another strong predictor of population growth at the metropolitan (MSA) and city level (see here, here, here, and here). The relationship between county population growth from 1970 – 2013 and human capital is depicted below.

1970-13 pop growth, bachelors or more

Again, the relationship is positive but the effect is smaller. The coefficient is 0.026 which means a 1 percentage point increase in the proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1970 increased population growth by 2.6 percentage points on average.

An example using some specific counties can help us see the difference between the climate and education effects. In the table below the county where I grew up, Greene County, OH, is the baseline county. I also include five other urban counties from around the country: Charleston County, SC; Dallas County, TX; Eau Claire County, WI; San Diego County, CA; and Sedgwick County, TX.

1970-13 pop chg, amenities table

The first column lists the amenities score for each county. The highest score belongs to San Diego. The second column lists the difference between Green County’s score and the other counties, e.g. 9.78 – (-1.97) = 11.75 which is the difference between Greene County’s score and San Diego’s score. The third column is the difference column multiplied by the 0.16 coefficient from the natural amenity figure e.g. 11.75 x 0.16 = 188% in the San Diego row. What this means is that according to this model, if Greene County had San Diego’s climate and geography it would have grown by an additional 188 percentage points from 1970 – 2013 all else equal.

Finally, the last column is the actual population growth of the county from 1970 – 2013. As shown, San Diego County grew by 135% while Greene County only grew by 30% over this 43 year period. Improving Greene County’s climate to that of any of the other counties except for Eau Claire would have increased its population growth by a substantial yet realistic amount.

Table 2 below is similar to the natural amenities table above only it shows the different effects on Greene County’s population growth due to a change in the proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

1970-13 pop chg, bachelor's table

As shown in the first column, Greene County actually had the largest proportion of adults with bachelor’s degree or higher in 1970 – 14.7% – of the counties listed.

The third column shows how Greene County’s population growth would have changed if it had the same proportion of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher as the other counties did in 1970. If Greene County had the proportion of Charleston (11.2%) instead of 14.7% in 1970, its population growth is predicted to have been 9 percentage points lower from 1970 – 2013, all else equal. All of the effects in the table are negative since all of the counties had a lower proportion than Greene and population education has a positive effect on population growth.

Several studies have demonstrated the positive impact of an educated population on overall city population growth – often through its impact on entrepreneurial activity – but as shown here the education effect tends to be swamped by geographic and climate features. What this means is that city officials in less desirable areas need to be bold in order to compensate for the poor geography and climate that are out of their control.

A highly educated population combined with a business environment that fosters innovation can create the conditions for city growth. Burdensome land-use regulations, lengthy, confusing permitting processes, and unpredictable rules coupled with inconsistent enforcement increase the costs of doing business and stifle entrepreneurship. When these harmful business-climate factors are coupled with a generally bad climate the result is something like Cleveland, OH.

The reality is that the tax and regulatory environments of declining manufacturing cities remain too similar to those of cities in the Sunbelt while their weather and geography differ dramatically, and not in a good way. Since only relative differences cause people and firms to relocate, the similarity across tax and regulatory environments ensures that weather and climate remain the primary drivers of population change.

To overcome the persistent disadvantage of geography and climate officials in cold-weather cities need to be aggressive in implementing reforms. Fiddling around the edges of tax and regulatory policy in a half-hearted attempt to attract educated people, entrepreneurs and large, high-skill employers is a waste of time and residents’ resources – Florida’s cities have nicer weather and they’re in a state with no income tax. Northern cities like Flint, Cleveland, and Milwaukee that simply match the tax and regulatory environment of Houston, San Diego, or Tampa have done nothing to differentiate themselves along those dimensions and still have far worse weather.

Location choices reveal that people are willing to put up with a lot of negatives to live in places with good weather. California has one of the worst tax and regulatory environments of any state in the country and terrible congestion problems yet its large cities continue to grow. A marginally better business environment is not going to overcome the allure of the sun and beaches.

While a better business environment that is attractive to high-skilled workers and encourages entrepreneurship is unlikely to completely close the gap between a place like San Diego and Dayton when it comes to being a nice place to live and work, it’s a start. And more importantly it’s the only option cities like Dayton, Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis and Detroit have.

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.

Profiles in Privilege

  1. When powerful politicians give no-bid construction contracts to their friends, you get Olympic bathrooms with two toilets to a stall. Thank god we don’t have those sorts of problems here in the West, right?
  2. Sheldon Adelson, owner of one of the largest (off-line) gambling ventures in the world, is really worried about on-line gambling. And, apparently, he “can sound surprisingly like a Southern Baptist preacher.” Bruce Yandle probably saw this coming.
  3. Remember that time when the D.C. City Council tried to side with the local taxi monopoly to keep out an innovative new competitor that was wildly popular with customers? Remember how Council members backed down after they were inundated with protests from angry constituents? Politicians in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Paris (France) don’t.
  4. In an effort to catch up with the private sector, the Obama Administration wants to move more government business from paper to the web. The paper industry is not a fan of this. In Bastiat’s telling, candlestick makers didn’t like competition from the sun either.
  5. Makers of maple syrup want more exacting grading standards for maple syrup. In other news, I would like a law saying that only economists who attended ASU and GMU can call themselves economists.
  6. Soccer star and aspiring (unproductive) entrepreneur David Beckham is trying to get a stadium built. He says “We don’t want public funding…We’ll fund the stadium ourselves. It’s something where we have worked hard to get this stage, to fund it ourselves.” In other reports, however, “Beckham’s group has hired prominent Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard to help seek a state sales-tax subsidy similar to what other professional sports teams across Florida have received for building stadium facilities.”
  7. Elsewhere in privileged Floridian soccer news, the city of Orlando plans to use eminent domain to seize a church in order to tear it down and build a parking lot for Orlando’s new soccer stadium.
  8. WAMU’s Patrick Madden tweets that Mayor Vincent Gray has assured voters they will not be paying for soccer team D.C. United’s stadium….Voters will, however, pick up the cost of the land at $150,000,000 and then rent it back to the team for $1.00 per year. Sounds too crazy to be true? Read the terms here (to be fair, it looks to me like taxpayers will only be paying $140,000,000).
  9. Pat Garofalo writes: “In a move its protagonist, Vice President Frank Underwood, could be proud of, the studio that produces Netflix’s “House of Cards” is all but attempting to extort tax dollars out of the state of Maryland. As the Washington Post reported, Media Rights Capital has threatened to move production of its show about an absurdly corrupt Washington elsewhere if it doesn’t get a new slew of taxpayer money.”
  10. According to this report, FBI agents posed as film executives to bribe a California state senator to expand film tax credits. This sort of film subsidy corruption scandal will likely sound familiar to those in Iowa. And Massachusetts. And Louisiana. Makes you think that P.J. O’Rourke was right: “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”

Can Democrats and Republicans Agree on Anything? Yes! (At least in principle)

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could look back one year from now and say that 2014 was the year in which Democrats and Republicans discovered substantial areas of ideological common ground? We’d laud them for putting aside their partisan prejudices, for simultaneously advancing economic freedom and social justice and for turning their collective backs on special interests in order to serve the common good.

With the parties so far apart on so many issues, you might think that no such common ground exists. But it does. It lies in the sugar beet fields of Florida and in the dairy farms of Wisconsin. This untrod common ground is U.S. farm policy and it is overripe for reform.

Valley Farm, West WrattingThat is me, writing at the US News Economic Intelligence blog.

I have a short new piece on farm policy called Ending Farm Subsidies: Unplowed Common Ground.

You tell me it’s the institution…

When scandals erupt, the human tendency is to look for some nefarious person wearing a black hat and blame them. However psychologically satisfying this may be, it is not particularly helpful. It offers no constructive solution to avoid future problems, other than to be “ever-vigilant” against bad behavior.

In contrast, law professor Victor Fleischer’s take on the unfolding IRS scandal is a nice example of a more-useful reaction, one that focuses on the institutional factors that made the scandal likely to happen in the first place:

The root of the problem is poor institutional design, not a political conspiracy. Current law forces the I.R.S. to enforce a vague set of campaign finance laws that have next to nothing to do with raising revenue.

It is constructive to apply Fleischer’s approach to another unfolding scandal. In the past few weeks, the press has reported that the FBI is investigating Virginia Governor McDonnell for his ties to a major donor, Jonnie Williams. Williams, described by McDonnell as a close family friend, paid for the food at McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding reception and loaned the first family his fancy sports car for a day. In the last few years, the governor and the first lady seem to have given Williams’s company, Star Scientific, free promotion. For example, in August of 2011, McDonnell appeared at an event promoting Star Scientific at the Executive Mansion. And in June of 2011, the first lady flew to Florida to tout the company’s product, a dietary supplement.

The inquiry apparently began out of concern for the possibility of a quid pro quo: perhaps the governor and the first lady offered this free promotion in exchange for political and personal favors? For their part, the governor and first lady have maintained that it is their job is to promote Virginia businesses.

Indeed, the state legislature seems to think this is part of the governor’s job. Over the years, legislators have given the governor a host of tools to offer exclusive privileges to particular businesses. For example, the Governor’s Opportunity Fund “is a discretionary incentive available to the Governor to secure a business location or expansion project for Virginia.” There’s also the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund. This too gives grants “at the discretion of the Governor.” You can read about these and other programs at the “business incentives” section of the Virginia Economic Partnership website. There, you will see that privileges include subsidies, matching grants, in-kind donations such as training, corporate and individual income tax credits, sales and use tax exemptions, property tax exemptions, and various financing programs. (In the case of Star Scientific, the governor seems not to have availed himself of any of these programs. Instead, he and his wife seem to have simply talked favorably about the company, just as they frequently talk favorably about other Virginia businesses.)

Presumably legislatures give governors the authority to grant special favors to firms because they believe these favors benefit the state. But the evidence that targeted incentives lead to any sort of widespread prosperity is quite scant. And as my research has emphasized, privileges lead to a host of economic problems because they undermine competition, encourage wasteful privilege-seeking, and put politicians rather than consumers in charge of allocating capital and resources.

But the Virginia story illustrates another cost of privilege: it inevitably invites questions of impropriety. The fact is, it is very difficult to devise objective criteria for dispensing privileges to particular firms. So one doesn’t have to look very hard to find apparently subjective decisions: Was Solyndra awarded half a billion taxpayer dollars because it had a superior business model? Or was it given money because green energy is politically popular and the vice president wanted to host a ribbon-cutting ceremony there? Did the Administration offer trade protection to domestic solar panel makers because the Chinese were engaged in “unfair competition” or because domestic solar panel manufacturers are politically powerful and well-connected?

I don’t see how these questions could possibly be answered definitively. Instead of trying to pretend that they can be, we should change the institutions that inevitably give rise to charges of impropriety. We should stop presuming that an elected official’s job description includes the promotion of particular businesses. If we stop asking politicians to pick winners and losers, there will be no more scandals about whom they pick.

Full disclosure: A few years ago, Governor McDonnell appointed me to serve on Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists. Once a year I travel to Richmond and offer my opinion on the state’s economic and fiscal forecasts. I am not compensated for my participation.

Red ink flows in state-run prepaid tuition programs

In three years the Prepaid Alabama College Tuition Program (PACT) will run dry. The State Treasurer reports PACT which pays $100 million in tuition a year, has $347 million in investments remaining. To fulfill its obligations to all 40,000 participants over the next 20 years, PACT needs an additional $843.9 million. The state Supreme Court recently struck down a potential solution put forth by the legislature: cap payouts to 2010 tuition levels and have beneficiaries make up the difference. The remedy didn’t pass scrutiny due to a 2010 law that promises PACT be 100 percent funded.

PACT worked for about 20 years until hit with the combination of unrelenting tuition inflation and a bear market which halved the plan’s investments.

Unfortunately, Alabama isn’t the only state with a prepaid program in the red. The Wall Street Journal reports South Carolina’s plan expects to run out of funds in 2017. Tennessee’s budget seeks an infusion of $15 million into its program. And West Virginia recently transferred funds from an unclaimed-property program to shore up its struggling prepaid plan.

In remarkably bad shape is IllinoisCrain’s Chicago Business finds that Illinois’ 12-year old $1.1 billion prepaid plan has the largest shortfall in the entire nation. Worse still, plan managers are making up for losses by embracing a huge amount of risk. In 2011, 47 percent of Illinois’ prepaid tuition plan was shifted into alternatives and investment expectations set at 8.75 percent. An expectation that far outstrips any other prepaid plan by a long-shot. (Florida has the country’s largest prepaid tuition plan and operates with an expected return of 4.3 percent on plan investments).

This year the agency that runs the prepaid program, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission ,has dropped that return assumption to 7.5 percent.  According to its actuarial report College Illinois! has enough money to pay out tuition for a few more years.

Prepaid plans are a type of 529 plan (the other is the college savings program) that allow parents to purchase contracts (or credits) for their children’s education.  The prepaid tuition plan locks-in tuition for the current year for eligible in-state colleges. Contributions are invested and benefits paid from those funds. To remain well-funded asset performance must track or exceed tuition increases. Given the rapid increase in college tuition which on average has increased 5.6 percent per year over the rate of inflation in just the past decade, it’s easy to see why so many plans have gone bust.

PACT participants who may not recoup their initial investments are understandably upset, “everything about the way the plan was promoted implied it was backed by the state.”

But, just how good is the state’s guarantee?

That is often in the fine-print. The WSJ finds three levels of guarantee in operation. 1) Full Faith and Credit – the state promises to pay for shortfalls if the fund goes dry. (Washington, Texas, Ohio, Mississippi and Florida)  2) Legislative appropriation – the legislature must consider an appropriation to cover shortfalls. (Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and West Virginia)  and 3) Fund Assets – the plan is solely backed by the assets in the plan. (Alabama, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.)

Alabama’s PACT participants found they had little recourse in 2009.  Since the state doesn’t guarantee payment of tuition,they were technically out of luck. However, after a series of demonstrations and hearings in 2010 the Alabama legislature granted a $548 million bailout, tiding the plan over for the next three years. And then what? The state legislature filed a bill last week to tweak the previous solution to the court’s liking. It is again proposing to cap tuition payouts at 2010 levels.

Strangely, in spite of the risk present in pre-paid tuition plans they continue to provide a “flight to safety” for some investors. Last year growth in pre-paid plans outstripped growth in 529 college savings plans. The lure of higher returns attracts some who are banking on the ability of governments to keep their promise to pay it out regardless of market performance or the fine-print.

New Medicaid Case Study Highlights the Role of Politics in Policy

Last week, Scott Beaulier and Brandon Pizzola released new research on Medicaid, conducting case studies of five states that have implemented reform measures designed to control program costs. They find that the political climate is essential to the success of reforms.

Medicaid is a cost driver in state budgets for several reasons, but an important factor is that most states have designed the program so that a formula determines the amount of federal money they receive based on state-level Medicaid spending. Reforms which move to essentially a block grant program, as implemented in Rhode Island and Washington, have so far successfully reduced Medicaid spending by eliminating this incentive. These two states have moved to a system where the federal government pledges a fixed yearly amount toward their Medicaid spending. If the full amount is not spent, the remainder can be transferred to the general fund. This reverses the incentive from spending as much as possible to searching for cost savings. Both states have also introduced measures of individual patient responsibility, requiring, for example, that Medicaid recipients do not rely on emergency rooms for routine care. While it is too soon to tell if Rhode Island and Washington will manage to control costs in the long run, both states appear to have achieved improved incentive structures for doing so.

These states passed reform bills not by making a gradual transition to new policies, but by moving decisively. In contrast, Florida lawmakers attempted to test reforms in two counties before expanding them to apply to the rest of the state. This time lag served as an opportunity for interest groups to block further changes. Rhode Island and Washington developed support from these interest groups by framing the issue as the state against the federal government rather than one of winners and losers within the state. In Tennessee reform has not been successful because key interest groups like the Tennessee Medical Association did not get behind proposed reforms, making them unworkable in practice.

Despite the apparent successes in Rhode Island and Washington, the federalism research that Ben and Eileen explored last week reveals that block grants are not a panacea. Block grants, like all intergovernmental spending, carry with them fiscal illusion. This obfuscates program costs to taxpayers by spreading the funding across multiple layers of government. While moving from a matching funds formula to a block grant is an improvement in transparency, total spending is still obscured. Furthermore, while neither state has failed to keep spending within the the budgeted block grant so far, it’s hardly inconceivable that program costs will outpace grants at some point, leading states to seek bailouts after implementing reforms.

The demonstrated reasons to be pessimistic about the viability of programs whose costs are shared across state and federal governments leave reason to question whether or not block grants are successful tools for curbing costs in the long run. However, Rhode Island and Washington have chosen a path that is at least more sustainable than other states, which face incentives to increase Medicaid spending with no limit in sight.

Florida Senate Votes against Privatizing Prisons

Yesterday, the Florida state senate voted down a bill that would have privatized 27 of the state’s prisons. The shift was projected to save $16.5 million in a state with a $2 billion budget deficit. Theoretically, private prisons are projected to save money because they operate under a profit motive, putting them in a better place to find operating efficiencies compared to state run prisons.

While from a budgetary perspective prison privatization may make sense, the issue is not straightforward. Privatizing prisons creates an interest group that stands to profit from higher incarceration rates. The case of two Pennsylvania judges who accepted bribes from private prison interests in exchange for incarcerating 5,000 juvenile offenders, many of whom appeared in court for minor offenses without attorneys, brought light to this issue. Of course this illegal corruption does not represent the typical interaction between the justice system and private prisons, but does demonstrate the danger of crony capitalism in the industry.

In a paper for the Reason Foundation, Adrian Moore points out that prison interest groups are by no means exclusive to private prisons. Public sector employee unions also have incentives to grow their bureaucracy and protect their jobs by seeking harsher prison sentences. In Florida, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union representing public sector prison workers, played an important role in the defeat of the privatization bill. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association is perhaps the most studied public prison lobby. The CCPOA has made extensive contributions to both political campaigns and to groups that fight for harsher sentencing laws.

Aside from the complicated issues that special interests bring to the US prison system, it’s important to take a critical look at the alleged budget savings that private prisons provide. While these prisons are privately run, they of course are not really private businesses, but rather government contractors. This means a layer of bureaucracy separates them from their consumers (taxpayers) and the market process is not in play as it is in a competitive industry. Rather than having an incentive to provide the best service at the least cost, private prisons face incentives to fulfill the most lucrative government contracts at least cost.

Some studies, including Moore’s, have attributed substantial cost savings to prison privatization, but other studies have found the opposite. In Arizona, private prisons actually cost more per inmate than public prisons, according to state data, even though they do not typically house the highest security, most expensive inmates that state-run prisons do.

Florida Governor Rick Scott still has the opportunity to use his executive power to increase the role of private prisons in Florida but said he had wanted legislative support for the measure. While the budgetary and policy impacts of privatizing prisons are ambiguous, one policy change would bring certain cost savings to Florida taxpayers. By some measures, Florida currently has the strictest laws against marijuana possession in the country, including potential jail time for possession of misdemeanor quantities of the drug. By reducing sentencing for victimless crimes including possession and distribution of marijuana, the state could certainly save money and potentially improve outcomes for the states youth who face drug charges.

Tennessee Valley Authority downgraded by S&P

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)’s bond rating has been downgraded from AAA to AA+, though, “the fundamental financial strength of the TVA is unchanged.” The TVA is a wholly-owned entity of the federal government, and the downgrade reflects, “the negative outlook of the United States as the TVA’s sponsoring sovereign.” Moody’s confirmed the TVA’s AAA rating on the basis that TVA is self-funded and a self-sufficient public power system that finances its operations based on its own user-generated revenues. In the event of fiscal stress, the TVA operates under an implicit federal guarantee.

The TVA doesn’t think the downgrade will have any material impact on its finances as the authority’s stand-alone credit rating remains unchanged (at least  in the short-term, according to S&P) and it doesn’t rely on federal subsidies.

S&P downgraded several other power authorities in the United States: Texas, Oregon, Arizona, New York and Florida, Arizona and Colorado.