Tag Archives: policymakers

The battle of the taxes

In my last post, I discussed several exciting tax reforms that are gaining support in a handful of states. In an effort to improve the competitiveness and economic growth of these states, the plans would lower or eliminate individual and corporate income taxes and replace these revenues with funds raised by streamlined sales taxes. Since I covered this topic, legislators in two more states, Missouri and New Mexico, have demonstrated interest in adopting this type of overhaul of their state tax systems.

At the same time, policymakers in other states across the country are likewise taking advantage of their majority status by pushing their preferred tax plans through state legislatures and state referendums. These plans provide a sharp contrast with those proposed by those states that I discussed in my last post; rather than prioritizing lowering income tax burdens, leaders in these states hope to improve their fiscal outlooks by increasing income taxes.

Here’s what some of these states have in the works:

  • Massachusetts: Gov. Deval L. Patrick surprised his constituents last month during his State of the State address by calling for a 1 percentage point increase in state income tax rates while simultaneously slashing state sales taxes from 6.25% to 4.5%. Patrick defended these tax changes on the grounds of increasing investments in transportation, infrastructure, and education while improving state competitiveness. Additionally, the governor called for a doubling of personal exemptions to soften the blow of the income tax increases on low-income residents.
  • Minnesota: Gov. Mark Dayton presented a grab bag of tax reform proposals when he revealed his two-year budget plan for the state of Minnesota two weeks ago. In an effort to move his state away from a reliance on property taxes to generate revenue, Dayton has proposed to raise income taxes on the top 2% of earners within the state. At the same time, he hopes to reduce property tax burdens, lower the state sales tax from 6.875% to 5.5%, and cut the corporate tax rate by 14%.
  • Maryland: Last May, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called a special legislative session to balance their state budget to avoid scheduled cuts of $500 million in state spending on education and state personnel. Rather than accepting a “cuts-only” approach to balancing state finances, O’Malley strongly pushed for income tax hikes on Marylanders that earned more than $100,000 a year and created a new top rate of 5.75% on income over $250,000 a year. These tax hikes were signed into law after the session convened last year and took effect that June.
  • California: At the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, California voters decided to raise income taxes on their wealthiest residents and increase their state sales tax from 7.25% to 7.5% by voting in favor of Proposition 30 last November. In a bid to put an end to years of deficit spending and finally balance the state budget, Brown went to bat for the creation of four new income tax brackets for high-income earners in California. There is some doubt that these measures will actually generate the revenues that the governor is anticipating due to an exodus of taxpayers fleeing the new 13.3% income tax and uncertain prospects for economic growth within the state. 

It is interesting that these governors have defended their proposals using some of the same rhetoric that governors and legislators in other states used to defend their plans to lower income tax rates. All of these policymakers believe that their proposals will increase competitiveness, improve economic growth, and create jobs for their states. Can both sides be right at the same time?

Economic intuition suggests that policymakers should create a tax system that imposes the lowest burdens on the engines of economic growth. It makes sense, then, for states to avoid taxing individual and corporate income so that these groups have more money to save and invest. Additionally  increasing marginal tax rates on income and investments limits the returns to these activities and causes people to work and invest less. Saving and investment, not consumption, are the drivers of economic growth. Empirical studies have demonstrated that raising marginal income tax rates have damaging effects on economic growth. Policymakers in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maryland, and California may have erred in their decisions to shift taxation towards income and away from consumption. The economies of these states may see lower rates of growth as a result.

In my last post, I mused that the successes of states that have lowered or eliminated their state income taxes may prompt other states to adopt similar reforms. If the states that have taken the opposite approach by raising income taxes see slowed economic growth as a result, they will hopefully serve as a cautionary tale to other states that might be considering these proposals.

New Research on West Virginia’s Medicaid Reforms

Today, the Mercatus Cetner released a new policy brief by Tami Gurley-Calvez on Medicaid reforms implemented in West Virginia, based on a working paper she wrote this fall.  In 2007 the state enacted a Medicaid redesign with one objective being to reduce the rate at which Medicaid patients visited emergency rooms for non-emergencies. Additionally, the plan, called Mountain Health Choices, was intended to incentivize healthy behaviors among Medicaid recipients.

The “choice” in the new plan was an option for women and children to opt into an enhanced plan or default into a basic plan. The enhanced plan offered greater benefits but required participants to agree to “doing [their] best to stay healthy’ and to agree to visit their primary care physician for non-emergency treatment. The objective of reducing ER visits was to both reduce healthcare costs for state taxpayers and to improve healthcare outcomes.

Gurley-Calvez finds that with the Mountain Health Choices reforms, patients on this enhanced plan did visit the emergency room at lower rates. However, patients who defaulted into the basic plan began to visit the emergency room at a higher rate, potentially because they were not eligible for treatment for some illnesses with a primary care doctor. She explains:

Based on this research, states should consider whether they can create a greater connection between health providers and members’ involvement in their own health care. However, policymakers must be cognizant of what drives member decision making in their policy designs. In the West Virginia case, a majority of members did not enroll in the enhanced plan in the short term despite additional health coverage and no direct monetary costs to enrollment. Further, states should consider the possible costs, both near term and future, of restricting treatment options by limiting coverage levels.

This case of attempted cost savings by changing incentives represents an ever-present challenge in public policy. Predicting how people will react to new policies in a changing world is difficult, and policymakers should not be overly confident that the incentives that they design will result in the outcomes that they anticipate.

Maryland’s budget troubles continue into the New Year

Each year a committee made up of Maryland state legislators gets together to set a spending growth limit for Maryland’s general fund budget. The Spending Affordability Committee (SAC) has been in place for 30 years. Originally created to avoid instituting a Tax and Expenditure Limit (TEL), the SAC has proven unable to stop the persistent structural deficit which emerged in 2007. This year the SAC recommends a budget of $37 billion, one billion more than last year. That’s an increase in spending of 4 percent

In a paper for the Maryland Journal entitled, “The Appearance of Fiscal Prudence” Benjamin Van Metre and I detail the flaws of the SAC process based on our read of the official reports. The main problem with the process is that lawmakers have convinced themselves that the SAC imposes fiscal prudence on the legislature. We find while there is some formulaic guidance in the form of a limit based on the growth in personal income, it only applies to part of  the budget. The SAC also involves policymakers deliberating over spending “needs” while referring to revenue estimates. The result is not a hard limit on spending but a recipe for a budget soufflé. To be fair, the SAC wasn’t designed to be a hard limit. It was built to be flexible.That’s fine if the SAC is clear about its own limitations in setting a spending limit.

What’s interesting is that over the years there’s been a bit of hand-wringing in the SAC reports about fast-growing areas of the budget – the Transportation Trust Fund, Medicaid, and a growing reliance on debt finance. Debt limits are covered by a separate legislative committee, the Capital Debt Affordability Committee (CDAC). But, the SAC’s warnings about debt tiered up with the CDAC’s increase in the debt cap. It leads one to conclude that these two committees are, at best, talking past one another.

Given the recent history of Maryland it’s more likely legislators will continue finding ways to fund “increased needs.” And they will do so by seeking more revenues in the form of new taxes, tax rate increases, and debt.  As one legislator put it with this year’s SAC recommendation, “we’re setting our citizens up for massive tax increases.”

 

 

Would You Oppose a Tax Cut on the Grounds that it Only Applied to a Few Firms?

A few weeks ago, Pete Boettke graciously invited me to speak at the Philosophy, Politics and Economics workshop at GMU. During the course of the talk, I extolled the virtues of what Hayek called “generality”—the idea that political action should not (positively or negatively) discriminate against any person or group of persons. (Note: generality goes beyond the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. That only prohibits discriminatory application of laws, but it does nothing to prohibit discriminatory laws such as taxes that apply to one group but not another. A true generality principle says that the laws themselves should not discriminate.)

Near the end of the talk, one of the attendees asked if I would oppose a tariff reduction for one (and only one) industry on the grounds that it violated generality. I believe many free-market advocates would say “No; we should always take any opportunity to expand economic freedom.” Milton Friedman expressed this view when he declared he’d “never met a tax cut I didn’t like”

My answer, however, is that in some circumstances the advocates of economic freedom should oppose such a tariff reduction. This is because I believe those of us who value economic freedom should also value generality. I have four reasons.

  1. Generality is morally intuitive. Kant called it the “categorical imperative,” others more prosaically call it the “golden rule.” Whatever you call it, it seems that lots of humans in lots of cultures value the idea that laws ought to treat us equally.
  2. Violations of generality make us poorer. When government discriminates in the way it taxes or in the way it spends, people change their behavior (note that in traditional public finance, a head tax creates no loss because it doesn’t discriminate between work and leisure or between consumption and non-consumption). And these changes in behavior are costly because they tend to discourage mutually-beneficial exchange. Economists call this the deadweight loss of taxation and these costs are greater when policy is more discriminatory. Thus, a tax that raises $100 million by taxing goods and services equally will involve less deadweight loss than a tax that raises $100 million by taxing only goods. What’s more, the tax rate on goods will have to be higher if the government wants to obtain the same amount of revenue. (I could mention other economic costs under this same heading. For example, knowledge problems and malinvestment, both loom large under discriminatory taxation).
  3. Violations of generality create rent-seeking loss. When government is in the business of privileging some and punishing others, citizens tend to invest resources (time, money, effort) in asking for their own privileges or in asking that others not be privileged. Quite often, these efforts produce no value for society and are a loss.
  4. Violations of generality make it easier to violate economic freedom. In the long run, I believe a norm which permits violations of generality will tend to make it easier to violate economic freedom. Consider a proposal to tax each of three people $10, plus one additional dollar in deadweight loss, in order to turn around and redistribute $10 to each of these same three people. None of our three citizens would be willing to vote for it. But now consider a proposal that costs each of three people $11 ($10 in tax + $1 in DWL) in order to turn around and redistribute $15 to two of the three. Now a majority coalition can easily be formed. The coalition is made viable only by violating generality. What’s more, the coalition will be even stronger if the proposal not only violates generality on the spending side but also on the taxing side. That is, if the proposal is to impose $33 in costs on only one person in order to distribution $15 to each of the other two, then the coalition will be especially strong. In fact, if it can shield itself from the pain of taxation, the coalition will be prone to ask for much more revenue. So in the long run, economic freedom is protected by adhering to generality, even if in the short run the two values appear as a trade-off.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t also value economic freedom. To put it in terms that economists will quickly grasp, my indifference curves look like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not like this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Too often, in my view, conservative policymakers are suckered into violating generality because they believe they are advancing economic freedom. They end up supporting tax preferences for manufacturing, ethanol, housing, child bearing, and much else on the grounds that any tax cut is a good tax cut. Many of these tax preferences are the result of cronyism and each entails a host of economic and social costs. The end result is a tax code that is monstrously complex and that, too, is a cost.

The first-best solution is low and non-discriminatory taxation. Beyond that, I think we need to recognize that there are (short run) trade-offs.

 

New Research on Streamlining Commissions

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management Fall Research Conference to present research on streamlining commissions with Carmine Scavo. Carmine and I have written one paper developing a methodology for studying these commissions, and we’re now working on case studies of commissions in nine states.

Well over half of states have appointed one or more streamlining commissions in efforts to find budget savings or to improve state programs. We’re studying streamlining efforts in California, New Mexico, Louisiana, Alabama, Colorado, New York, Maine and Virginia. We hope to get an idea of how effectively these commissions have reduced the size of state government and found efficiencies in existing programs. We also hope to identify the characteristics that make commissions most likely to meet their goals.

In our first paper, we hypothesized that commission success would depend on the following characteristics:

1) clearly defined objectives regarding their final product;

2) a clear timeline for this deliverable with an opportunity to publish interim advice. Preliminary findings indicate that the commission should have at least one year to work;

3) adequate funds to hire an independent staff to study some issues in depth;

4) a majority of the commission members from outside the government. The commission chair certainly should be from outside the government in order to help to get around the challenges that inherently restrict the ability to find streamlining opportunities while working in government. Preliminary findings indicate that representatives from the state legislature and administration should be involved as a minority of the membership to ensure that the commission’s recommendations have buy-in from policymakers.

So far, our research indicates that funding for commissions may not be as important as we’d though. Some commissions have achieved successes with essentially no budgets while others that were well-funded developed recommendations that didn’t go anywhere.

Tomorrow we will be presenting our preliminary findings on the California Commission on the 21st Century Economy, the Colorado Pits and Peeves Roundtable Initiative, and the Virginia Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring. Once we finish this research I will write up our findings in more depth here. If any of you will be attending the APPAM conference, I hope to see you there.

States Look to Rainy Day Funds to Avoid Future Crises

For the past nine quarters, state revenue collections have been increasing and are now approaching 2008 levels after adjusting for inflation. Many state policymakers are no longer facing the near-ubiquitous budget gaps of fiscal year 2012, but at the moment those memories seem to remain fresh in their minds.

Many states are looking to rainy day funds as a tool to avoid the revenue shortfalls they have experienced since the recession. In Wisconsin, for example, Governor Walker recently made headlines by building up the states’ fund to $125.4 million. In Texas, the state’s significant Rainy Day Fund has reached over $8 billion, behind only Alaska’s fund that holds over $18 billion.

A June report from the Tax Foundation shows Texas and Alaska are the only states with funds that are significant enough to protect states from budget stress in future business cycle downturns. As the Tax Foundation analysis explains, state rainy day funds can be a useful to smooth spending over the business cycle. Research that Matt Mitchell and Nick Tuszynski cite demonstrates that rainy day funds governed by strict rules about when they may be tapped do achieve modest success in smoothing revenue volatility. Because most states have balanced budget requirements, when tax revenues fall during business cycle downturns, states must respond by raising taxes or cutting spending, both pro-cyclical options. If states are required to contribute to rainy day funds when they have revenue surpluses and then are able to draw on these savings during downturns in order to avoid tax increases or spending cuts, this pro-cyclical trend can be avoided.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation points out some of the benefits of large rainy day funds:

Maintaining large “rainy day” funds  benefits Texas and Alaska in three ways:

1) These states do not rely  on large pots of one-time funding to pay for ongoing expenses, but rather balance their books by bringing spending in line with revenues;

2) These states  have reserves on hand to deal with emergencies; and

3) Having a large “rainy day” fund improves the states’ bond rating which means lower interest rates for borrowing.

However, even as more states begin making significant contributions to their rainy day funds, they have not fulfilled their pension obligations. According to states’ own estimates of their pension liabilities, states’ unfunded pension liabilities total about $1 billion. However using private sector accounting methods, states are actually on the hook for over $3 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities. Because states do not use the risk-free discount rate to value these liabilities, the surpluses they think they have to contribute to rainy day funds are illusions.

Even if states were already contributing appropriately to their pension funds and systematically contributed to rainy day funds during revenue upswings, it’s not clear that rainy day funds are a path toward fiscal discipline.  Because of the perpetual tendency for government to grow, it’s unlikely that state policymakers will take any steps to reduce the growth of government during times of economic growth. If states successfully save tax revenues in rainy day funds to avoid having to make spending cuts during recessions, states will not have to decrease spending at any point during the business cycle. States’ balanced budget requirements can provide a mechanism that helps states cut spending in some areas when revenues drop off, but rainy day funds obviate this requirement. Successful use of rainy day funds could contribute to the trend of states’ spending growing fast than GDP.

Supporters of substantial rainy day funds should acknowledge that these cushions — which on the one hand may provide significant benefits to taxpayers — come at the expense of cyclical opportunities to cut the size of state governments to bring them in line with tax revenues. Without the necessity of cutting spending at some point, state budgets might grow more rapidly that they already are, hindering economic growth in the long run. Whether or not rainy day funds increase the growth rate is an empirical question that advocates should research before recommending this strategy, and this possible drawback should be weighed against their potential to reduce revenue volatility.

Discount rates and pension plans: 98 percent of economists agree….

I realize that 98 percent sounds impossibly unified around any subject. But I find this recent survey by the University of Chicago’s IGM Economics Experts panel especially compelling. According to their survey of 39 professional economists, 98 percent agree that public sector plans understate pension liabilities and costs by using high discount rates.

Here’s the question as stated:

Question A: By discounting pension liabilities at high interest rates under government accounting standards, many U.S. state and local governments understate their pension liabilities and the costs of providing pensions to public-sector workers.

The response:

49 percent strongly agree

49 percent agree

Who was surveyed?

39 economists – from across the field –  including Richard Thaler (Chicago), Jose Scheinkman (Princeton), Robert Hall (Stanford), Austen Goolsbee (Chicago, and former advisor to President Obama), Barry Eichengreen (Berkeley), Claudia Goldin (Harvard), Alberto Alesina (Harvard) and Daron Acemoglu (MIT).

You can check out who was surveyed and their academic credentials at the site.

This principle concerning the valuation of pension liabilities is not very controversial (or even interesting) for economists as M. Barton Waring has noted in, Pension Finance. It only remains controversial among actuaries and policymakers/pension plan analysts and advisors in this one corner of the world: U.S. public sector pension plans. It is partly a matter of professional training. Economists and actuaries are using different toolkits to evaluate plans. (There are notable exceptions, see, Gold and Bader). It is also a matter of the implications of what happens when governments use discount rates more in line with the guaranteed nature of public plans. Lowering discount rates increases the necessary contribution.

But if governments are serious about offering these plans as guaranteed to retirees, then they should be especially interested in valuing them accurately.

 

 

Opportunity for States to Protect Land Use

This post originally appeared at Market Urbanism, a blog about free market solutions to urban development challenges.

If this season’s political campaign rhetoric has demonstrated anything, it’s that governors love to take credit for job creation. What I haven’t seen any governor mention, though, is that there is huge opportunity for economic growth in relaxing zoning codes. Most obviously, allowing new opportunities for infill development will create construction jobs. More significantly though, in the long run, cities allow for faster economic growth (and job growth) than other locations.

The regulations that prevent cities from growing keep economic progress below what it otherwise would be. While researchers disagree over whether population density or total population is the variable that is most significantly correlated with economic growth, either way zoning plays an important role in holding back job growth, providing policymakers who are willing to deregulate with opportunities to improve their competitive standings next to other cities.

Political incentives stand in the way of this growth opportunity, however. Most zoning restrictions benefit a city’s current residents at the expense of potential residents. For example, minimum lot size requirements serve to raise the price of homes, preventing low-income people from moving into neighborhoods that current residents wish to keep exclusive. By changing this current order, policymakers risk losing the support of their homeowning constituents, and interest likely to be better organized than renters and potential city residents. Limitations on housing supply raise the value of existing homes, artificially raising the value of residents’ assets, which homeowners strongly fight to protect.

At the local level, policymakers are therefore incentivized to privilege homeowners’ interests at the expense of broad economic growth. At the state level however, the incentives may be different, such that economic growth may benefit state policymakers more than protecting home values. State policymakers have constituents who live in a wide variety of municipalities, some where land use restrictions are less binding in some than others. Additionally, homeowners will face greater challenges in organizing to support artificially propping up home values at the state level compared to the municipal level. State policymakers could therefore benefit themselves by setting limits on the how much municipalities are permitted to restrict development. Importantly, limiting the degree to which municipalities can restrict development does not force density; rather, it allows developers to provide more density if residents demand it.

California legislators considered a bill of this model earlier this year which would have limited cities’ abilities to set parking requirements in neighborhoods where transit is widely available. As Stephen explained, this bill came under criticism from both the American Planning Association and the Reason Foundation, both citing the need for local control of land use. However, this misses the key role of higher level governments within a federalism model.

After the Supreme Court decided in Kelo v. City of New London that municipalities have the power to use eminent domain for economic development, 44 states adopted amendments to protect their citizens from eminent domain for non-public use to various degrees. States did not have this type of reaction to Euclid v. Ambler, which set the precedent allowing cities to create zoning codes, but there is nothing stopping them from setting limits on cities’ zoning power now.  Federal and state governments have a role to set a floor of freedom for all of their residents, which gives states an opportunity to set limits on how much their municipalities can restrict land use.

Generational Unfairness in Pensions

California Governor Jerry Brown has led an effort to pass some changes to current state employee pension benefits that will affect new employees by raising their retirement age, capping their potential benefits, and requiring both new employees and some current workers to pay at least half of the cost of their pensions.

At Public Sector, Inc. Steve Greenhut explain that the savings from these changes won’t be felt for years to come:

It’s clear the reform would do little to touch current unfunded pension liabilities, estimated in California at as much as a half-trillion dollars, but will bring in reforms in decades after new hires start retiring.

The changes are projected to save state taxpayers between $40 billion and $60 billion. With these changes, California’s pension fund will still be underfunded by about $450 billion, calculated using the risk-free discount rate (pdf). If policymakers refuse to make further changes to the system, this remaining debt will require greater sacrifices from new workers and future taxpayers.

This unfunded liability represents generational unfairness. Today’s taxpayers are paying for current retirees who provided state services in the past. Likewise, the new reforms require sacrifices primarily from new workers. They will be receiving fewer benefits while paying into a system that benefits current workers and retirees.

States have unfunded pension liabilities due to management mistakes of the past. However, the costs of these mistakes are being felt today. Going forward policymakers should see the pain they impose on younger workers and make every effort not to repeat this pattern.

The longer that reforms are delayed, the greater inter-generational inequity grows. While California has the largest unfunded pension liability, it is not alone. Because Illinois has failed to take significant actions to address the state’s debt and pension liabilities, S&P downgraded its bond rating to A-plus with a negative outlook. This makes it S&P’s second-lowest-rated state above only California. Moody’s ranks Illinois’ bonds the lowest of all states. These ratings will be accompanied by higher bond yields on Illinois’ debt for future taxpayers. This will saddle them with more of their tax dollars going to debt service rather than current state services.

Policymakers have every incentive to engage in policies that benefit current voters at the expense of future voters because they want to receive credit for providing services that exceed their cost in the present. The only way to correct this tendency is for voters to demand that lawmakers do not force the cost of current programs onto those who do not have a voice in today’s elections.

Taxing People to Advocate for Taxing People

Back in April I blogged on a CDC program that seemed to be using taxpayer dollars to fund lobbying for more taxes. In his column this week, George Will picks up on the same program and offers a few more details. Here is a snippet:

In Cook County, Ill., according to an official report, recipients using some of a $16 million CDC grant “educated policymakers on link between SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages] and obesity, economic impact of an SSB tax, and importance of investing revenue into prevention.”

Along the way, Will also highlights some excellent work coauthored by my colleague Sherzod Abdukadirov. Leaving legality aside, Will asks, “is such “nutrition activism” effective?”

Not according to Michael L. Marlow, economics professor at California Polytechnic State University, and Sherzod Abdukadirov of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Writing in Regulation (“Can Behavioral Economics Combat Obesity?”), a quarterly publication of the libertarian Cato Institute, they powerfully question the assumptions underlying paternalistic policies such as using taxes to nudge individuals to make consumption choices that serve their real but unrecognized interests — e.g., drinking fewer SSBs.