Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

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.

The Economics of Regulation Part 1: A New Study Shows That Regulatory Accumulation Hurts the Economy

In June, John Dawson and John Seater, economists at Appalachian State University and North Carolina State University, respectively, published a potentially important study (ungated version here) in the Journal of Economic Growth that shows the effects of regulatory accumulation on the US economy.  Several others have already summarized the study’s results (two examples here and here) with respect to how the accumulation of federal regulation caused substantial reductions in the growth rate of GDP.  So, while the results are important, I won’t dwell on them here.  The short summary is this: using a new measure of federal regulation in an endogenous growth model, Dawson and Seater find that, on average, federal regulation reduced economic growth in the US by about 2% annually in the period from 1949 to 2005.  Considering that economic growth is an exponential process, an average reduction of 2% over 57 years makes a big difference.  A relevant excerpt tells just how big of a difference:

 We can convert the reduction in output caused by regulation to more tangible terms by computing the dollar value of the loss involved.  […] In 2011, nominal GDP was $15.1 trillion.  Had regulation remained at its 1949 level, current GDP would have been about $53.9 trillion, an increase of $38.8 trillion.  With about 140 million households and 300 million people, an annual loss of $38.8 trillion converts to about $277,100 per household and $129,300 per person.

These are large numbers, but in fact they aren’t much different from what a bevy of previous studies have found about the effects of regulation.  The key differences between this study and most previous studies are the method of measuring regulation and the model used to estimate regulation’s effect on economic growth and total factor productivity.

In a multi-part series, I will focus on the tools that allowed Dawson and Seater to produce this study: 1. A new time series measure of total federal regulation, and 2. Models of endogenous growth.  My next post will go into detail on Dawson and Seater’s new time series measure of regulation, and compares it to other metrics that have been used.  Then I’ll follow up with a post discussing endogenous growth models, which consider that policy decisions can affect the accumulation of knowledge and the rates of innovation and entrepreneurship in an economy, and through these mechanisms affect economic growth.

Why should you care about something as obscure as a “time series measure of regulation” and “endogenous growth theory?”  Regulations—a form of law that lawyers call administrative law—create a hidden tax.  When the Department of Transportation creates new regulations that mandate that cars must become more fuel efficient, all cars become more expensive, in the same way that a tax on cars would make them more expensive.  Even worse, the accumulation of regulations over time stifle innovation, hinder entrepreneurship, and create unintended consequences by altering the prices of everyday purchases and activities.  For an example of hindering entrepreneurship, occupational licensing requirements in 17 states make it illegal for someone to braid hair for a living without first being licensed, a process which, in Pennsylvania at least, requires 300 hours of training, at least a 10th grade education, and passing a practical and a theory exam. Oh, and after you’ve paid for all that training, you still have to pay for a license.

And for an example of unintended consequences: Transportation Security Administration procedures in airports obviously slow down travel.  So now you have to leave work or home 30 minutes or even an hour earlier than you would have otherwise, and you lose the chance to spend another hour with your family or finishing some important project.  Furthermore, because of increased travel times when flying, some people choose to drive instead of fly.  Because driving involves a higher risk of accident and death than does flying, this shift, caused by regulation, of travelers from plane to car actually causes people to die (statistically speaking), as this paper showed.

Economists have realized the accumulation of regulation must be causing serious problems in the economy.  As a result, they have been trying to measure regulation in different ways, in order to include regulation in their models and better study its impact.  One famous measure of regulation, which I’ll discuss in more detail in my next post, is the OECD’s index of Product Market Regulation.  That rather sanitized term, “product market regulation,” actually consists of several components that are directly relevant to a would-be entrepreneur (such as the opacity of a country’s licenses and permits system and administrative burdens for sole proprietorships) and to a consumer (such as price controls, which can lead to shortages like we often see after hurricanes where anti-price gouging laws exist, and barriers to foreign direct investment, which could prevent multinational firms like Toyota from building a new facility and creating new jobs in a country).  But as you’ll see in the next post, that OECD measure (and many other measures) of regulation miss a lot of regulations that also directly affect every individual and business.  In any science, correct measurement is a necessary first step to empirical hypothesis testing.

Dawson and Seater have contributed a new measure of regulation that improves upon previously existing ones in many ways, although it also has its drawbacks.  And because their new measure of regulation offers many more years of observations than most other measures, it can be used in an endogenous growth model to estimate how regulation has affected the growth of the US economy.  Again, in endogenous growth models, policy decisions (such as how much regulation to create) affect economic growth if they affect the rates of accumulation of knowledge, innovation, and entrepreneurship. It’s by using their measure in an endogenous growth model that Dawson and Seater were able to estimate that individuals in the US would have been $129,300 richer if regulations had stayed at their 1949 level.  I’ll explain a bit more about endogenous growth theory in a second follow-up post.  But first things first—my next post will go into detail on measures of regulation and Dawson and Seater’s innovation.

The political economy of state and local public pensions

Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Giacomo Ponzetto of Centre de Recerca en Economia Internacional have a new paper on fiscal illusion in state and local public pensions (and they don’t cite James Buchanan?!):

Why are public-sector workers so heavily compensated with pensions and other non-pecuniary benefits? In this paper, we present a political economy model of shrouded compensation in which politicians compete for taxpayers’ and public employees’ votes by promising compensation packages, but some voters cannot evaluate every aspect of compensation. If pension packages are “shrouded,” meaning that public-sector workers better understand their value than ordinary taxpayers, then compensation will be inefficiently back-loaded. In equilibrium, the welfare of public-sector workers could be improved, holding total public sector costs constant, if they received higher wages and lower pensions. Central control over dispersed municipal pensions has two offsetting effects on pension generosity: more state-level media attention helps taxpayers better understand pension costs, which reduces pension generosity; but a larger share of public sector workers will live within the jurisdiction, which increases pension generosity. We discuss pension arrangements in two decentralized states (California and Pennsylvania) and two centralized states (Massachusetts and Ohio) and find that in these cases, centralization appears to have modestly reduced pension arrangements; but, as the model suggests, this finding is unlikely to be universal.

Gated versions here and here.

SEPTA and interest rate swaps

Interest rate swaps became a relatively popular means for municipal governments to save some money during the 1990s and into the 2000s. The basic idea is that an issuer (the government) enters into a contract with a bank to exchange interest rate payments on a cash flow. These can be structured to exchange a fixed payment for a variable payment in return, or vice versa.

These interest payments are calculated based on an underlying asset or instrument, such as a bond. That makes interest rate swaps a derivative, as their value is derived from an underlying financial instrument.

The issuer’s goal is to hedge against fluctuating interest rates and impart some stability to their budget.The bank’s incentive is to make a fee. It works for the issuer when they guess correctly and – by way of example -the issuer agrees to a payment based on a fixed rate of interest that is low relative to the adjustable rate of interest the bank pays to the municipality in return.

But that’s not what happened as rates began to fall after 2008. Many municipal issuers found themselves paying banks a fixed rate that was high relative to the variable rate the bank was paying in return. Jefferson County, Alabama is the most notorious example, as my recent article in US News explains. At work in this larger story is the role the LIBOR interest rate rigging scandal played in suppressing the variable rate leading some governments to sue banks for damages.

Pennsylvania governments were particularly keen on interest rates swaps, with 626 swaps having been entered into across the Commonwealth. Depending on how they were structured, some entities have come out ahead. The majority have lost on the contracts. That includes SEPTA, as Pennsylvania Watchdog explains.

Is the problem with the interest rate swap concept? I’d argue that the answer lies in how they are used. What might be a good hedging instrument for the financial sector exposes the public sector to a set of risks that aren’t fully appreciated. The risks -including the real hazard that the municipality incorrectly guessed the direction interest rates would travel- are passed on to taxpayers or service users.

 

 

Pension Reform in Pennsylvania and a book recommendation

Last week I testified before the Pennsylvania General Assembly on their pension reform efforts. In my testimony I covered the valuation problem. While the state reports an unfunded liability of $39.5 billion. I calculate it is $116 billion. Like many other state and local pension systems, the mis-valuation problem caused Pennsylvania lawmakers to undertake a series of measures over the past several decades that further weakened the system. These include benefit enhancements when the market was booming and creating a “funding collar” which capped annual contributions to the pension plan effectively pushing that bill forward. to the present

Pennsylvania has run out of time and costs are rising rapidly. In my testimony I cite the work of M. Barton Waring, whose book, Pension Finance, I highly recommend as an analysis of why economic valuation matters to the very existence of defined benefit plans. Without it, plans are subject to often questionable and arbitrary accounting choices. His analysis is well-grounded, consistent with theory and cogently explained.

He states his findings as a series of propositions that should guide how defined benefit plans are structured, valued and funded.

Proposition 1: Measures of the pension plan based on conventional accounting methods will always follow measures based on economic accounting sooner or later, even with a lag. The accounting will follow the economics sooner or later.

I think that proposition can been seen in the funding schedule for Pennsylvania’s two main pension plans: SERS and PSERS. As a result of artificially capping the state’s annual contribution to the plan, future contributions are slated to increase by 267 percent in the next five years. (And that is an underestimation since it is working off of the misvalued liability). Lawmakers know there is a serious hole ahead and as Waring’s book shows that is something that could have been avoided if plans had used economic valuation from the start.

 

 

Harrisburg, PA Bankruptcy Proceedings Continue

On October 11, Harrisburg, PA filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the first state capital to do so in several decades. Now, the city council must develop a plan for the city’s finances going forward. If the state does not approve the council’s plan by November 25th, Harrisburg’s finances could be turned over to a receiver and the city would not have a say in the budget process.

The state is engouraging Harrisburg to pay off its remaining debts primarily by raising property taxes, but the council has been reluctant to raise taxes on its residents, 29% of whom live in poverty. To limit the pain for city residents, Councilman Brad Koplinski supports bankruptcy:

“If the bankruptcy is allowed to proceed, I feel that unfortunately it’s the most beneficial option, because it will allow us to get the city out from under its debt,” Koplinski said at the meeting [held yesterday].

Today, the city’s debt totals about five times its yearly general-fund revenue, and lawmakers have few options to turn to for increased revenues. Vallejo, CA and Central Falls, RI also recently filed for Chapter 9 protection. In both cities, budget problems were driven in large part by increasing unfunded pension liabilities. In Harrisburg, however, the problem developed because the city borrowed $242 million to finance an incinerator that turned out not to be as profitable as expected.

Unfortunately for Harrisburg, even municipal bankruptcy is not a silver bullet for ailing city finances. The Vallejo case illustrates that while bankruptcy gives municipalities some bargaining power for negotiating pensions and can reduce the debt burden, filing for Chapter 9 will not eliminate past obligations. Harrisburg will likely emerge from bankruptcy with a heavy debt burden and nowhere to turn for increased revenue. In this case, bankruptcy may be the city’s best option, but other municipal lawmakers should look to the Vallejo example when promising lavish projects on borrowed money. There is no easy way out of municipal debt.