Tag Archives: Wisconsin

High-speed rail: is this year different?

Many U.S. cities are racing to develop high speed rail systems that shorten commute times and develop the economy for residents. These trains are able to reach speeds over 124 mph, sometimes even as high as 374 mph as in the case of Japan’s record-breaking trains. Despite this potential, American cities haven’t quite had the success of other countries. In 2009, the Obama administration awarded almost a billion dollars of stimulus money to Wisconsin to build a high-speed rail line connection between Milwaukee and Madison, and possibly to the Twin Cities, but that project was derailed. Now, the Trump administration has plans to support a high-speed rail project in Texas. Given so many failed attempts in the U.S., it’s fair to ask if this time is different. And if it is, will high-speed rail bring the benefits that proponents claim it to have?

The argument for building high-speed rail lines usually entails promises of faster trips, better connections between major cities, and economic growth as a result. It almost seems like a no-brainer – why would any city not want to pursue something like this? The answer, like with most public policy questions, depends on the costs, and whether the benefits actually realize.

In a forthcoming paper for the Mercatus Center, transportation scholar Kenneth Button explores these questions by studying the high-speed rail experiences of Spain, Japan, and China; the countries with the three largest systems (measured by network length). Although there are benefits to these rail systems, Button cautions against focusing too narrowly on them as models, primarily because what works in one area can’t necessarily be easily replicated in another.

Most major systems in other countries have been the result of large public investment and built with each area’s unique geography and political environment kept in mind. Taking their approaches and trying to apply them to American cities not only ignores how these factors can differ, but also how much costs can differ. For example, the average infrastructure unit price of high-speed rail in Europe is between $17 and $24 million per mile and the estimated cost for proposals in California is conservatively estimated at $35 million per mile.

The cost side of the equation is often overlooked, and more attention is given to the benefit side. Button explains that the main potential benefit – generating economic growth – doesn’t always live up to expectations. The realized growth effects are usually minimal, and sometimes even negative. Despite this, proponents of high-speed rail oversell them. The process of thinking through high-speed rail as a sound public investment is often short-lived.

The goal is to generate new economic activity, not merely replace or divert it from elsewhere. In Japan, for example, only six percent of the traffic on the Sanyo Shinkansen line was newly generated, while 55 percent came from other rail lines, 23 percent from air, and 16 percent from inter-city bus. In China, after the Nanguang and Guiguang lines began operating in 2014, a World Bank survey found that many of the passengers would have made the journey along these commutes through some other form of transportation if the high-speed rail option wasn’t there. The passengers who chose this new transport method surely benefited from shorter travel times, but this should not be confused with net growth across the economy.

Even if diverted away from other transport modes, the amount of high-speed rail traffic Japan and China have generated is commendable. Spain’s system, however, has not been as successful. Its network has only generated about 5 percent of Japan’s passenger volume. A line between Perpignan, France and Figueres, Spain that began services in 2009 severely fell short of projected traffic. Originally, it was expected to run 19,000 trains per year, but has only reached 800 trains by 2015.

There is also evidence that high speed rail systems poorly re-distribute activity geographically. This is especially concerning given the fact that projects are often sold on a promise of promoting regional equity and reducing congestion in over-heating areas. You can plan a track between well-developed and less-developed regions, but this does not guarantee that growth for both will follow. The Shinkansen system delivers much of Japan’s workforce to Tokyo, for example, but does not spread much employment away from the capital. In fact, faster growth happened where it was already expected, even before the high-speed rail was planned or built. Additionally, the Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansan line in particular has strengthened the relative economic position of Tokyo and Osaka while weakening those of cities not served.

Passenger volume and line access are not – and should not be – the only metrics of success. Academics have exhibited a fair amount of skepticism regarding high-speed rail’s ability to meet other objectives. When it comes to investment value, many cases have resulted in much lower returns than expected. A recent, extreme example of this is California’s bullet train that is 50 percent over its planned budget; not to mention being seven years behind in its building schedule.

The project in California has been deemed a lost cause by many, but other projects have gained more momentum in the past year. North American High Speed Rail Group has proposed a rail line between Rochester and the Twin Cities, and if it gets approval from city officials, it plans to finance entirely with private money. The main drawback of the project is that it would require the use of eminent domain to take the property of existing businesses that are in the way of the planned line path. Private companies trying to use eminent domain to get past a roadblock like this often do so claiming that it is for the “public benefit.” Given that many residents have resisted the North American High Speed Rail Group’s plans, trying to force the use of eminent domain would likely only destroy value; reallocating property from a higher-value to a lower-value use.

Past Mercatus research has found that using eminent domain powers for redevelopment purposes – i.e. by taking from one private company and giving to another – can cause the tax base to shrink as a result of decreases in private investment. Or in other words, when entrepreneurs see that the projects that they invest in could easily be taken if another business owner makes the case to city officials, it would in turn discourage future investors from moving into the same area. This ironically discourages development and the government’s revenues suffer as a result.

Florida’s Brightline might have found a way around this. Instead of trying to take the property of other businesses and homes in its way, the company has raised money to re-purpose existing tracks already between Miami and West Palm Beach. If implemented successfully, this will be the first privately run and operated rail service launched in the U.S. in over 100 years. And it doesn’t require using eminent domain or the use of taxpayer dollars to jump-start that, like any investment, has risk of being a failure; factors that reduce the cost side of the equation from the public’s perspective.

Which brings us back to the Houston-to-Dallas line that Trump appears to be getting behind. How does that plan stack up to these other projects? For one, it would require eminent domain to take from rural landowners in order to build a line that would primarily benefit city residents. Federal intervention would require picking a winner and loser at the offset. Additionally, there is no guarantee that building of the line would bring about the economic development that many proponents promise. Button’s new paper suggests that it’s fair to be skeptical.

I’m not making the argument that high-speed rail in America should be abandoned altogether. Progress in Florida demonstrates that maybe in the right conditions and with the right timing, it could be cost-effective. The authors of a 2013 study echo this by writing:

“In the end, HSR’s effect on economic and urban development can be characterized as analogous to a fertilizer’s effect on crop growth: it is one ingredient that could stimulate economic growth, but other ingredients must be present.”

For cities that can’t seem to mix up the right ingredients, they can look to other options for reaching the same goals. In fact, a review of the economic literature finds that investing in road infrastructure is a much better investment than other transportation methods like airports, railways, or ports. Or like I’ve discussed previously, being more welcoming to new technologies like driver-less cars has the potential to both reduce congestion and generate significant economic gains.

Can Democrats and Republicans Agree on Anything? Yes! (At least in principle)

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could look back one year from now and say that 2014 was the year in which Democrats and Republicans discovered substantial areas of ideological common ground? We’d laud them for putting aside their partisan prejudices, for simultaneously advancing economic freedom and social justice and for turning their collective backs on special interests in order to serve the common good.

With the parties so far apart on so many issues, you might think that no such common ground exists. But it does. It lies in the sugar beet fields of Florida and in the dairy farms of Wisconsin. This untrod common ground is U.S. farm policy and it is overripe for reform.

Valley Farm, West WrattingThat is me, writing at the US News Economic Intelligence blog.

I have a short new piece on farm policy called Ending Farm Subsidies: Unplowed Common Ground.

America’s best pension system? The case of Milwaukee

NPR reports that while many municipal and state governments’s pension systems are suffering from deep underfunding, there are some outliers. One such city is Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With a funding ratio of 90 percent, Milwaukee’s public employees’ plan would seem to have beaten the odds with a very simple (and laudable) strategy: fully fund the pension plan every year.

It is common sense. Make the full annual contribution and the plan can ensure that the benefits promised are available when retirement day arrives.

Except, thanks to government accounting guidance, it’s a little more complicated than that.

The problem is that the annual contribution the city is (prudently) making each year is calculated incorrectly. This flawed approach is why Detroit could claim a few short years ago that its plans were 100 percent funded. It is why New Jersey thought its plans were overfunded in the late 1990s.

Public plans calculate their liabilities – and thus the annual amount needed to contribute to the fund – based on how much they expect the assets to return. Milwaukee’s discount rate is 8.25%, recently lowered from 8.5%.

Unfortunately, if these liabilities are considered safe and guaranteed by the government, then they should valued as such. A better rate to use is the yield US Treasury bonds. In economist-speak: the value of liabilities and assets are independent. By way of analogy: Your monthly mortgage payment doesn’t change based on how much you think you may earn in your 401(K).

On a default-free, market valuation basis, Milwaukee’s pension plans is 40% funded and has a funding gap of $6.5 billion.

The good news – Milwaukee’s elected officials have funding discipline. They aren’t skipping, skimming, or torturing their contributions based on  the desire to avoid paying their bills. And this can be said of many other cities and states. Funding a pension shouldn’t be magic or entail lots of uncertainty for the sponsor or employee.

But that leads to the bad news. Even when governments are responsible managers, they’re being sunk by bad accounting. Public sector accounting assumptions (GASB 25) lead governments to miscalculate the bill for public sector pension contributions. Even when governments pay 100 percent of the recommended amount – as it is presently calculated – this amount is too little to fully fund pension promises.

Last week I posted the Tax Foundation’s map of what pension funding levels look like under market valuation. Almost all state plans are under the 50 percent funded level. That is, they are in far worse funding shape than their current accounts recognize.

Until plans de-link the value of the liability from the expected performance of plan assets, even the best -managed plans are going to be in danger of not having put aside enough to pay these promises. Even the best intentions cannot undo the effects of bad accounting assumptions.

 

 

How are the states doing with pension funded ratios?

The Tax Foundation has a new pension map. It shows the funding levels of plans in the states, based on a risk-free discount rate. The numbers were crunched by State Budget Solutions, using a yield on (notional) 15-year Treasury bonds of 3.2 percent.

They estimate that the overall funding gap in the states is $4.1 trillion, much larger than the $1.3 trillion typically reported when using the state’s own assumptions (or a discount rate of about 7.5 percent). According to this map, no state is anywhere near the general standard of 80 percent funded. Most states are hovering around the 30 to 40 percent funded ratio. The state with the lowest funded ratio is Illionis at 24%funded. Connecticut is next at 25% funded. The best funded are Wisconsin (57%) and North Carolina (54%) – better, but not great.

taxfoundation

 

 

 

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.

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.

Comparative study of state and local pension plans

The Wisconsin Legislative Council has released their  survey of state pensions for 2010. It is a comparative study of 87 state and local pension plans and contains some interesting statistics. The ratio of active employees to retired employees is falling. In 2010 the ratio is 1.87, down from a ratio of 2 in 2008. The number of retirees is growing at a faster rate than the number of active employees. This trend may explain a policy reversal. Between 2008 and 2010 plans began to increase the retirement age for participants as well as the number of years used to calculate the average final salary. Vesting periods – the minimum number of years an employee must work to qualify for benefits – are also increasing.

 

What’s the likely impact of Wisconsin’s change to collective bargaining?

Tom Curry of MSNBC has a piece exploring this question. And it is a good one. The literature shows there are alot of nuances in how public sector unions influence fiscal and budget outcomes.

Collective bargaining laws certainly led to rapid unionization. But, what are the effects of these laws on the governments’ books?

Analysis has shown collective bargaining laws have all kinds of impacts. In some cases, they raise spending on unionized activities, but not on overall spending. Earlier studies showed collective bargaining laws led to an increase in wages and employment for unionized workers. However,  O’Brien (1994) refining these earlier studies included a variable for the political activity of unions. He found, collective bargaining may be a pre-condition for unions’ ability to influence budgets, but it is not effective by itself. He finds it is the political activity of unions that is the significant variable affecting municipal spending in fire and police department budgets and that the effect is to increase overall employment.

A great question to consider is will the change in the legal institution of collective bargaining in Wisconsin result in the outcome imagined by reformers?  Collective baragining laws may have changed, but this doesn’t mean that the political influence of unions on public policy is going to suddenly wane. Public sector unions enjoy a degree of “institutional stability” lacking in the private sector which by contrast is subject to market forces.

Collective Bargaining reform and health care costs in Wisconsin

The Journal Sentinel reports that under a new restrictive collective bargaining law that only allow unions to negotiate over inflation-capped wages, local governments in Wisconsin may seek to replace the current health care benefit. WEA Trust has been in place for 40 years, created by the teachers’ union the plan currently ensures employees in two-thirds of the state’s school districts. The switch in some districts has been made for non-unionized employees. The effect of many districts switching to more cost-effective plans will force WEA Trust to compete with other providers according to one analyst.

WEA Trust claims it is named on one-third of collective bargaining agreements and is listed as the “standard bearer” meaning districts can switch to lower cost, equivalent plans.

Brown Deer school district began using a different carrier in July and has saved the district $170,000 or the equivalent of  “at least two teachers”.