Tag Archives: local governments

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.

Intergovernmental grant to gelato maker distorts market competition

Intergovernmental grants are grants that are given to one level of government by another e.g. federal to state/local or state to local. In addition to being used on public works and services they also subsidize the development of private goods. The Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) is a federally funded grant program that distributes grants and subsidized loans to local and state governments which then use them or award them to other businesses and non-profits. The grants can be used on a variety of projects. Since 1975 the CDBG program has given over $143 billion ($215 billion adjusted for inflation) to state and local governments. The graph below (click to enlarge) shows the total dollars by year adjusted for inflation (2009 dollars) and the number of entitlement grantees by year. While the total amount of funding has declined over time, it was still $2.8 billion in 2014.

cdbg dollars, grantees

Intergovernmental grant programs like CDBG are based on the incorrect idea that moving money around produces economic development and creates a net-positive amount of jobs. But only productive entrepreneurs who create value for consumers can create jobs. The CDBG program and others like it distort the entrepreneurial process and within-industry competition by giving an artificial advantage to the companies that receive grants. This results in more workers and capital flowing into the grant-receiving business rather than their unsubsidized competitors. For example, Brunswick, ME is giving a $350,000 CDBG to Gelato Fiasco to help the company buy new equipment. Meanwhile, nearby competitors Bohemian Coffeehouse, Little Dog Coffee Shop, and Dairy Queen are not receiving any grant money. Governments at all levels, such as Brunswick’s, should not pick winners and losers via a grant process that ultimately favors some constituents over others.

Some other projects that the CDBG program has helped fund are: a soybean processing plant in Arkansas, a new facility for a farmer’s market in Oregon, solar panels for houses in San Diego, and waterfront housing in Burlington, VT. Like the Gelato Fiasco example, these are all examples of private goods, not public, and the production of such goods is best left to the market. If private investors who are subject to market forces are unwilling to produce a private good then it is probably not a worthwhile venture, as the lack of private investment implies that the expected cost exceeds the expected revenue. Private investors and entrepreneurs want to make a profit and the profit incentive promotes wise investments. Governments don’t confront the same profit incentive and this often leads to wasteful spending.

At its best, a government can create the conditions that encourage economic development and job creation: the enforcement of private property rights, a court system to adjudicate disputes, a police force to maintain law and order, and perhaps some basic infrastructure. The scope of a local government should be limited to these tasks.

State and local spending growth vs. GDP growth.

A few years ago, I produced a figure which showed inflation-adjusted state and local expenditures alongside inflation-adjusted private GDP.

It’s been some time since I made that chart and so I thought I might revisit the question. This time around, I compared state and local expenditures with overall GDP, not just private GDP.

The results are below (click to enlarge).

State and Local expenditures vs. GDPAfter adjusting for inflation, the economy is about 5.79 times its 1950 size. This is a good thing. It means more is being produced and more is available for consumption. And since the population has only doubled over this period, it means that per capita production is way up.

Over the same time period, however, state and local government expenditures have not just gone up 5 or 6 or even 8 times. Instead, after adjusting for inflation, state and local governments are spending about 12.79 times as much as they spent in 1950.

State and local governments, of course, depend entirely on the economy for their resources. As I put it when I produced the original chart, this is like a household whose income has grown about 6-fold but whose spending habits have grown nearly 13-fold.

Corporate welfare spending is not transparent

Over a century ago, the Italian political economist Amilcare Puviani suggested that policy makers have a strong incentive to obscure the cost of government. Known as “fiscal illusion,” the idea is that voters will be willing to spend more money on government if they think its costs is lower than it actually is. Fiscal illusion explains a great deal of public choices, including the popularity of deficit spending.

It also explains why the public knows the least about some of the most controversial items in the public budget such as corporate welfare. But some would like to change this. Here are Jess Fields and Tom “Smitty” Smith, writing in the (subscription required) Austin-American Statesman:

Texans believe in government transparency and accountability. For this reason, we have some of the most advanced open-government initiatives in the nation. Yet one policy area remains outside the view of the general public: economic development.

When local governments cut deals that result in millions in incentives, they can do it behind closed doors in “executive session” — legally — thanks to exceptions to the Open Meetings and Public Information Acts for “economic development negotiations.”

Fields is a senior policy analyst at the free enterprise Texas Public Policy Foundation, while Smith is the director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a progressive consumer advocacy group started by Ralph Nader in the ‘70s.

Texans aren’t the only ones interested in making corporate welfare more transparent. The Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) is considering rules that would require governments to report the tax privileges that they hand out to businesses. Here is Liz Farmer, writing in Governing Magazine:

Specifically, GASB is proposing that state and local governments disclose information about property and other tax abatement agreements in their annual financial statements. If approved, the new disclosures could shed light on an area of government finance and provide hard data on information that is assembled sporadically, if at all. Scores of public and private groups support the proposal and it has proven to be one of GASB’s most debated topic yet, as nearly 300 groups or individuals submitted comment letters to the board. But many still say the requirements don’t go far enough.

She notes that the proposal misses a number of tax privileges including:

  • Tax increment financing (TIF),
  • Agreements to discount personal income taxes,
  • “[P]rograms that reduce the tax liabilities of businesses or similar classes of taxpayers.”

Because of these omissions the new GASB rules may only capture about one-third of all tax expenditures.

Puviani would have predicted that.

Municipalities in fiscal distress: state-based laws and remedies

The Great Recession of 2008 “stress tested” many policies and institutions including the effectiveness of laws meant to handle municipal fiscal crises. In new Mercatus research professor Eric Scorsone of Michigan State University assess the range and type of legal remedies offered by states to help local governments in financial trouble.

“Municipal Fiscal Emergency Laws: Background and Guide to State-Based Approaches,” begins with some brief context. Most municipal fiscal laws trace their lineage through the 1975 New York City fiscal crisis, the Great Depression and the 19th century railroad bankruptcies. Writing in 1935, attorney Edward Dimock articulated three pieces to addressing municipal insolvency:  1) oversight of the municipality’s financial management 2) stop individual creditors from undermining the distressed entity and 3) put together a plan of adjustment for meeting the creditor’s needs.

These general parameters are at work in state laws today. The details vary. Some states are passive and others much more “hands-on” in dealing with local financial troubles. Scorsone documents these approach with a focus on the “triggers” states use to identify a crisis, the remedies permitted (e.g. can a municipality amend a collective bargaining agreement?), and the exit strategies offered. Maine has the most “Spartan” of fiscal triggers. A Maine municipality that fails to redistribute state taxes, or misses a bond payment triggers the state government’s attention. Michigan also has very strong municipal distress laws which create, “almost a form of quasi-bankruptcy” allowing the state emergency manager to break existing contracts. Texas and Tennessee, by contrast, are relatively hands-off.

How well these laws work is a live issue in many places, including Pennsylvania. In 1987 the state passed Act 47 to identify distressed municipalities. While Act 47 appears to have diagnosed dozens of faltering local governments, the law has proven ineffective in helping municipalities right course. Many cities have remained on the distressed list for 20 years. Recent legislation proposes to allow a municipality that can’t “exit Act 47” the option of disincorporating. Is there a middle ground? As the PA State Association of Town Supervisors put it, “If we can’t address the labor issues, if we can’t address the mandates, if we can’t address the tax exempt properties, we go nowhere.”

Municipalities end up in distress for a complex set of reasons: self-inflicted policy and governance failures, uncontrollable social and economic shifts, and external shocks. Unwinding the effects of decades of interlocking problems isn’t a neat and easy undertaking. The purpose of the paper isn’t to evaluate the effectiveness various approaches to helping municipalities out of distress, it is instead a much-needed guide to help navigate and compare the states’ legal frameworks in which municipal leaders make decisions.

 

 

 

Strong words from the SEC on Public Sector Pensions

As state and local governments begin to pull back the curtain on the true value of their pension liabilities with the implementation of GASB 68, Daniel Gallagher, Commissioner of the SEC issued an important statement last week, noting in plain terms that how governments measure their liabilities would have serious repercussions in the private sector. Here’s part of the remarks worth considering:

 …for years, state and local governments have used lax governmental accounting standards to hide the yawning chasm in their balance sheets…

The riskiness of a pension obligation depends on state law.[32]  If pension obligations have the same preference as general obligation debt, then the municipality’s own municipal bond yield (generally around 5%) would be the proper discount rate.[33]  Or, if as we’ve seen from Detroit, pensions will be saved before all else, then we should use a default-free measure to discount the liability:  specifically, the Treasury zero-coupon yield curve.[34]  This would result in a discount rate in the low 3% range.

Obviously, the higher the discount rate, the lower the present value of the liability.  The difference between a discount rate in the range of seven percent and one in the range of three percent is in large part responsible for the hidden $3 trillion in unfunded liabilities that are currently going unreported.

This lack of transparency can amount to a fraud on municipal bond investors, and it does a disservice to state and local government workers and retirees by saving elected officials from making the hard choices either to fully fund the pension promises that were made to public employees,[35] or not to make the promises in the first place.

In the private sector, the SEC would quickly bring fraud charges against any corporate issuer and its officers for playing such numbers games.  And, we would also pursue and punish the so-called fiduciaries who recklessly seek yield to meet unrealistic accounting assumptions.  We should not treat municipalities any differently.”

GASB 68 asks that sponsors use a high- yield, tax exempt 20-year municipal GO bond only on the unfunded portion of the liability. This will reveal bigger funding gaps in public sector pension plans. But it does not reveal the full value of the liability since it allows sponsors to continue using the higher discount rates on the funded portion of the liability.

 In addition to using the new GASB standards, Commissioner Gallagher advises that governments should also disclose their pension liabilities on a risk-free basis. This would have the effect of showing the value of these promises on a ‘guaranteed-to-be-paid’ basis. Commissioner Gallagher’s suggestions are extremely sensible and a call to basic transparency in public sector liability reporting.

Ignoring the value of pension benefits is not going to make them cheaper to fund, and the longer a state waits to accurately measure the liabilities and payments, the worse it gets. Just ask New Jersey –  which is struggling to balance its budget and meet a fraction of a fraction of the required annual pension contribution to its state pension system. The situation is so dire that it could trigger yet another downgrade for the Garden State.

 

The “pension tapeworm” and Fiscal Federalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pension reform from California to Tennessee

Earlier this month Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) workers went on their second strike of the year. With public transport dysfunctional for four days, area residents were not necessarily sympathetic to the workers’ complaints, according to The Economist. The incident only drew attention to the fact that BART’s workers weren’t contributing to their pensions.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement employees will contribute to their pensions, and increase the amount they pay for health care benefits to $129/month.  The growing cost of public pensions, wages and benefits on city budgets is a real matter for mayors who must struggle to contain rapidly rising costs to pay for retiree benefits. San Jose’s mayor, Chuck Reed has led the effort in California to institute pension reforms via a ballot measure that would give city workers a choice between reduced benefits or bigger contributions, known as the Pension Reform Act of 2014. Reed is actively seeking the support of California’s public sector unions for the measure that would give local authorities some flexibility to contain costs. Pension costs are presenting new threats for many California governments. Moody’s is scrutinizing 30 cities for possible downgrades based on their more complete measurement of the economic liability presented by pension plans.  In spite of this dire warning, CalPERS has sent municipalities a strong message to struggling and bankrupt cities: pay your contributions, or else.

Other states and cities that are looking to overhaul how benefits are provided to employees include Memphis, Tennessee which faces a reported unfunded liability of $642 million and a funding ratio of 74.4%. This is using a discount rate of 7.5 percent.  I calculate Memphis’ unfunded liability is approximately $3.4 billion on a risk-free basis, leaving the plan only 35% funded.

The options being discussed by the Memphis government include moving new hires to a hybrid plan, a cash balance plan, or a defined contribution plan. Which of these presents the best option for employees, governments and Memphis residents?

I would suggest the following principles be used to guide pension reform: a) economic accounting, b) shift the funding risk away from government, c) offer workers – both current workers and future hires – the option to determine their own retirement course and to choose from a menu of options that includes a DC plan or an annuity – managed by an outside firm or some combination.

The idea should be to eliminate the ever-present incentive to turn employee retirement savings into a budgetary shell-game for governments. Public sector pensions in US state and local governments have been made uncertain under flawed accounting and high-risk investing. As long as pensions are regarded as malleable for accounting purposes – either through discount rate assumptions, re-amortization games, asset smoothing, dual-purpose asset investments, or short-sighted thinking – employee benefits are at risk for underfunding. A defined contribution plan, or a privately managed annuity avoids this temptation by putting the employer on the hook annually to make the full contribution to an employee’s retirement savings.

To merge or not to merge?

Princeton Image

Consolidating municipalities is a common policy prescription from across the political spectrum. In New Jersey in particular, many democratic and republican elected officials have thrown their support behind merging municipalities. In part, this support is based on the experience of Princeton. In 2011, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township moved, the first New Jersey municipalities to do so:

New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie as well as governors in Ohio and Pennsylvania have been urging local governments to seek savings by eliminating unneeded costs. Christie endorsed the Princeton plan and offered to pay 20% of the $1.7-million unification cost, Bloomberg News reported.

The forecast is that Princeton taxpayers will save $3.1 million annually by consolidating services, including those for police and fire protection.

“We have redundancy in government,” borough resident Cole Crittenden told NJ.com in explaining why she supported the merger.

Framing municipal mergers as a way to get more bang for the taxpayer buck makes the proposal difficult for anyone to oppose except for those municipal employees who are redundant after a merger. However, the cost savings of consolidation are not well-understood. In an article in Governing Magazine earlier this week, Justin Marlowe writes:

It turns out that consolidations rarely save money. In fact, for the majority of citizens directly affected in these cases, consolidation has meant higher taxes and spending. Some cities consolidated because a larger government could improve local infrastructure. This has usually meant new debt and new taxes to repay that debt. Others offered generous pensions and health-care benefits to employees pushed out in the consolidation, thus saddling the new government with expensive legacy costs. In the consolidated town of Oak Island, N.C., per capita spending is two or three times higher than before consolidation, and that’s by design. Consolidation allowed this coastal community to offer new services needed to build a vibrant tourist economy.

Superficially, municipal consolidation looks like an opportunity to reduce taxes or to provide increased services for a given level of revenue. However, as Marlowe indicates, larger jurisdictions do not always result in anticipated efficiencies. As policymakers’ gain control of larger jurisdictions and in turn the ability to access more funds from revenue from the state and federal level, they may spend more, rather than less, per capita.

Local control over transportation: good in principle but not being practiced

State and local governments know their transportation needs better than Washington D.C. But that doesn’t mean that state and local governments are necessarily more efficient or less prone to public choice problems when it comes to funding projects, and some of that is due to the intertwined funding streams that make up a transportation budget.

Emily Goff at The Heritage Foundation finds two such examples in the recent transportation bills passed in Virginia and Maryland.

Both Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley propose raising taxes to fund new transit projects. In Virginia the state will eliminate the gas tax and replace it with an increase in the sales tax. This is a move away from a user-based tax to a more general source of taxation, severing the connection between those who use the roads and those who pay. The gas tax is related to road use; sales taxes are barely related. There is a much greater chance of political diversion of sales tax revenues to subsidized transit projects: trolleys, trains and bike paths, rather than using revenues for road improvements.

Maryland reduces the gas tax by five cents to 18.5 cents per gallon and imposes a new wholesale tax on motor fuels.

How’s the money being spent? In Virginia 42 percent of the new sales tax revenues will go to mass transit with the rest going to highway maintenance. As Goff notes this means lower -income southwestern Virginians will subsidize transit for affluent northern Virginians every time they make a nonfood purchase.

As an example, consider Arlington’s $1 million dollar bus stop. Arlingtonians chipped in $200,000 and the rest came from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). It’s likely with a move to the sales tax, we’ll see more of this. And indeed, according to Arlington Now, there’s a plan for 24 more bus stops to compliment the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar, a light rail project that is the subject of a lively local debate.

Revenue diversions to big-ticket transit projects are also incentivized by the states trying to come up with enough money to secure federal grants for Metrorail extensions (Virginia’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and Maryland’s Purple Line to New Carrolton).

Truly modernizing and improving roads and mass transit could be better achieved by following a few principles.

  • First, phase out federal transit grants which encourage states to pursue politically-influenced and costly projects that don’t always address commuters’ needs. (See the rapid bus versus light rail debate).
  • Secondly, Virginia and Maryland should move their revenue system back towards user-fees for road improvements. This is increasingly possible with technology and a Vehicle Miles Tax (VMT), which the GAO finds is “more equitable and efficient” than the gas tax.
  • And lastly, improve transit funding. One way this can be done is through increasing farebox recovery rates. The idea is to get transit fares in line with the rest of the world.

Interestingly, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo have built rail systems at a fraction of the cost of heavily-subsidized projects in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Stephen Smith, writing at Bloomberg, highlights that a big part of the problem in the U.S. are antiquated procurement laws that limit bidders on transit projects and push up costs. These legal restrictions amount to real money. French rail operator SNCF estimated it could cut $30 billion off of the proposed $68 billion California light rail project. California rejected the offer and is sticking with the pricier lead contractor.