March 27, 2015

New Kansas City Rideshare Rules Need a Rethink

Kansas City has proposed new for-hire vehicle regulations that are designed to allow ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft (also known as Transportation Network Companies [TNCs]) to operate. Uber has cried foul over the new rules and threatened to pull out of the Kansas City area altogether. Lyft has expressed guarded optimism. The city holds that revised regulations are fair and designed to protect the public.

The draft ordinance allows TNCs to apply to operate, free of charge, in Kansas City. Drivers for the TNCs must have insurance, pay a $250 annual permit fee, a $44 inspection fee, and get the medical permission to drive. If the TNC agrees to pay $10,000 to the city, individual drivers need only pay $150 annually, and they do not have to pay an inspection fee if they can provide proof of a state inspection.

Paying $294 to drive for Uber or Lyft may not sound like a lot, but the majority of ridesharing partners drive less than 15 hours a week. The higher the permit costs and ancillary requirements, the fewer drivers will be available. One might ask why, if Kansas City permits the overarching ridesharing company (who is required to perform background checks and carry insurance), the individual drivers need city permits at all? At a hearing on possible state regulation of TNCs, a representative from Kansas City’s Regulated Industries Division gave an answer to that question. The representative stated that even though the city could enforce existing safety laws it could take considerable time and effort. It is more effective for the city to be able to pull a driver permit at will. The representative worried that without the permits, the city “won’t have anything to regulate.”

TNCs aside, the proposed taxi regulatory changes are completely disappointing. Taxi permits are still capped at 500 (applicants must have at least 10 cabs to apply). Prices are still regulated, private bus routes are still illegal, and apparently Kansas City is still protecting customers from drivers wearing jogging suits. How long do Kansas City officials think that highly regulated segment of the market will last in competition with (even hampered) TNCs?

The horror!

The horror!

While Kansas City may be changing the name of its taxi code to “for hire vehicle code,” they are a long way from a holistic, safety-driven approach to transportation regulation. Control is still paramount for city officials, and balkanized market controls pervade the code. If officials go forward with changes as they are, they will likely cause instability and a need for further changes in the future.

Finally Some Agreement: Get Corporations Off the Dole

These days it seems like our political discourse has become more polarized. However, there are some issues we all can agree on. Corporate welfare, the practice of subsidizing big business at the expense of everyone else, is one of those issues. This week, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) published a piece blasting big business for accepting generous corporate welfare packages.

aFrom the release:

Boeing, a top recipient of federal grants, tax credits, loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance, received more state and local subsidy money than any other company. In 2013, Boeing got the largest tax break awarded to a single company in any state’s history: $8.7 billion, an enticement for the company to build its 777X plane in Washington state. The company told state lawmakers it would pursue other options if it didn’t receive a sweet deal from the Legislature, along with concessions from workers.

My colleagues at the Show-Me Institute have written about corporate welfare packages directed at Boeing before. See Exhibit B:

With free-market think tanks and government unions both critical of corporate welfare, it’s surprising that the states haven’t done a better job of addressing issues like TIFs, tax credits, tax abatements, enterprise zones, public stadium funding, et cetera.

Depending on who you ask, Missouri is one of the top states in corporate welfare. I hope we can all agree: This needs to change.

March 26, 2015

Charter Schools: From B to A

Missouri has made significant gains in its use of charter schools as educational options. Recently, the state earned a B grade on a charter school report card, ranking 12th strongest out of 43 charter laws. By comparison, Missouri’s charter law is better overall than many other states, but the demand for charter schools still outweighs the supply.

charter school rankings

According to the guide, most schools reported waiting lists of nearly 300 students each. The table below shows how many students transferred out of both charter schools and public schools during the 2013-14 school year. The low percentage of students transferring out of charters is an indication that waiting lists remain populated.

 

Students Transferring Out of Public and Charter Schools
  Total Enrollment Transferred Out Percentage
Kansas City Public Schools 15,627 2,441 16%
St. Louis Public Schools 25,200 8,070 32%
Kansas City Charter Schools 10,159 587 6%
St. Louis Charter Schools 9,219 444 5%

 

The availability of seats is affected by the number of new charter schools that open. Currently, Missouri charter schools do not receive any money for school facilities. In order for Missouri to become a grade-A charter school state, shifting some public funds is just one helpful reform.

There are other areas where Missouri can show improvement. For example, the charter law could be expanded to allow charters to more easily open in accredited and provisionally accredited districts.

B’s may be “above average,” which is better than where Missouri usually finds itself, but the Show-Me State is capable of much more.

Is School Consolidation an Issue of Local Control?

Money

Which Missouri school district spends the most money per pupil? If you guessed the Clayton School District, you’d be wrong. Clayton ranks sixth. Brentwood? Wrong again. Brentwood ranks 14th. At nearly $26,000 per pupil, the highest-spending district in the state is Gorin R-III; enrollment 19. If this shocks you, it shouldn’t. Eight of the 10 highest-spending districts per pupil are small districts with fewer than 100 students. In all, Missouri has 62 districts with fewer than 100 students.

Whereas larger districts often benefit from economies of scale—fixed administrative costs can be spread out over a large student body—small school districts do not. This naturally leads to higher costs per pupil; costs that many of these small districts could not bear were it not for additional state support for small school districts.

This is exactly the reason for House Bill 1292. Based, in part, on school consolidation in Arkansas, House Bill 1292 calls for the consolidation of school districts with an enrollment of less than 350 students. The Arkansas consolidation law came from a 2003-04 special session specifically targeted at fixing the state’s education funding system. Consolidation of small districts was seen as a way to save money on administrative costs.

The idea of school consolidation is sure to cause some arguments in the state capitol. Indeed, some believe it is an attack on local control of schools. However, when roughly 45 percent of funding comes from the state, as it does for the average district with fewer than 350 students, there may be a strong argument that the state has a considerable interest in the financial well-being of Missouri’s small school districts.

 

Rank District Enrollment Current Expenditure Per Average Daily Attendance
1 GORIN R-III 19 $25,931.71
2 CRAIG R-III 66 $21,812.23
3 MALTA BEND R-V 74 $19,355.81
4 BRECKENRIDGE R-I 72 $19,133.25
5 LESTERVILLE R-IV 250 $17,406.10
6 CLAYTON 2,587 $17,394.30
7 NORTH DAVIESS R-III 70 $16,764.86
8 CAINSVILLE R-I 88 $16,510.60
9 COWGILL R-VI 25 $16,483.03
10 BOSWORTH R-V 80 $16,135.35

 

Low Alcohol Regulations Benefit Missouri Business

photo by Caitlin Hartsell

photo by Caitlin Hartsell

Over the weekend, I visited a whiskey distillery, StilL 630, in downtown Saint Louis. The owner and operator of the company talked about why he chose to set up in the city. Missouri’s reasonable alcohol regulations were one factor that made his business possible. In Missouri, unlike many other states, a brewer or distiller of any size can produce, sell, and distribute their own product.

The ability of a company to sell and distribute its own product seems like common sense, but that right is under attack in neighboring states. For example, just last Friday, Kentucky enacted a law that bans breweries from distributing their own products. This law, which legally protects three-tiered beer sales, was a blatant attempt to protect independent alcohol distributors and may force companies like Anheuser-Busch to sell its Kentucky distributors. Missouri has flirted with these types of regulations in the last couple years. As Director of Development (and former Policy Analyst) David Stokes wrote in 2013 regarding SB 412:

I recognize that the rules for alcohol distribution have been in place for a long time, but that is not a justification in 2013 for new rules that prevent a maker of alcohol from simply having an ownership interest in a distributor of alcohol. . . . I can imagine no market failure or public good problem that this proposed law would address. The point here seems to be the preservation of existing distributorships and the limiting of competition. . . . Simply put, the government should not mandate the use of a middleman.

Missouri’s reasonable alcohol regulations promote small-business creation, helps large companies operate efficiently, and can ultimately benefit the consumer. Missouri should hold onto that advantage and resist any temptation to move in the direction of Kentucky’s legally enforced three-tiered system.

March 25, 2015

Restoring Accountability and Transparency—Four Quick Points on SB 549

After several posts directed at the labor reforms included in SB 549, it might be useful to summarize what the bill would do. SB 549 is aimed at increasing accountability and transparency in government labor relations. If passed, the bill would:

  • Require a union that seeks to represent public employees as their exclusive representative to stand for re-election by those employees every two years. Existing law often prevents public employees from having a say in who represents them. These elections would ensure public employees have a voice.
  • Require collective bargaining sessions to be held in open sessions covered by the Sunshine Law. Due to a legal loophole, such meetings often are held behind closed doors.
  • Require government unions to disclose financial information in an annual filing. These filings would be similar to the filings traditional private-sector unions already have to make.
  • Limit the term of government collective bargaining agreements to two years, rendering evergreen clauses unenforceable.

All four of these are modest, yet important reforms.

Just a Bill

Are Things Looking Up in Kansas?

Ulysses_grant_001There is an old story from the Civil War that takes place after the first day of the Battle of Shiloh. The Union Army of the Tennessee under General Ulysses S. Grant had been surprised by Confederate forces and had been pushed back to the Tennessee River. That evening, Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman remarked to General Grant, “Well Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant replied, “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow though.” With the assistance of Union reinforcements that evening, that’s exactly what they did.

Now, the economic border war is not nearly as serious as actual combat between two opposing armies, but like Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, opponents of the tax cuts in Kansas are eager to declare a complete victory. The truth is that it appears Kansas just received some reinforcements, this time from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

1024px-Pgt_beauregardAccording to the BLS, Kansas private-sector job growth in 2014 surpassed that of Missouri (1.87 percent vs. 1.16 percent). Also, earnings in Kansas have grown nearly five times the rate that they have in Missouri (2.98 percent vs .59 percent). Does this mean we, as tax cut proponents, should declare victory? No. The next couple of months’ job or wage figures could change how the two states stack up. Overall, I think we just need more time to determine the tax cut’s effects. I definitely wouldn’t go as far as to say that these tax cuts are leading Kansas toward a disaster of biblical proportions.

As I’ve said many times, tax cuts are not everything. There are many factors that influence how an economy performs. However, with that being said, taxes do matter and income taxes in particular are harmful to economic performance. I hope these latest figures can give opponents a moment of pause before writing Kansas’ tax cut obituary.

March 24, 2015

Don’t Let Transportation Development Districts Charge Fuel Taxes

A new bill in the Missouri Legislature (HB 1362) would allow transportation development districts (TDDs) to implement fuel taxes along with sales and property taxes. This is a bad idea because TDDs are only partially democratic, not transparent, and very often do not spend their resources on roadwork.

Fuel taxes can be an effective way of paying for roads and bridges in Missouri. As we have argued many times before, fuel taxes tie the act of using roads with paying for the upkeep of the roads. We have even written on how fuel taxes at the county and city level may be a feasible option for road funding as well.

However, there are important differences between state fuel taxes that pay for highways and fuel taxes imposed by TDDs. Fuel taxes at the state level, and even the county or city level, must be spent on highway- or road-related projects. These taxes are only passed by existing, regularly elected legislatures (or a vote of the people); the political boundaries are well known and easily recognizable. State and local governments provide extensive information on how fuel tax revenue is collected and spent.

TDDs are a different story altogether. For instance, do you live in a TDD? Have you shopped in a TDD in the last week? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, do you know what type of tax they collect, what they spend tax money on, where their boundaries are, or who runs the district? Did you ever get to vote on the TDD or its representatives?

Even for those in charge of state oversight, it is hard to know the answer to any of these questions. The fact is that TDDs are ad-hoc specially created taxing districts with idiosyncratic boundaries. They are created through what is not a normal democratic procedure (see “qualified voters” and flexible district boundaries), with boards that are not elected in the normal sense. They do not have to spend their money on roads at all, such as TDDs in Saint Louis and Kansas City that fund streetcars.

It is questionable enough to allow these types of entities to charge sales and property taxes like they do now, but allowing fuel taxes would be even worse. It is easy to imagine a situation where many gas stations in the state quickly become part of microscopic taxing districts that are impossible for the public to be aware of or to track.

State fuel taxes are a reasonable method of funding state roads, but allowing quasi-democratic, non-transparent, and (to the lay resident) invisible taxing districts to use fuel taxes to fund hyper-local desires is more a recipe for highway robbery than highway funding.

Touted Benefits of the Film Tax Credit Program Are Misleading

On Wednesday, March 18, the House Committee on Economic Development and Business Attraction and Retention held a hearing on House Bill 803 (HB 803), which would reinstate the film tax credit program. This is the same program that granted a $2.36 million tax credit to the producers of Gone Girl. Michael Rathbone and I submitted testimony against the reauthorization of the film tax credit program. Luckily, Michael was able to testify before the committee. He was the only person to testify against this wasteful policy proposal.

Since news articles reporting on the hearing only highlighted the arguments of those in support of HB 803, I’ll reiterate what analysts at the Show-Me Institute have written so many times before: Film tax credits are bad public policy!

filmcrewSupporters of the program argue that the film tax credits bring immense economic benefits to the state. However, the problem with this argument is that it doesn’t look at the costs of the program along with its benefits. While supporters spout claims that “Gone Girl brought in $7 million into the economy,” the reality is the program’s return on investment (tax dollars generated versus tax dollars spent) is merely cents on the dollar. In other words, the program does not pay for itself.

Furthermore, the argument that the film tax credit helps create permanent jobs is a fallacy. Film production jobs, by their very nature, are short-lived. To add insult to injury, the highest paying jobs often go to non-Missouri residents, since production jobs require specific and highly skilled professionals. However, perhaps the most shocking fact is that Missouri has had a film tax credit program since 1999, and yet, according to data gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs related to film production decreased during the time the film tax credit program was in place.

It is bewildering that lawmakers can ignore important economic indicators, and the advice of the state’s own Tax Credit Review Commission, just so Missouri can play hostess to Hollywood for a few weeks. I hope legislators and political spectators will take a look at our testimony and exercise some common sense.

Still Coughing Up More for Education

In an era where we shield more and more people from being offended, never mind hurt, it appears that it is still okay to pick on smokers. So it’s no surprise that some policymakers want to use them to fund goodies for the rest of us.

The latest anti-smoker proposal aims to raise the cigarette taxes to around 90 cents a pack (cigarette taxes in Missouri currently are 17 cents a pack) in order to fund scholarships for students. On the surface, this proposal sounds appealing, but raising excise taxes in order to fund education is not good policy. There are a couple reasons why this is the case: First, cigarette taxes are regressive. Poor people smoke more than higher-income individuals, and smoking takes up a higher percentage of their income.

Second, an increase in cigarette taxes can harm Missouri businesses. More people commute into Missouri than out of it. Our low excise taxes serve as an inducement for out-of-state visitors to purchase alcohol, gasoline, and cigarettes in Missouri instead of Kansas and Illinois. The chart below from  showmedata.org shows just how low Missouri’s taxes are in comparison to Kansas and Illinois (Missouri is in yellow).

3862

If this proposal becomes law, Missouri’s cigarette tax rate will be higher than in Kansas. It isn’t hard to imagine commuters on State Line Road choosing a Kansas convenience store over a Missouri one if products are cheaper.

Now, some might argue that raising cigarette taxes is good in and of itself because doing so will reduce cigarette usage and improve public health. That’s partially true, but the effect is small. If the increased tax revenue would be spent on treating smoking-related illnesses, then the conversation would be worth having. However, even if we agreed that a tax hike should go to increased health spending, if taxes go up too much, people would simply resort to smuggling.

Personally, I’m not a fan of smoking. My grandfather suffered from emphysema due to his smoking. However, just because I don’t like an activity doesn’t mean I believe the government should treat it as a piggy bank for more spending. Let’s find ways to cut spending, not increase it.

March 23, 2015

Is the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission Acting Illegally?

At a hearing on SB 351, which would create state regulations on ridesharing companies, the bill’s sponsor warned that existing taxicab regulatory bodies in the state, especially the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (MTC), may be violating federal law. The source of this trouble is a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In the case, North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission, the FTC claimed the North Carolina dental board violated federal antitrust laws in its attempt to eliminate market competitors, even though the board was empowered by the state to regulate dentistry.

Prior to this case, it was assumed that state-created professional boards and regulatory bodies were immune from antitrust law. But in their decision, the Supreme Court held that this is not always the case. The majority opinion stated that active state supervision is required for bodies that act as regulatory agents of the state but are controlled by market participants. In the case of the North Carolina dental board, the supervision was found lacking.

This brings us to the MTC. While the commission was created by the state, many of its members represent taxicab companies. There is no meaningful state oversight of what the MTC actions. It is possible that, if a court holds that the commission is effectively controlled by taxi market participants, the MTC would not be immune from antitrust legislation.

This would be a serious legal problem for the MTC, which fixes pricing, limits the number of taxi permits, and blocks the entry of ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft. To preempt this type of legislation, the state could either make sure taxicab companies do not control the commission or more closely supervise the MTC’s actions. Given the anti-competitive behavior of the MTC as it exists today, either outcome would be an improvement for Saint Louis residents.

Increased Fire Tax in Kirkwood? Why Now Indeed!

Kirkwood Bill

A leaflet arguing for a tax increase surprised some Kirkwood residents this month when they found it tucked into their city-issued electricity bills. The tax advertised in the leaflet would up the sales tax rate by 0.25 percent in order to add new cross-trained firefighter/paramedics to Kirkwood’s Fire Department. With the need for municipal fire services in decline and only an increase in EMS cited as justification for the tax increase, I can’t help but wonder if this tax hike would unnecessarily nickel and dime people choosing to spend their money in Kirkwood.

Let’s break this down. Since the 1970s and 1980s, when fire alarms, new technologies, and improved building standards decreased the number and severity of fires in the country, there has been a steady increase in the number of people employed as firefighters. You might think the number of people employed to fight fires would decrease as the need for fire response decreased. You’d be wrong.

To compensate for this decrease in the demand for their services, fire departments began taking on the broader role of providing emergency medical services—that is, driving ambulances and providing on-the-scene support to people involved in accidents. Fire departments might have saved money if they then decreased the number of people employed as firefighters and invested more heavily in paramedics and EMS equipment, which typically cost less, but that didn’t happen.

Here we have a textbook case of mission creep, the tendency of government organizations to gradually shift their goals and expand their purpose. Society no longer needs as many people fighting fires, yet because government lacks an efficient mechanism for linking supply and demand, we continue to spend an increasing amount of tax revenue on fire protection. Government has a tendency to grow, even as needs shrink.

If the city of Kirkwood wants more paramedics, then they should hire more paramedics, not firefighters. Shifting resources to pay for more EMS and less fire services, or even privatizing certain functions, could help pay for this. It’s simply a waste of money to raise taxes to hire workers for an unneeded and more expensive job.

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