Tag Archives: state budget

Governors’ Priorities in 2013: Medicaid Funding, Pension Reform

As the month of March draws to a close, most governors have, by this point, taken to the podiums of their respective states and outlined their priorities for the next legislative year in their State of the State addresses. Mike Maciag at Governing magazine painstakingly reviewed the transcripts of all 49 State of the State addresses delivered so far (Louisiana, for some reason, takes a leisurely approach to this tradition) and tallied the most popular initiatives in a helpful summary. While there were some small state trends in addressing hot-button social issues like climate change (7 governors), gay rights (7 governors), and marijuana decriminalization (2 states), the biggest areas of overlap from state governors concerned Medicaid spending and state pension obligations.

Medicaid Spending

Judging from their addresses, the most common concern facing governors this year is the expansion of state Medicaid financing prompted by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act last year. While the ACA originally required states to raise their eligibility standards to cover everyone below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, the Supreme Court overturned this requirement and left up to the states whether or not they wanted to participate in the expansion in exchange for federal funding or politely decline to partake.  The governors of a whopping 30 states referenced the Medicaid issue at least once during their speech. Some of the governors, like Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi, brought up the issue to explain why they made the decision to become one of the 14 states that decided not to participate in the expansion. Others took to defending their decision to participate in the expansion, like Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who outlined how his state’s participation would benefit fellow Buckeyes suffering from mental illness and addiction.

Neither the considerable amount of concern nor the markedly divergent positions of the governors are especially shocking. A recent Mercatus Research paper conducted by senior fellow Charles Blahous addresses the nebulous options facing state governments in their decision on whether to participate in the expansion. This decision is not one to make lightly: in 2011, state Medicaid spending accounted for almost 24 percent of all state budget expenditures and these costs are expected to rise by upwards of 150 percent in the next decade. The answer to whether a given state should opt in or opt out of the expansion is not a straightforward one and depends on the unique financial situations of each state. Participating in the Medicaid expansion may indeed make sense for Ohioans while at the same time being a terrible deal for Mississippi. However, what is optimal for an individual state may not be good for the country as a whole. Ohio’s decision to participate in the expansion may end up hurting residents of Mississippi and other states who forgo participating in the expansion because of the unintended effects of cost shifting among the federal and state governments. It is very difficult to project exactly who will be the winners or losers in the Medicaid expansion at this point in time, but is very likely that states will fall into one of either category.

Pensions

Another pressing concern for state governors is the health (or lack thereof) of their state pension systems. The governors of 20 states, including the man who brought us “Squeezy the Pension Python” himself, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, tackled the issue during their State of the State addresses. Among these states are a few to which Eileen has given testimony on this very issue within the past year.

In Montana, for instance, Gov. Steve Bullock promised a “detailed plan that will shore up [his state’s] retirement systems and do so without raising taxes.” While I was unable to find this plan on the governor’s website, two dueling reform proposals–one to amend the current defined benefit system, another to replace it with a defined contribution system–are currently duking it out in the Montana state legislature. While it is unclear which of the two proposals will make it onto the law books, let’s hope that the Montana Joint Select Committee on Pensions heeds Eileen’s suggestions from her testimony to them last month, and only makes changes to their pension system that are “based on an accurate accounting of the value of the benefits due to employees.”

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.

The Ravitch Volker report: State Budget Crisis is Real

The recession of 2008 pulled the mask off of state budget pathologies that had been identified as institutional weaknesses in the decades leading to the crisis.

The “new normal” for state and local governments does not look like the booming 1980s and 1990s but in fact is riddled with many fiscal challenges.  Revenues aren’t what they were before 2008 though they are expected to reach pre-recession levels in FY 2013. The Medicaid and employee benefits bill is rising. The stimulus pushed forward budgetary reforms. These are some of the findings of the Ravitch-Volker Report, an effort of the State Budget Crisis Task Force which assembled in 2010-2012 to diagnose the major problems facing six states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia.

Much of the analysis is non-controversial: Medicaid is eating up budgets, as are pensions costs and health care benefits.

Medicaid, currently at 24 percent of state spending, will continue to increase as enrollment, medical inflation and the increasing caseloads that come with higher unemployment increase costs. This is not a surprise. What is new is that the federal government is making it harder for cost-saving measure to be enacted, and “entrenched provider groups in each state resist reductions in Medicaid provider rates….”  I do not believe this is the intention of the authors of the report but the diagnosis of Medicaid’s future highlights the dysfunctional aspects of this federal-state pact which has led to the creation of special interests that benefit from inflating costs.

On the pension front the Ravitch-Volker report points to the the role discount rates have played in the pension funding problems facing the state and local governments, in particular in New Jersey. And they also note the reliance on budgetary gimmicks that may even result in a kind of budgetary “cynicism.” A point I have made in the past.

But the report also makes a few assumptions about the interplay of federal, state and local spending that I think could benefit from an expanded debate. The authors warn that cuts in federal discretionary spending will doom subsidiary governments. On the surface, that’s true. Cuts in aid mean less money in state coffers for education, transportation and other areas. But the larger question is what are the fiscal effects of grants-in-aid between governments? There is the public choice literature to consider on the role of fiscal illusion in finances. And further, does the current model of delivering these services actually work as intended?

Their recommendations are largely sound. Many of them have been made before: more transparent accounting, a tightening of rainy day fund rules (see our recent paper on Illinois), broad-based tax systems should replace narrow ones, the re-establishment of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR). Abolished in 1995 ACIR was concerned with evaluating the fiscal impact of federal policies in the states. Further the commission recommends the federal government work with the states to help control Medicaid costs, and the re-evaluation by states of their own local needs including municipal finances and infrastructure spending.

The report is timely, contains good information and brings many challenges to the fore. But this discussion can also benefit from a larger debate over the current federal-state-local spending model which dates largely to the middle of last century. This debate is not merely about how books are balanced but how citizens are governed in our federalist system. The Ravitch-Volker report is sober but cautious in this regard. The report sketches out the fiscal picture of the U.S. in broad strokes and offers general principles for states to follow and it is sure to create discussion among policymakers in the coming months.

 

 

 

 

 

Florida Senate Votes against Privatizing Prisons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pension News From Around the Country

In California:

LOS ANGELES — Gov. Jerry Brown offered a far-reaching proposal on Thursday to reduce the cost to government of public pension programs, calling for an increase in the retirement age for new employees, higher contributions from workers to their own pensions and the elimination of what he termed abuses that have allowed retirees to inflate their pensions far beyond their annual salaries.

In Kansas:

TOPEKA — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and officials of the state’s public pension system aren’t saying publicly whether they favor issuing bonds to help close a close a long-term funding gap.

In Massachusetts:

The state House of Representatives today unanimously approved a plan to tighten the state’s pension provisions and raise the age that lawmakers and public employees are eligible for retirement. The move follows passage of a similar plan by the Senate earlier this fall. Both plans would only affect future hires, not current employees or retirees.

The House version passed today would boost the retirement age from 55 to 57 and could ultimately save $6.4 billion over 30 years, House lawmakers estimate. The Senate version went farther, raising the minimum age for retirement to 60.

In Mississippi:

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A group charged with studying the long-term viability of the state pension system is expected to release a formal report in two weeks.

During a meeting Monday, study commission chairman George Schloegel said he thinks several changes may be needed to shore up the Public Employees Retirement System.

The Clarion-Ledger reports…lawmakers alone can make changes, and it’s unclear whether they will make any radical alterations.

In North Carolina:

North Carolina is one state that’s planning to use a high-tech solution to look into the future and the present. The state’s Department of State Treasurer announced Thursday, Oct. 27, it will implement customized analytics software to better protect pensions for 850,000 state and local government employees….According to SAS, the customized software suite North Carolina will be using includes risk and performance measurement models for fixed-income equity, private markets and hedge funds.

And, in Rhode Island:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The General Assembly Joint Finance Committees will resume discussion of pension overhaul legislation Tuesday morning with a hearing on parts of the proposal that deal with municipal-run pension plans….Mayors have said they want the ability to make changes similar to what is proposed for state-run plans, such as suspending cost-of-living adjustments.

(here is Emily with more on RI)

Here, again, is Jeff Miron’s estimate of the date at which each state’s debt-to-GDP ratio will exceed 90 percent (the value at which economists believe debt tends to begin to hamper economic growth).

 

Unlike the calculations that the states themselves use, Miron’s calculations use the more-realistic discount rate assumptions of Novy-Marx and Rauh.

(HT to the National Association of State Budget Officers for their extremely helpful “state budget press clips”)

Tightening Municipal Bankruptcy Laws

There have been 629 municipal bankruptcies in the US since 1937. Some of the most recent include: Vallejo California, Central Falls Rhode Island, Boise County Idaho, and as of last week, Harrisburg Pennsylvania.

As a result of these recent filings, municipal bankruptcy, or Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, has become an increasingly important topic in the policy community and a few states have taken action towards tightening up and/or clarifying their municipal bankruptcy laws.

Rhode Island passed legislation earlier this year that:

takes the decision to file for receivership out of the hands of the community and gives it to the state Department of Revenue. It also replaces the existing state budget review commission system, set up in the 1990s, with a new three-step process of increasing oversight

Just last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that changes how cities file for bankruptcy:

After the law takes effect in 90 days, municipalities in the most-populous state will have to submit to a neutral review of their finances, or demonstrate a fiscal emergency, before seeking Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in federal court.

Given that future municipal bankruptcies are imminent, legislative actions aimed at tightening up and clarifying the current bankruptcy laws may be beneficial. However, Chapter 9 should not be seen as the solution or as an easy way out of a tough situation. As Michael Viscount and Josh Klein rightly argue:

Chapter 9 is a tool for a municipality to restructure its finances in an orderly fashion — but it is not a substitute for political will, which is required to tackle the difficult fiscal problems surrounding us…. Municipal bankruptcy will not eliminate any of the hard choices that must be made to restructure governmental obligations successfully.

Waiting until a municipality is on the brink of bankruptcy is fiscally irresponsible. Politicians and policy makers need to stop waiting until it is too late and begin taking the necessary steps towards creating policy environments that promote fiscal stability.

 

 

 

Governor Christie’s pared down budget

The Star Ledger reports that Governor Christie, “took an axe” to the state’s budget and “slashed $900 million in a budget he blasted as ‘unconstitutional.'” Cuts were made to state aid to municipalities, college tuition aid, Medicaid and aid to suburban schools leaving $640 million in surplus. He also vetoed bills to tax millionaires for more school funding aid.

In an analysis of New Jersey‘s fiscal problems we found that these areas are some of the primary weaknesses in New Jersey’s budget. The school aid formula, guarded by the court since 1976, effectively prevents the legislature and Governor from making appropriations decisions. This result of the court’s involvement in school funding has been a fiscal and educational disaster for the state. Since the 1970s many changes in tax rates have been to the income tax in order to fund schools and provide aid to municipalities. Over thirty years later and there are few to no improvements in urban school districts. The price for New Jerseyans is one of the most progressive income taxes in the nation and a property tax crisis.

As for Aid to Distressed Cities this program highlights another long-running problem in New Jersey’s fiscal landscape. Several of its cities rely on state aid in lieu of property tax revenues because they have not recovered from long-running economic problems. The problem with state aid is that it masks the cost of spending to local residents,  subsidizing local inefficiencies and the continuance of failed approaches to local economic development.

Inefficiencies and poor performance are rampant in areas that have relied heavily on aid, notably the education system. What is needed is the kind of reform being discussed by some leaders in the state – both Republican and Democrat. Cities like Camden need to be able to try new approaches to schools. A new pragmatism among Democratic city leaders in other parts of the country shows a willingness to confront fiscal reality and ask: how much of our budget is being consumed by unsustainable benefits packages and how much is left over to  run the city? Atlanta, Georgia, Montgomery County, Maryland are two such recent examples.

Incentives Matter

Last year, California’s legislature adopted its state budget a record 100 days after its due date.

In the intervening months, California voters passed Proposition 25 which did two things: 1) it did away with the two-thirds supermajority requirement to pass the budget (retaining the two-thirds requirement to raise taxes) and 2) it stipulated that, in the event the budget is late, legislators would not be paid for any time worked between the budget’s due-date and its eventual passage.

Today is the due date for the budget.  They agreed to adopt one.

 

Does Progressive Taxation Make State Budgeting More Difficult?

Virtually every state reported growth in overall tax collections as well as in tax collections from two major sources: personal income tax and sales tax.

That is according to the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. Their new report examines preliminary tax data for the January-March quarter of 2011. In the median state, total tax revenue is up nearly 11 percent, with the two fastest-growing components being corporate income tax revenue (up 10 percent) and personal income tax revenue (up 14 percent).

It should not surprise that states reported the most growth in these two taxes: These are the most-progressive forms of taxation at the state level, so it stands to reason that these would be the most-responsive to changes in economic conditions. When the economy is growing, individuals and corporations make more money, are pushed into higher tax brackets, and fork over larger percentages of their higher incomes to the state. (Since many states fail to index their tax brackets for inflation, “bracket creep” forces many into higher brackets even though their real incomes–as measured by their purchasing power–are unchanged.)  

One might conclude from this data that progressive taxes like these are the panacea for state budget woes. They are not. Just as these types of taxes generate a revenue boom during good years, they also tend to lead to a bust during bad years. In fact, I’d argue that the states’ gradual shift away from flat sales taxes toward progressive income taxes helps explain why states seem to have gotten worse at revenue forecasting in recent years. The Wall Street Journal had an informative piece on this phenomenon a few weeks back. There is also a nice paper by Alison Felix of the Kansas City Fed examining the most-volatile sources of state tax revenue.  

To see if progressive taxation has anything to do with states’ current budget woes, I gathered data on 2010 state budget gaps from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. I used their figure “Total gap as a percent of FY2010 general fund” and then ran a simple regression, controlling for regional effects, to see whether reliance on different tax instruments might impact the size of a state’s budget gap. Using pre-recession (2007) data from the Census, I calculated the percentage of tax revenue each state typically obtains from each of six sources: personal income taxes, corporate income taxes, general sales taxes, selective sales taxes, licenses, and other taxes (using pre-recession data diminishes the chance of an “endogeneity” problem whereby the regression picks up the recession’s impact on both revenue shares and budget gaps).[1]

Among the six varieties of taxes, the share of revenue coming from two of them was statistically significantly related to the size of states’ 2010 budget gaps: the personal income tax share (significant at the 1 percent level) and the corporate income tax share (significant at the 10 percent level). Other factors being equal, a ten percentage point increase in a state’s reliance on personal income taxation increased the state’s budget gap by 3.7 percentage points (or 2.85 standard deviations). The partial regression plot shows the estimated effect. The horizontal axis depicts states’ share of taxes collected through the personal income tax, while the vertical axis shows states’ budget gaps as a share of general fund spending. The upward-sloping line indicates the positive relationship between reliance on personal income taxation and budget gap size:

Reliance on the corporate income tax seemed to have an even greater impact on the size of a state’s budget gap. Other factors being equal, a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s reliance on the corporate income tax tended to lead to an 8.7 percentage point increase in the size of a state’s budget gap (6.78 standard deviations). Here, the horizontal axis shows the share of tax revenue derived from the corporate income tax while the vertical axis again shows the budget gap. Notice the wider-dispersion of data points (lower level of statistical significance) and the steeper line, indicating a more-powerful effect:

These are relatively simple regressions. It’d be interesting to see if the same results hold with more-sophisticated anlyses. In sum: it appears that progressive taxation seems to be a recipe for rapid revenue growth when the economy is expanding (even tepidly). But it also seems to lead to larger budget gaps during recessions.


[1] Each of the tax shares sum to 100 percent. So if I included all six in the regression, it would be perfectly co-linear; I therefore dropped the “license share” from the regression.