Tag Archives: state governments

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.”

States Aim to Eliminate Corporate and Individual Income Taxes

Although the prospects of fundamental tax reform on the federal level continue to look bleak, the sprigs of beneficial tax proposals in states across the US are beginning to grow and gain political support. Perhaps motivated by the twin problems of tough budgeting options and mounting liability obligations that states face in this stubborn economy, the governors of several states have recommended a variety of tax reform proposals, many of which aim to lower or completely eliminate corporate and individual income taxes, which would increase state economic growth and hopefully improve the revenues that flow into state coffers along the way.

Here is a sampling of the proposals:

  • Nebraska: During his State of the State address last week, Gov. Dave Heineman outlined his vision of a reformed tax system that would be “modernized and transformed” to reflect the realities of his state’s current economic environment. His bold plan would completely eliminate the income tax and corporate income tax in Nebraska and shift to a sales tax as the state’s main revenue source. To do this, the governor proposes to eliminate approximately $2.8 billion dollars in sales tax exemptions for purchases as diverse as school lunches and visits to the laundromat. If the entire plan proves to be politically unpalatable, Heineman is prepared to settle for at least reducing these rates as a way to improve his state’s competitiveness.
  • North Carolina: Legislative leaders in the Tar Heel State have likewise been eying their individual and corporate income taxes as cumbersome impediments to economic growth and competitiveness that they’d like to jettison. State Senate leader Phil Berger made waves last week by announcing his coalition’s intentions to ax these taxes. In their place would be a higher sales tax, up from 6.75% to 8%, which would be free from the myriad exemptions that have clogged the revenue-generating abilities of the sales tax over the years.
  • Louisiana: In a similar vein, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has called for the elimination of the individual and corporate income taxes in his state. In a prepared statement given to the Times-Picayune, Jindal emphasized the need to simplify Louisiana’s currently complex tax system in order to “foster an environment where businesses want to invest and create good-paying jobs.” To ensure that the proposal is revenue neutral, Jindal proposes to raise sale taxes while keeping those rates as “low and flat” as possible.
  • Kansas: Emboldened by the previous legislative year’s successful income tax rate reduction and an overwhelmingly supportive legislature, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback laid out his plans to further lower the top Kansas state income tax rate from the current 4.9% to 3.5%. Eventually, Brownback dreams of completely abolishing the income tax. “Look out Texas,” he chided during last week’s State of the State address, “here comes Kansas!” Like the other states that are aiming to lower or remove state income taxes, Kansas would make up for the loss in revenue through an increased sales tax. Bonus points for Kansas: Brownback is also eying the Kansas mortgage interest tax deduction as the next to go, the benefits of which I discussed in my last post.

These plans for reform are as bold as they are novel; no state has legislatively eliminated state income taxes since resource-rich Alaska did so in 1980. It is interesting that the aforementioned reform leaders all referenced the uncertainty and complexity of their current state tax systems as the primary motivator for eliminating state income taxes. Seth Giertz and Jacob Feldman tackled this issue in their Mercatus Research paper, “The Economic Costs of Tax Policy Uncertainty,” last fall. The authors argued that complex tax systems that are laden with targeted deductions tend to concentrate benefits towards the politically-connected and therefore result in an inefficient tax system to the detriment of everyone within that system.

Additionally, moving to a sales tax model of revenue-generation may provide state governments with a more stable revenue source when compared to the previous regime based on personal and corporate income taxes. As Matt argued before, the progressive taxation of personal and corporate income is a particularly volatile source of revenue and tends to suddenly dry up in times of economic hardship. What’s more, a state’s reliance on corporate and personal income taxes as a primary source of revenue is associated with large state budget gaps, a constant concern for squeezed state finances.

If these governors are successful and they are able to move their states to a straightforward tax system based on a sales tax, they will likely see the economic growth and increased investment that they seek.

Keep an eye on these states in the following year: depending on the success of their reforms and tax policies, more states could be soon to follow.

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.

If Obamacare is Repealed, Maybe We Should Replace it With George McGovern’s Plan?

The editorial board in today’s Wall Street Journal eulogizes George McGovern. At the end, they point to a 1992 OpEd that McGovern wrote for the journal. It talks about the regulatory burdens he encountered after he gave up the trappings of public office to become an inn-keeper:

My own business perspective has been limited to that small hotel and restaurant in Stratford, Conn., with an especially difficult lease and a severe recession. But my business associates and I also lived with federal, state and local rules that were all passed with the objective of helping employees, protecting the environment, raising tax dollars for schools, protecting our customers from fire hazards, etc. While I never have doubted the worthiness of any of these goals, the concept that most often eludes legislators is: “Can we make consumers pay the higher prices for the increased operating costs that accompany public regulation and government reporting requirements with reams of red tape.” It is a simple concern that is nonetheless often ignored by legislators.

Scott Sumner also linked to it. But as Nick Gillespie points out in a must-read piece for Bloomberg, McGovern had another—in my view, far more libertarian—piece in the Journal in 2008. Arnold Kling picked up on it at the time. Here is McGovern in 2008:

 There’s no question, however, that delinquency and default rates are far too high. But some of this is due to bad investment decisions by real-estate speculators. These losses are not unlike the risks taken every day in the stock market.

…Health-care paternalism creates another problem that’s rarely mentioned: Many people can’t afford the gold-plated health plans that are the only options available in their states.

Buying health insurance on the Internet and across state lines, where less expensive plans may be available, is prohibited by many state insurance commissions. Despite being able to buy car or home insurance with a mouse click, some state governments require their approved plans for purchase or none at all. It’s as if states dictated that you had to buy a Mercedes or no car at all.

…Economic paternalism takes its newest form with the campaign against short-term small loans, commonly known as “payday lending.”

…Anguished at the fact that payday lending isn’t perfect, some people would outlaw the service entirely, or cap fees at such low levels that no lender will provide the service. Anyone who’s familiar with the law of unintended consequences should be able to guess what happens next.

Researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York went one step further and laid the data out: Payday lending bans simply push low-income borrowers into less pleasant options, including increased rates of bankruptcy. Net result: After a lending ban, the consumer has the same amount of debt but fewer ways to manage it.

 

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.

New Research on Dedicated Taxes

Earlier this week, George Crowley and Adam Hoffer published new Mercatus research on dedicated tax revenues in the states. The practice of dedicating tax revenues to a specific purpose is popular among both politicians and voters. Dedicating new taxes to a specific program gives the illusion of fiscal discipline by making it appear as if the new revenue is not contributing to the overall growth of government.

As an example, policymakers may implement a cigarette tax dedicated to funding public health programs. On the surface, such a program appears to achieve many laudable goals. It could curb smoking rates and improve health without a big increase in the size of government or increasing the tax burden for nonsmokers.

As Crowley and Hoffer demonstrate, though, dedicated tax revenues don’t actually go to the programs they are said to support. Say that a policymaker implements a 1% tax on cars to fund bike lanes and that this tax generates $1 million in revenue. Without the tax, the state would have spent $5 million on bike lanes. Without violating any budget laws, the state could spend, say, $5.1 million on bike lanes under the new tax and then spend the rest of the “dedicated” revenue on whatever programs they like.

The practice is perhaps easier to see at the household level. Governments can give low-income food stamps, as a subsidy “dedicated” to food. If a household gets $100 in food stamps per week, it’s easy to sell the program as providing $100 of additional food per week. This is an inaccurate way to look at it though. Without the subsidy, the household will spend some money on food, say $80 on food per week. With the subsidy, they now spend an extra $20 on food and have $80 left over for other goods. At the state level and the household level, this effect takes place because money is fungible. Specific dollars cannot be dedicated to specific uses.

Crowley and Hoffer’s research is important because the revenue from dedicated taxes is difficult to follow. Policymakers can take advantage of this characteristic to mask the growth of state government. Crowley and Hoffer suggest that voters should seek to ban the practice of earmarking tax revenues for specific programs to make the growth of state governments more transparent.

When Taxpayer Dollars Are Used to Advocate for More…Taxpayer Dollars

Back in 2010, I noted that government spending can beget further spending. I cited research by Russell Sobel and George Crowley which shows that when the federal government transfers money to the states (as the stimulus bill did), the states tend to increase their own future taxes after the federal money goes away. They found that for every $1.00 the feds send to the states, states increase their own future taxes between $0.33 and $0.42.

Image by scottchan

It recently came to my attention, however, that little-noticed aspects of the 2009 Stimulus and the 2010 Affordable Care Act go even further: they fund advocacy on behalf of further state and local government spending.

Here is the story:

The stimulus bill set aside $650 million for the Department of Health and Human Services to spend on “evidence-based clinical and community-based prevention and wellness strategies.” The idea was to encourage state and local governments to adopt policies that get people to stop smoking, to eat better, and to get exercise.

HHS used the money to create a new grant program called Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW). According to the CPPW website, it features “a strong emphasis on policy and environmental change at both the state and local levels.” (emphasis added).

Grants can go to local governments or to non-profits. You can see a list of approved grantee strategies here. Many of the strategies seem to be regulatory in scope (e.g. media and advertising bans for cigarettes, bans on branded promotional items, etc.). A number are also focused on getting state and local governments to spend more money. For example, they suggest efforts to get money for “hard-hitting counter-advertising” against tobacco. Or for “safe, attractive accessible places for activity” such as “recreation facilities, [and] enhance[d] bicycling and walking infrastructure.” They also call for “Reduced price[s] for park/facility use” (which, of course, means increased taxpayer support).

Interestingly, the Affordable Care Act doubled down on these activities. “Phase Two Funding” for CPPW was buried in the ACA.

It seems more than a little unseemly to have federal taxpayers bankroll an advocacy campaign like this. How would progressives feel if federal tax dollars were spent on a campaign to get state governments to cut taxes and regulations? Or how about a taxpayer-financed campaign to promote awareness of the Economic Freedom of the World index or the Freedom in the 50 States Index? Studies suggest, by the way, that economic freedom is associated with improved health outcomes (see Exhibit 1.16 of the EFW on p. 24). So maybe such a campaign would qualify for a grant under the program?

Puerto Rico: What real reform looks like

As the Republican primary drags on, the candidates will face primaries in the U.S. island territories in the coming weeks. In Puerto Rico, 23 delegates are at stake. While Puerto Rico often doesn’t receive much coverage in U.S. news outlets, the case of government reform there provides a valuable case study that American governors seeking to reduce the size of state governments should note. Since taking office in 2009, Governor Luis Fortuño has led the territory in reducing the number of employees by nearly 16 percent.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

While Puerto Rico has been hit hard by the economic recession and struggles with a current unemployment rate of 16 percent, Fortuño has made the difficult decisions necessary to preserve the territory’s ability to borrow money and to resume on-time payments to government suppliers and employees. In this Reason TV video, he explains that he had to borrow to meet payroll his first month in office, but succeeded in bringing its bond rating back from the brink of junk status.

In his work with government streamlining efforts in Puerto Rico, Mercatus’ Maurice McTigue stressed the importance of of shrinking the size of government relative to the economy. Any elected official can attest that the process of achieving these changing growth rates is painful, but Fortuño is in the process of leading just that sort of change:

Source: Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico

The lesson to draw from Puerto Rico is that an important reason to avoid unsustainable levels of government spending is to avoid the pain of cutbacks once a government gets to a point where spending cuts are no longer an option. In March, 2011, Standard & Poor’s raised Puerto Rico’s bond rating for the first time in 28 years, marking an objective change in confidence regarding the island’s economic prospects.

Michael Greve on American federalism and pensions

In a recent series of blog posts (h/t Arnold Kling), Michael Greve of AEI discusses the parallels between current American federalism and the trajectory that Argentina followed last century. Essentially, decades of “cooperative federalism” and trillions in transfer payments from the federal government to the states has put us on the course of ruin. This long-running arrangement has set the stage for the $4.5 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities owed to public workers, Obamacare, and ultimately an Argentinian future.

States rely on federal spending to implement the federal government’s policy agenda – most notably in the Medicaid program. Greve makes a provocative comparison: Medicaid is a “fiscal pact” similar to the arrangements between Argentina’s federal and state governments.

Federal transfers come with fiscal illusion. There is the incentive to overspend on the state level. And indeed we have seen the greatest growth in government on the state and local level since the post World War II period.

When states end up in trouble they can reasonably expect a bailout from the feds (ARRA is not the first bailout, nor is it likely to be the last). But what happens when both parties are broke?  Might pension liabilities accruing in the states be filled in with a soft bailout (e.g. an education spending package which can be applied to pay for benefits).  Alternatively, we might see an Argentinian-inspired solution: roll the pension obligations of troubled states into a federal corporation. In Argentina’s experience the federal pension corporation found itself with obligations several times larger than projected leading to a devaluation of the payout to retirees.

This is just one potential scenario. But, Greve’s main point is well taken. For reformers (of all ideological persuasions) who insist block grants will restore federalism‘s balance of power and fiscal discipline, think again. “Devolution” was much talked about in the 1990s as a means of restoring federalism but as implemented, it did nothing of the sort. The transfers keep coming just in different forms. Greve’s (Buchanan-based analysis) concludes it is not that cooperative federalism is broken, it has never been tried. 

Pension costs rising in local governments

Long Island villages are contending with increasing contributions to the state pension system. They expect to be billed $1.2 billion this fiscal year for school district employees, public workers, police and firefighters. Maryland counties can expect to begin footing part of the pension tab for teachers in a cost-sharing plan put forth by Governor O’Malley. And Rhode Island municipalities are asking the governor for increased state aid to fill their pension shortfalls and budget deficits.

What is worth noting in all of these cases is how this funding crisis highlights both the importance of accurate accounting, and the fiscal relationship between the state and local governments. Where localities participate in the state plan but do no make annual contributions (as in Maryland), there is a tendency for fiscal illusion to take over. The plans seem inexpensive and thus counties may end up expanding other parts of the county budget. Billing local governments for their portion of the pension tab makes for good fiscal discipline and transparency.

In the case of Long Island, the costs are already shared between the state and local governments. Rhode Island municipalities participate in the state run plan and in many cases operate their own local plans. Here the problem is the same as it is across the country – pension promises have been undervalued and thus underfunded. Costs are rising fast. State and local governments are going to be sharing in the growing burden in the form of higher taxes, service cuts and/or increased debt. Pension plans will be reformed and restructured. But the first step must be an accurate accounting as we found in our recent research on New Jersey.

In New Jersey pension costs are shared between the local and state governments. As with all plans the costs are obscured for the purposes of accounting leaving a good portion of the mounting expense off the books. Accounting choices that push costs forward or hide them altogether have turned pension funding into a looming nightmare for city governments, public sector workers and taxpayers across the country.