Tag Archives: Richard Wagner

Fixing municipal finances in Pennsylvania

Last week I was a panelist at the Keystone Conference on Business and Policy. The panel was titled Fixing Municipal Finances and myself and the other panelists explained the current state of municipal finances in Pennsylvania, how the municipalities got into their present situation, and what they can do to turn things around. I think it was a productive discussion. To get a sense of what was discussed my opening remarks are below.


Pennsylvania is the 6th most populous state in the US – just behind IL and in front of OH – and its population is growing.

PA population

But though Pennsylvania is growing, southern and western states are growing faster. According to the US census, from 2013 to 2014 seven of the ten fastest growing states were west of the Mississippi, and two of the remaining three were in the South (FL and SC). Only Washington D.C. at #5 was in the Northeast quadrant. Every state with the largest numeric increase was also in the west or the south. This is the latest evidence that the US population is shifting westward and southward, which has been a long term trend.

Urbanization is slowing down in the US as well. In 1950 only about 60% of the population lived in an urban area. In 2010 a little over 80% did. The 1 to 4 ratio appears to be close to the equilibrium, which means that city growth can no longer come at the expense of rural areas like it did throughout most of the 20th century.

urban, rural proportion

2012 census projections predict only 0.66% annual population growth for the US until 2043. The birth rate among white Americans is already below the replacement rate. Without immigration and the higher birth rates among recent immigrants the US population would be growing even slower, if not shrinking. This means that Pennsylvania cities that are losing population – Erie, Scranton, Altoona, Harrisburg and others – are going to have to attract residents from other cities in order to achieve any meaningful level of growth.

PA city populations

Fixing municipal finances ultimately means aligning costs with revenue. Thus a city that consistently runs a deficit has two options:

  1. Increase revenue
  2. Decrease costs

Municipalities must be vigilant in monitoring their costs since the revenue side is more difficult to control, much like with firms in the private sector. A city’s revenue base – taxpayers – is mobile. Taxpayers can leave if they feel like they are not getting value for their tax dollars, an issue that is largely endogenous to the city itself, or they can leave if another jurisdiction becomes relatively more attractive, which may be exogenous and out of the city’s control (e.g. air conditioning and the South, state policy, the decline of U.S. manufacturing/the economic growth of China, Japan, India, etc.). The aforementioned low natural population growth in the US precludes cities from increasing their tax base without significant levels of intercity migration.

What are the factors that affect location choice? Economist Ed Glaeser has stated that:

“In a service economy where transport costs are small and natural productive resources nearly irrelevant, weather and government stand as the features which should increasingly determine the location of people.” (Glaeser and Kohlhase (2004) p. 212.)

Pennsylvania’s weather is not the worst in the US, but it I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s the best either. The continued migration of people to the south and west reveal that many Americans like sunnier climates. And since PA municipalities cannot alter their weather, they will have to create an attractive fiscal and business environment in order to induce firms and residents to locate within their borders. Comparatively good government is a necessity for Pennsylvania municipalities that want to increase – or simply stabilize – their tax base. Local governments must also strictly monitor their costs, since mobile residents and firms who perceive that a government is being careless with their money can and will leave for greener – and sunnier – pastures.

Fixing municipal finances in Pennsylvania will involve more than just pension reform. Act 47 was passed by the general assembly in 1987 and created a framework for assisting distressed municipalities. Unfortunately, its effectiveness is questionable. Since 1987, 29 municipalities have been placed under Act 47, but only 10 have recovered and each took an average of 9.3 years to do so. Currently 19 municipalities are designated as distressed under Act 47 and 13 of the 19 are cities. Only one city has recovered in the history of Act 47 – the city of Nanticoke. The average duration of the municipalities currently under Act 47 is 16.5 years. The city of Aliquippa has been an Act 47 city since 1987 and is on its 6th recovery plan.

Act 47 bar graphAct 47 under pie chartAct 47 recovered pie chart

The majority of municipalities that have recovered from Act 47 status have been smaller boroughs (8 of 10). The average population of the recovered communities using the most recent data is 5,569 while the average population of the currently-under communities is 37,106. The population distribution for the under municipalities is skewed due to the presence of Pittsburgh, but even the median of the under cities is nearly double that of the recovered at 9,317 compared to 4,669.

Act 47 avg, med. population

This raises the question of whether Act 47 is an effective tool for dealing with larger municipalities that have comparatively larger problems and perhaps a more difficult time reaching a political/community consensus concerning what to do.

To attract new residents and increase revenue, local governments must give taxpayers/voters/residents a reason for choosing their city over the alternatives available. Economist Richard Wagner argues that governments are a lot like businesses. He states:

“In order to attract investors [residents, voters], politicians develop new programs and revise old programs in a continuing search to meet the competition, just as ordinary businesspeople do in ordinary commercial activity.” (American Federalism – How well does it support liberty? (2014))

Ultimately, local governments in Pennsylvania must provide exceptional long-term value for residents in order to make up for the place-specific amenities they lack. This is easier said than done, but I think it’s necessary to ensure the long-run solvency of Pennsylvania’s municipalities.

To Regulate or to Tax

It has now been a week since the Supreme Court handed down its long-awaited ruling on the ACA. From an individual liberty perspective, it was either a dark cloud with a silver lining or a dark cloud with a dark lining.

I am not a constitutional scholar (though like many Americans, I have spent the last week playing one on Facebook), so I’ll spare you my legal interpretation. But what can we say about the political economy of the decision?

For one thing, the decision highlights the fact that fiscal and regulatory policies can be substitutes for one another. As George Mason University economist Richard Wagner put it some 20 years ago, “a central principle of public finance is that any statute or regulation can be translated into a budgetary equivalent.”

For example, Congress might have passed the individual procreation mandate. It might have fined every childless couple $3,000, every couple with one child $2,000, every couple with two kids $1,000 and every couple with three or more kids $0. Congress, of course, didn’t do this. Instead, they went the fiscal route and created the per-child tax credit, the marginal incentives of which are identical to what I have just described (up to the first three kids).

Alternatively, Congress might have imposed a tax on employers equal to $12,100 for each employee not paid $7.25 an hour. Instead, they went the regulatory route and created the federal minimum wage, the marginal incentives of which are identical to such a tax.

In my paper with Noel Johnson and Steven Yamarik, we explore the inherent substitutability of fiscal and regulatory instruments. Specifically, we look at state behavior in the presence of fiscal limits. We are interested in whether politicians substitute into regulatory policy when fiscal rules bind their decisions (we find evidence that they do). The ACA ruling essentially gets at the opposite phenomenon: the Court has ensured that Congress’s regulatory hands are relatively more constrained. Does this mean that Congress will substitute into fiscal policy, using taxes, tax credits, and spending to address questions that they might have addressed with regulatory instruments? My guess would be: yes.


Balanced Budget Rules and Unintended Consequences

In my view this is one reason of many why a balanced budget amendment is not a workable path toward fiscal conservatism.

That is Tyler Cowen’s take on my paper with Noel Johnson and Steven Yamarik. I can certainly see why he might come to this conclusion.  We find that when Democratically-controlled states face a binding constraint on their ability to carry a deficit over from one year to the next, they may regulate more instead. A friend of mine calls this the “muffin-top” problem: belt-tightening can sometimes lead to unsightly bulging…elsewhere.  In spite of the muffin-top problem, I am actually still an advocate of a balanced budget amendment at the federal level.

Though I often marvel at the fiscal irresponsibility of state governments, I can’t help but feel that if the states and the federal government were in some sort of fiscal beauty contest, the states would easily come in 1st through 50th while the federal government would come in 51st.  Consider:

  • Collectively, state and local governments are in debt to the tune of about 2.6 trillion dollars, while the federal government has racked up nearly 4 times that amount.
  • The states have accumulated $9.9 trillion in unfunded obligations that will come due over the next several decades.  The Feds, meanwhile have accumulated 5 to 10 times this amount (depending on whether you agree with Medicare’s chief actuary that the current political path is highly unlikely).
  • Most states manage to balance their operating expenses (some gimmickry aside) on an annual or biannual basis. In contrast,
    for the last 80 years, the federal government’s norm has been to run an annual operating deficit (with deficits about 85 percent of the time).
  • When states do borrow, it is typically for long-term capital projects (again, some gimmickry aside).  So future generations are on the hook for bridges and buildings that they, too, will use. In contrast, the Feds don’t even pretend to borrow for future projects; much of what my daughter’s generation will pay for is my generation’s consumption.
  • When states encounter budgetary problems, they tend to deal with them by cutting spending rather than raising taxes.

All of this is somewhat surprising given the fact that, constitutionally, the states were given a blank check whereas the feds were not. As Madison put it in Federalist 45:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.

So why, given so much more (constitutional) power than the feds, do the states seem to manage their affairs more-responsibly? Tiebout competition and the lack of a central bank likely play a role. But I believe the fact that every state but Vermont has to balance its books each year must account for a large share of this relative fiscal probity.  As James Buchanan and Richard Wagner argued over 30 years ago, the ability to buy items for today’s generation while putting the tab on tomorrow’s generation creates a systematic bias in favor of irresponsible spending. In contrast, they argue:

The restoration of the balanced-budget rule will serve only to allow for a somewhat more conscious and careful weighting of benefits and costs. The rule will have the effect of bringing the real costs of public outlays to the awareness of decision makers; it will tend to dispel the illusory “something for nothing” aspects of fiscal choice.

I believe the evidence supports this claim.  David Primo (2003) and Mark Crain (2003) find that states with a strict balanced budget requirement tend to spend less than other states.  Shanna Rose (2006) finds that states with strict balanced budget requirements tend not to experience a political business cycle in which government spending rises just prior to an election and falls shortly thereafter. Bohn and Inman (1996) find that states with strict balanced budget requirements tend to have larger General Fund surpluses and larger rainy day funds.

In our paper we find that stricter balanced budget rules tend to constrain partisan fiscal outcomes.  The fact that they may lead to bulges in the regulatory state is, indeed, unfortunate.  But in my view, that suggests that we should also examine biases in the political economy of regulation and consider institutional reform to address those as well.  Perhaps there is need for a more-conscious weighing of the benefits and costs of regulation?  If belt-tightening leads to muffin-tops, maybe we need more than a balanced budget amendment?  Perhaps spanxs?