Tag Archives: Virginia

WMATA’s failures are institutional, not personal

Chris Barnes who writes the DC blog FixWMATA  is supporting a petition to replace the Board of Directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Frustration with the transit agency is growing among Washington-area residents as ongoing system repairs have made the system’s weekend service increasingly unusable. The situation has led to the birth of multiple blogs documenting WMATA’s failures. As an intern in DC from the Czech Republic recently summed up the situation, “Metro is both terrible and expensive.”

While the need for reforms at WMATA is clear, replacing the Board of Directors is unlikely to lead to significant improvements in the system. Rather, WMATA’s problems are institutional, and new actors facing the same incentives as the current WMATA Board are unlikely to produce better results. Some of the institutions preventing a Metro of reasonable quality and cost include:

1) Union work rules. Stephen Smith, my co-blogger at Market Urbanism, has done an excellent job of explaining how union work rules make transit needlessly expensive. One of the biggest culprits is requiring shifts to be at least eight hours and preventing the hiring of part-time workers. WMATA rationally runs trains and buses more often during morning and evening rush hours, but it is not permitted to staff these time periods at levels above mid-day staffing because of the eight-hour shift requirement. Combined with the above-market wages and benefits that WMATA employees make, these bloated employee costs prevent WMATA from achieving a higher farebox recovery rate and having more resources to dedicate to needed capital improvements.

2) Intergovernmental transfers. Over half of WMATA’s current capital improvement budget comes from the federal government, meaning that while the benefits of the system are narrowly bestowed on riders, a large share of the capital improvement costs are spread across U.S. taxpayers. This large dispersal of costs permits much more expensive transit than would be tolerated if all funding came from the localities that benefit from the system. Furthermore, with funds coming from the District, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government, the flypaper effect comes into play. This means that a $100 million infusion from the federal government to WMATA will not reduce the cost born by local taxpayers by $100 million; rather, total spending on the project will increase with grants from higher level of government. Absent incentives to spend this money well, WMATA demonstrates that high levels of federal funding will not necessarily result efficiently carried out capital improvements.

At Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy provides a comparison of transit construction costs across countries, and finds that U.S. construction costs are exorbitant. The reasons for these cost disparities are many and not well-understood. One reason for high costs in the U.S., though, may be that the prevalence of  federal funding comes with the strings of costly federal regulations.

3) Accountability. While all U.S. transit systems suffer inefficiencies from intergovernmental transfers and union work rules, DC’s Metro has a unique governance structure that seems to produce particularly bad and costly service. WMATA has the blessing and the curse of being multijurisdictional. On the one hand, the Washington region is not plagued with the agency turf wars that New York City transit sees. Several of the system’s rail lines run through Virginia, DC, and Maryland, providing many infrastructure efficiencies and service improvements over requiring transfers between jurisdictions.

Despite these opportunities to provide improved service at a lower cost, WMATA’s lack of jurisdictional control seems to do more harm than good. No politician can take full credit for running WMATA efficiently, so none prioritize the agency’s performance. It’s a tragedy of the political commons.

Josh Barro has recommended directly electing the Board of Directors of WMATA to create elected officials with an incentive to improve service. This institutional change would be more likely to improve outcomes than replacing the current Board with new members who would face the same incentives. Clearly, WMATA’s Board of Directors is failing in its job to oversee quality and cost-effective transit for the region; however, replacing the board members without changing the institutions that they work under will not likely improve outcomes. Intergovernmental transfers and union work rules limit transit efficiency across the country, but WMATA’s interjurisdictional status exacerbates inefficiencies and waste.

You tell me it’s the institution…

When scandals erupt, the human tendency is to look for some nefarious person wearing a black hat and blame them. However psychologically satisfying this may be, it is not particularly helpful. It offers no constructive solution to avoid future problems, other than to be “ever-vigilant” against bad behavior.

In contrast, law professor Victor Fleischer’s take on the unfolding IRS scandal is a nice example of a more-useful reaction, one that focuses on the institutional factors that made the scandal likely to happen in the first place:

The root of the problem is poor institutional design, not a political conspiracy. Current law forces the I.R.S. to enforce a vague set of campaign finance laws that have next to nothing to do with raising revenue.

It is constructive to apply Fleischer’s approach to another unfolding scandal. In the past few weeks, the press has reported that the FBI is investigating Virginia Governor McDonnell for his ties to a major donor, Jonnie Williams. Williams, described by McDonnell as a close family friend, paid for the food at McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding reception and loaned the first family his fancy sports car for a day. In the last few years, the governor and the first lady seem to have given Williams’s company, Star Scientific, free promotion. For example, in August of 2011, McDonnell appeared at an event promoting Star Scientific at the Executive Mansion. And in June of 2011, the first lady flew to Florida to tout the company’s product, a dietary supplement.

The inquiry apparently began out of concern for the possibility of a quid pro quo: perhaps the governor and the first lady offered this free promotion in exchange for political and personal favors? For their part, the governor and first lady have maintained that it is their job is to promote Virginia businesses.

Indeed, the state legislature seems to think this is part of the governor’s job. Over the years, legislators have given the governor a host of tools to offer exclusive privileges to particular businesses. For example, the Governor’s Opportunity Fund “is a discretionary incentive available to the Governor to secure a business location or expansion project for Virginia.” There’s also the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund. This too gives grants “at the discretion of the Governor.” You can read about these and other programs at the “business incentives” section of the Virginia Economic Partnership website. There, you will see that privileges include subsidies, matching grants, in-kind donations such as training, corporate and individual income tax credits, sales and use tax exemptions, property tax exemptions, and various financing programs. (In the case of Star Scientific, the governor seems not to have availed himself of any of these programs. Instead, he and his wife seem to have simply talked favorably about the company, just as they frequently talk favorably about other Virginia businesses.)

Presumably legislatures give governors the authority to grant special favors to firms because they believe these favors benefit the state. But the evidence that targeted incentives lead to any sort of widespread prosperity is quite scant. And as my research has emphasized, privileges lead to a host of economic problems because they undermine competition, encourage wasteful privilege-seeking, and put politicians rather than consumers in charge of allocating capital and resources.

But the Virginia story illustrates another cost of privilege: it inevitably invites questions of impropriety. The fact is, it is very difficult to devise objective criteria for dispensing privileges to particular firms. So one doesn’t have to look very hard to find apparently subjective decisions: Was Solyndra awarded half a billion taxpayer dollars because it had a superior business model? Or was it given money because green energy is politically popular and the vice president wanted to host a ribbon-cutting ceremony there? Did the Administration offer trade protection to domestic solar panel makers because the Chinese were engaged in “unfair competition” or because domestic solar panel manufacturers are politically powerful and well-connected?

I don’t see how these questions could possibly be answered definitively. Instead of trying to pretend that they can be, we should change the institutions that inevitably give rise to charges of impropriety. We should stop presuming that an elected official’s job description includes the promotion of particular businesses. If we stop asking politicians to pick winners and losers, there will be no more scandals about whom they pick.

Full disclosure: A few years ago, Governor McDonnell appointed me to serve on Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists. Once a year I travel to Richmond and offer my opinion on the state’s economic and fiscal forecasts. I am not compensated for my participation.

Local control over transportation: good in principle but not being practiced

State and local governments know their transportation needs better than Washington D.C. But that doesn’t mean that state and local governments are necessarily more efficient or less prone to public choice problems when it comes to funding projects, and some of that is due to the intertwined funding streams that make up a transportation budget.

Emily Goff at The Heritage Foundation finds two such examples in the recent transportation bills passed in Virginia and Maryland.

Both Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley propose raising taxes to fund new transit projects. In Virginia the state will eliminate the gas tax and replace it with an increase in the sales tax. This is a move away from a user-based tax to a more general source of taxation, severing the connection between those who use the roads and those who pay. The gas tax is related to road use; sales taxes are barely related. There is a much greater chance of political diversion of sales tax revenues to subsidized transit projects: trolleys, trains and bike paths, rather than using revenues for road improvements.

Maryland reduces the gas tax by five cents to 18.5 cents per gallon and imposes a new wholesale tax on motor fuels.

How’s the money being spent? In Virginia 42 percent of the new sales tax revenues will go to mass transit with the rest going to highway maintenance. As Goff notes this means lower -income southwestern Virginians will subsidize transit for affluent northern Virginians every time they make a nonfood purchase.

As an example, consider Arlington’s $1 million dollar bus stop. Arlingtonians chipped in $200,000 and the rest came from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). It’s likely with a move to the sales tax, we’ll see more of this. And indeed, according to Arlington Now, there’s a plan for 24 more bus stops to compliment the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar, a light rail project that is the subject of a lively local debate.

Revenue diversions to big-ticket transit projects are also incentivized by the states trying to come up with enough money to secure federal grants for Metrorail extensions (Virginia’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport and Maryland’s Purple Line to New Carrolton).

Truly modernizing and improving roads and mass transit could be better achieved by following a few principles.

  • First, phase out federal transit grants which encourage states to pursue politically-influenced and costly projects that don’t always address commuters’ needs. (See the rapid bus versus light rail debate).
  • Secondly, Virginia and Maryland should move their revenue system back towards user-fees for road improvements. This is increasingly possible with technology and a Vehicle Miles Tax (VMT), which the GAO finds is “more equitable and efficient” than the gas tax.
  • And lastly, improve transit funding. One way this can be done is through increasing farebox recovery rates. The idea is to get transit fares in line with the rest of the world.

Interestingly, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo have built rail systems at a fraction of the cost of heavily-subsidized projects in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Stephen Smith, writing at Bloomberg, highlights that a big part of the problem in the U.S. are antiquated procurement laws that limit bidders on transit projects and push up costs. These legal restrictions amount to real money. French rail operator SNCF estimated it could cut $30 billion off of the proposed $68 billion California light rail project. California rejected the offer and is sticking with the pricier lead contractor.

 

 

 

 

Virginia’s transportation plan under the microscope

Last week Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell shared his plan to address the state’s transportation needs. The big news is that the Governor wants to eliminate Virginia’s gas tax of 17.5 cents/gallon. This revenue would be replaced with an increase in the state’s sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent. This along with a transfer of $812 million from the general fund, a $15 increase in the car registration fee, a $100 fee on alternative fuel vehicles and the promise of federal revenues should Congress pass legislation to tax online sales brings the total amount of revenue projected to fund Virginia’s transportation to $3.1 billion.

As the Tax Foundation points out, more than half of this relies on a transfer from the state’s general fund, and on Congressional legislation that has not yet passed.

Virginia plans to spend $4.9 billion on transportation. As currently structured, the gas tax only brings in $961 million. There are a few reasons why. First, Virginia hasn’t indexed the gas tax to inflation since 1986. It’s currently worth 40 cents on the dollar. In today’s dollars 17.5 cents is worth about 8 cents. Secondly, while there are more drivers in Virginia, cars are also more fuel efficient and more of those cars (91,000) are alternative fuel. In 2013, the gas tax isn’t bringing in the same amount of revenue as it once did.

But that doesn’t mean that switching from a user-based tax to a general tax isn’t problematic. Two concerns are transparency and fairness. Switching from (an imperfect) user-based fee to a broader tax breaks the link between those who use the roads and those who pay, shorting an important feedback mechanism. Another issue is fairness. Moving from a gas tax to a sales tax leads to cross-subsidization. Those who don’t drive pay for others’ road usage.

The proposal has received a fair amount of criticism with other approaches suggested. Randal O’Toole at Cato likes the idea of Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) which would track the number of miles driven via an EZ-Pass type technology billing the user directly for road usage. It would probably take at least a decade to fully implement. And, some have strong libertarian objections. Joseph Henchman at the Tax Foundation proposes a mix of indexing the gas tax to inflation, increased tolls, and levying a local transportation sales tax on NOVA drivers.

The plan opens up Virginia’s 2013 legislative session and is sure to receive a fair amount of discussion among legislators.

This Week in Economic Freedom

It’s been a promising week for supporters of freer markets as several states and municipalities have taken steps toward deregulation and consumer choice. Here’s a roundup of some new developments:

1. Washington state is making headlines by being the first state (and first place globally) to legalize recreational marijuana. This policy change comes after recent polls indicate that most Americans favor legalizing marijuana. Of course what remains to be seen  is how the federal government will respond to this change in state law. The U.S. Attorney General’s office has issued a letter stating that marijuana remains illegal under federal law in these states and under the Obama administration the office has aggressively prosecuted medical marijuana dispensaries that are legal under states’ laws.

2. In Michigan right to work legislation looks poised to pass. The change would make it legal for employers to pay workers who choose not to be union members. James Sherck explains the political calculus behind this potential policy change:

Republicans have large majorities in both houses of the state legislature. Until now, however, Governor Rick Snyder has insisted right to work was not on his agenda. But today he changed his tune and called for the legislature to pass the bill — Snyder’s support removes the last obstacle to right to work passing in Michigan.

How did this happen? For one, unions badly miscalculated. They tried to amend the state constitution to preemptively ban right to work and attempted to elevate union contracts above state law. Michigan voters roundly rejected the proposal, but the debate put the issue on the public’s agenda.

Unsurprisingly, Michigan unions strongly oppose this change and are currently rallying against this potential change.

3. In Washington, DC City Council took two steps toward greater economic freedom. On Tuesday, the DC Council passed legislation allowing Uber, a popular sedan service which customers use their cell phones to book, to continue operating in the city. The new legislation legalizes “digital dispatch” and permits this new type of service that fits between taxis and traditional car services. Uber still faces legal challenges in San Francisco, Boston, Toronto, New York, and Chicago. Also on Tuesday, DC joined its neighbors Maryland and Virginia with legal Sunday liquor sales. As is so often the case with regulation,  many liquor store owners supported the status quo of mandatory Sunday closings. Store owners testified that they appreciated the mandatory day off and worried that the policy change would allow competitors to cut into the profits of stores that choose to close on Sunday.

Eileen Norcross on News Channel 8 Capital Insider discussing Virginia and the fiscal cliff

Last week I appeared on NewsChannel 8’s Capital Insider to discuss how the fiscal cliff affects Virginia. There are several potential effects depending on what the final package looks like. Let’s assume the deductions for the Child Care Tax Credit, EITC, and capital depreciation go away. This means, according to The Pew Center, where the state’s tax code is linked to the federal (like Virginia) tax revenues will increase. That’s because removing income tax deductions increases Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) on the individual’s income tax filing (or on the corporation’s filing) thus the income on which the government may levy tax increases. According to fellow Mercatus scholar, Jason Fichtner, that could amount to millions of dollars for a state.

On the federal budget side of the equation,the $109 billion in potential reductions is now equally shared between defense and non-defense spending. Of concern is the extent to which the region’s economy is dependent on this for employment. Nearly 20 percent of the region’s economy is linked to federal spending. Two points: The cuts are reductions in the rate of growth in spending. For defense spending, they are relatively small cuts representing a return to 2007 spending levels as Veronique points out. So, these reductions not likely to bring about the major shakeup in the regional economy that some fear. Secondly, the fact that these cuts are causing worry is well-taken. It highlights the importance of diversification in an economy.

Where revenues, or GDP, or employment in a region is too closely tied to one industry, a very large and sudden change in that industry can spell trouble. An analogy: New Jersey’s and New York’s dependence on financial industry revenues via their income tax structure led to a revenue shock when the market crashed in 2008, as the New York Fed notes.

On transportation spending there are some good proposals on the table in the legislature and the executive. Some involve raising the gas tax (which hasn’t been increased since 1986), and others involve tolls. The best way to raise transportation revenues is via taxes or fees that are linked to those using the roads. Now is no time to start punching more holes in the tax code to give breaks to favored industries (even if they are making Academy-award quality films) or to encourage particular activities.

Virginia’s in a good starting position to handle what may be in store for the US over the coming years. Virginia has a relatively flat tax structure with low rates. It has a good regulatory environment. This is one reason why people and businesses have located here.

Keep the tax and regulatory rules fair and non-discriminatory and let the entrepreneurs discover the opportunities. Don’t develop an appetite for debt financing. A tax system  is meant to collect revenues and not engineer individual or corporate behavior. Today, Virginia beats all of its neighbors in terms of economic freedom by a long shot. The goal for Virginia policymakers: keep it this way.

Here’s the clip

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.

Tax Holidays in the Dog Days of August

In what has become a common practice in about a dozen and a half states, August is the month for the sales tax holiday. Whether the goal is to encourage consumer spending or ostensibly offer tax relief to families, the three-day holiday waives sales tax on certain purchases – typically school supplies and clothing. Here’s a chart listing the states and the once-a-year exemptions they offer.

What exactly do sales tax holidays accomplish? Some claims:

  • They save consumers money.
  • They increase consumer spending on both tax-free and taxed items. On net, the result is more revenue in what the National Retail Federation calls a “win/win/win” for consumers, retailers and governments.
  • A weekend tax break keeps spending in the local economy. According to Bloomberg BNA Ohio and Michigan first experimented with a tax holiday on cars in 1980. New York picked up the weekend tax holiday in 1997 to entice borough residents to keep their clothes shopping dollars in NYC rather than cross the border to New Jersey’s malls.
  • It is a way for politicians to make good on tax relief without making permanent changes to the code.
The Tax Foundation claims that tax holidays only shift consumer spending and any savings in tax may be offset by higher retail prices. In addition, the “gimmick-y” exemption leads to arbitrary decisions (e.g. backpacks are exempt but briefcases are not – see Virginia). Basically, the one-time break is a way for politicians to crow about tax relief while avoiding more substantive reforms to the code such as broadening the base and lowering the rate of tax.
A 2009 econometric study, The Fiscal Impact of Sales Tax Holidays, by Adam Cole of the University of Michigan finds that sales tax holidays induce “timing behavior” in consumers. There is a reduction in sales and use tax collections by 4.18 percent in the month of the tax holiday. Half of this reduction is attributed to consumers timing their purchases to coincide with the tax-free weekend. Though there is no evidence that this leads to a large substitution of purchases during the rest of the calendar year.
Cole raises two interesting issues for researchers to consider. Do tax holidays produce cross-jurisidictional shopping effects? Secondly, because of their short duration, do tax holidays allow retailers to evade taxes by attributing earlier sales to the holiday weekend?

Marwell and McGranahan (2010) provide another set of questions to consider for those who over-sell the benefits of back-to-school bargains for family budgets. In their working paper, “The Effect of Sales Tax Holidays on Household Consumption Patterns“, the authors ask: Who’s shopping and what are they buying? Their preliminary findings suggest it is primarily upper income households and they are mainly purchasing clothes.

On a purely anecdotal note, I calculate that if our family went shopping during Virginia’s August 3-5 tax holiday we would have saved about $9.00 on backpacks and school shoes. To avoid the back-t0-school crowds we purchased those items at Tysons Corner the weekend before. If that’s the premium for efficient mall shopping, we paid it gladly.

 

New Edition of Rich States, Poor States out this Week

The fifth edition of Rich States, Poor States  from the American Legislative Exchange Council is now available. Utah took the top spot in the ranking of states’ economic competitiveness, as it has every year the study has been produced. Utah excels in the ranking system because it is a right-to-work state, it has a flat personal income tax, and no estate tax, among other factors considered in the study.

The other states that round out the top ten for Economic Outlook include South Dakota, Virginia, Wyoming, North Dakota, Idaho, Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, and Georgia. On the bottom end of the ranking, the states with the worst Economic Outlook are Hawaii, Maine, Illinois, Vermont, and New York at number 50 for the fourth year in a row.

Several measures of economic competitiveness offer supporting evidence that these states have some of the worst policies for business including Mercatus’ Freedom in the 50 States and the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index.

The authors of Rich States, Poor States, Arthur Laffer, Stephen Moore, and Jonathan Williams demonstrate Tiebout Competition in action. They find a strong correlation between the states that have high Economic Outlook rankings with the states that are experiencing the highest population growth through domestic migration. Likewise, the states that experienced the largest losses due to out-migration include Ohio and New York, ranking 37th and 50th respectively.

The study draws attention to the role that unfunded pension liabilities play for states’ future competitiveness, as this debt will require difficult and unpopular policy decisions as current tax dollars have to be used to fund past promises. Laffer, Moore, and Williams draw a comparison between Wisconsin’s recent reforms that put it on a more sustainable path compared to its neighbor Illinois:

In stark contrast to Wisconsin’s successes, the story in Illinois is not so uplifting. Over the last 10 years, Illinois legislators have continuously ignored the pension burden in their state—so much so that Illinois has one of the worst pension systems in the nation, with an estimated unfunded liability ranging from $54 billion to $192 billion, depending on your actuarial assumptions. Furthermore, the official state estimates do not include the $17.8 billion in pension obligation bond payments that are owed. In addition, Illinois policymakers have spent beyond their means, borrowed money they don’t have, and made promises to public employee unions that they cannot fulfill. Not only did Illinois face significant unfunded pension liabilities, but also lawmakers had to confront large deficits and potential cuts to state programs.

While the policies that improve state economic competitiveness are clear, the path to achieving them is difficult after voters grow accustomed to programs that their states cannot afford. However the bitter medicine of reform is worthwhile, as we know that economic freedom is not only better for business, but evidence shows it also improves individuals’ well-being.