November 27, 2014

We Are Thankful for Transparency

There has been a lot of talk lately about transparency, especially the notion that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage,” according to an architect of the president’s health care law. Last year, we wrote that we’re thankful for data, and that remains true.

Tied to our love of data is the assumption that government is transparent enough to provide it to us. Citizens of the Show-Me State should expect no less. And in that regard, Missouri is doing okay. In 1973, the state legislature adopted our Sunshine Law, making Missouri one of the first states to adopt such an open meetings law. The law in part reads:

It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.

In 2009 the Blunt administration sought for, and the legislature provided, the implementation of the Missouri Accountability Portal, and the Nixon administration has maintained it. The website allows users “a single point of reference to review how their money is being spent and other pertinent information related to the enforcement of government programs.” Though limited in scope and sometimes difficult to navigate, this site has been good for transparency in Missouri, helping keep citizens informed and the government responsive.

We’ll leave it to others to argue about the intelligence of voters or the political expediency of openness. But here in Missouri we’re grateful for the transparency we have and the data it yields.

November 25, 2014

Warrant Forgiveness: A Step in the Right Direction for Saint Louis County Cities

Recently, 65 municipalities in Saint Louis County announced a warrant forgiveness program for December. In the program, defendants with outstanding warrants can get their warrant dropped if they go to the municipal court that issued the warrant and post a $100 bond. While this is a good thing for many poor residents who have, for whatever reason, failed to attend court, it does not change the underlying problem of cities relying on fines and fees to fund themselves.

We’ve written before about how many Saint Louis municipalities get large, possibly illegal, portions of their revenue from zealous enforcement of traffic laws and local ordinances. Twenty municipalities get more than 20 percent of their revenue from fines and fees, with three cities (Calverton Park, Bella Villa, and Vinita Terrace) deriving more than 50 percent of revenue from those sources.

And should one of the many recipients of these citations need to appear in local court because they wish to challenge the citation or cannot pay the fine (or fix their ticket), it is far from convenient. Calverton Park and Bella Villa both only hold traffic court one evening a month. As an in-depth story in the Washington Post described, many residents, especially the poor, have a difficult time navigating the process.

Allowing defendants with outstanding warrants to set things right is a way of relieving some of the built up stress for locals, but a more long-term solution is to make policing about law and order, not revenue collection, in all Saint Louis County municipalities. That may mean combining police or court services with other municipalities, or if necessary disincorporating cities altogether. At the state level, that could mean strengthening and enforcing the Macks Creek Law. If something isn’t done to fix the underlying problem of burdensome municipalities, this holiday amnesty’s impact won’t long outlive the holidays themselves.

November 24, 2014

More Streetcar Boosterism from the Kansas City Star

The Kansas City Star recently revealed an interactive report on $1.7 billion in existing and possible new developments in downtown Kansas City. Anyone who is interested in some new exciting projects is encouraged to take a look, but be prepared for some streetcar propaganda.

While the Star doesn’t go so far as to claim that the as-yet-unfinished streetcar directly caused all the development, the report heavily implies it. As the Star states,

It also happens to be the geography linked by the new 2.2-mile streetcar line expected to be completed next year. . . . Downtown’s rejuvenation is now rolling into a new era, with the start of the $100 million streetcar line on Main Street.

The interactive report prominently places an outline of the streetcar in the middle of their map, and the companion article finishes with a prompt for more information on the starter line.

In terms of development, the benefits of streetcars are unproven, with public subsidies and city planning preferences pushing investment toward one area of the city rather than generating real growth. Moreover, the anecdotal evidence of development in Kansas City has been problematic at best, as we have shown on multiple occasions.

While the new “report” seemingly shows public and private activity around the streetcar, on closer inspection many of these improvements are not new developments at all and have no connection to the 2.2-mile route. For example, many would question the addition of the as-yet-unfunded Broadway Bridge improvements as a development at all; the bridge is certainly unconnected to the streetcar. Another example is improvements to the Central Library, which while near the streetcar line were completed by the nonprofit Downtown Council in 2004. Also included in the interactive report is the Hilton President Kansas City, which was completed in 2006, well before streetcar planning gathered momentum. Projects completed as early as 2003, and planned projects almost a mile and a half from the streetcar line, are included in the map.

The Star might claim that it is just showing the overall investment in downtown Kansas City over the last 15 years, but then why make the streetcar line the clear axis (and most prominent feature) of the map? If it is being counted as an investment downtown, why is it not represented as a dot like the other investments? If it is just because the streetcar will “connect” new investments, why not prominently feature the Max, 49, and 51 bus? They will and already do connect areas downtown. The implication that the streetcar is a catalyst or a necessary component of development is obvious. It’s also not true.

November 21, 2014

This Sounds Familiar

Cassandra was a Trojan princess who had the gift of prophecy. She foresaw that the abduction of Helen would bring about the destruction of Troy. Her curse was that nobody believed her. At the Show-Me Institute, we weren’t blessed with Cassandra’s ability, but when we look at the future of Missouri’s public pensions, we see potential disaster ahead.

Last year, the Show-Me Institute released a report by Dr. Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute. The report showed how Missouri public pension plans are underestimating the total amount of unfunded liabilities (total pension obligations that exceed the amount of assets the pension plan has) that they have. In fact, using more realistic assumptions, five of the state’s largest pensions have unfunded liabilities FIVE TIMES larger than what is reported ($54 billion actual vs $11 billion reported). That is a serious amount of money, and if these pensions do not have the assets to cover their obligations, then the taxpayer (you and me) will be left footing the bill.

State Budget Solutions, to my knowledge, does not have the gift of prophecy either. Yet they see what we see when they look at the status of state public pensions. Their new report discusses the unfunded liabilities of every state’s pension system. The content of the report sounds familiar because, like Dr. Biggs, they find that using more realistic assumptions about plan returns, state public pensions are significantly underfunded. According to State Budget Solutions, Missouri’s pensions aren’t among the worst nationally. That doesn’t mean things are good and the state’s pensions don’t need reform. If I’m stuck holding a stick of dynamite, while my neighbor is holding an atomic bomb, it doesn’t mean I’m going to be okay when the dynamite goes off.

Unfortunately, there has been little progress into actually achieving pension reform in Missouri. At the very least, the state needs to work to stop additional liabilities from being added to the already enormous amount the state already owes. Shifting to a defined contribution plan or a cash balance plan would be a good place to start. Then, policymakers can work on addressing the gap between pension assets and the monies these plans owe.

Cassandra warned of danger, and she was not believed. That was her curse. Hopefully, Missouri can avoid Troy’s fate.

November 20, 2014

South County Connector: Still an Opportunity to Toll

Last week, Saint Louis County officials announced that the proposed $120 million South County Connector had been placed on hold. The proposal called for a four-lane route between Hanley Road and River des Peres Boulevard, with the purpose of providing better north-south traffic movement between Clayton and Maplewood. While the project has drawn criticism for aiding sprawl and failing to resolving the region’s major bottlenecks, the major stumbling block was funding the expensive project.

As we wrote when the project was proposed last year, while there are constitutional issues with MoDOT tolling, Saint Louis County is free to do so. If the county were to place high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on the connector, they not only would have a reliable local funding source, but also a way to mitigate the problems of induced demand on the new roadway. As we wrote last year:

HOT routes allow high-occupancy vehicles (HOV) free use of the road while charging a fee to solo drivers. . . . Toll roads have reduced congestion and been financially successful in other localities. An example is State Hwy. 550 in Texas, which will connect two major highways with a tollway outside of Brownsville. Local officials believe the highway will serve important transportation needs, and the toll’s estimated revenue of $1 million per year makes the $41 million price tag more manageable. In California, private developers constructed HOT lanes on SR-91 in Orange County. By transferring less essential travel to non-peak times and public transportation, Orange County tollways have reduced peak congestion by more than 25 percent on most roads. The SR-91 lanes have proven successful in reducing congestion and do not take any money from general transportation funds.

That would be a win-win for both drivers and the local taxpayers. In addition, with all the criticism of the proposed connector as unnecessary, a toll-feasibility study might help to show whether there is sufficient demand for a $120 million project. If traffic models show that the connector cannot generate sufficient revenue to cover local expenses (the federal government will likely cover a large portion of the costs), that would be evidence against building the road in the first place.

November 19, 2014

Education: A Way Out

For some students, education is a “way out,” but in places with few educational options, the way out is often a public school that does not meet the needs of its students.

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have taken steps to ensure students have more choice in education. New Orleans parents Gerald and Shermane Prosper were able to take advantage of the Louisiana Scholarship program, which allows their son to attend a private school. The voucher program, enacted in 2008, serves low-income students in low-performing schools and provides educational access to more than one-third of students in the state. Show-Me Institute Fellow James Shuls has shown how this type of scholarship program could potentially save Missourians millions of taxpayer dollars.

Watch the video to learn how the Prosper family views education as a pathway to success.

November 18, 2014

University City Should Carefully Consider Privatization Proposal; Ignore Special Interests

University City is considering outsourcing emergency medical services (EMS). Predictably, this proposal has been the subject of debate among city council members. Two council members have questioned whether the city should outsource one of its core services, while another member urged the council to remain open minded until they have all the data on outsourcing.

The Show-Me Institute has written favorably about EMS privatization policies in the past. Privatization, when done right, can increase efficiency and expertise, provide improved services to the public, and decrease costs. However, all outsourcing proposals must be carefully considered to ensure privatization is done properly.

The University City Council ought to investigate the specifics of this privatization proposal for how it would affect services and city finances, rather than shooting from the hip and accepting or rejecting a privatization proposal on purely political grounds. Public employees, city officials, and businesses that the city may contract with are all interested parties in any outsourcing effort. When deciding whether to contract out services, the council should do its best to ignore the special interests and focus on the details of how this proposal affects the city as a whole.

Private ambulances have served parts of Saint Louis County for years, and University City might be able to benefit from private ambulances as well.

November 17, 2014

Ideas for Kansas City Schools: Pay Teachers More Sooner

Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) is seeking input from parents, school staff, and the community about how it might regain and sustain full accreditation and retain and attract students. To that end, it is forming a School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) and has been seeking applicants to serve in that capacity. Previously, we shared some ideas for strengthening administration and staff. Today, we’d like to suggest at least one change to Kansas City’s teacher pay schedule: pay teachers more sooner.

As it stands, the pay schedule for Kansas City teachers starts low and provides only modest increases in the initial years. Largest pay increases come at the end of a career, in a manner to maximize pension value. As my colleague James Shuls has argued in previous posts, this is a disincentive for new and effective teachers to stay on. Dane Stangler and Aaron North of the Kauffman Foundation wrote in a March 2014 op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Because most of the pension value accrues in the final years of an educator’s career, the typical new teacher in Kansas City or St. Louis does not benefit from the current system. Based on our research, we estimate the likelihood that a traditional public school teacher in St. Louis stays in the profession long enough to earn the maximum pension benefit to be about 4 percent. In other words, 96 percent of teachers in St. Louis will leave prior to reaching the full benefit and the percentage is comparable in Kansas City (approximately 3 percent).

As a result, new teachers are less likely to stay on. According to the Show-Me Institute’s Michael Podgursky, “After eight years, roughly 70 percent of teachers remain on the job. The eight-year survival rates in STL and KC are far lower, ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent.”

Podgursky’s paper urges more transparency and,

Given the relatively small share of new teachers in Kansas City or Saint Louis who can expect to complete an entire career in either district, as a strategic recruiting tool it makes more sense to raise front-end salaries, 

rather than “generous end-of-career retirement benefits.”

Certainly, there are many reasons why teachers in Kansas City and Saint Louis are much more likely to leave, and creating a more fair pension system will not solve all of them. But one thing we can do in Kansas City is to let new teachers know they are valued early on in their careers and that we want them to stay on.

November 16, 2014

Public Dollars Going to Bike Sharing in Saint Louis?

Bike sharing is growing in popularity across the country. In cities like New York, Miami, Chicago, and Kansas City, bike sharing allows pedestrians to explore the urban landscape without having to use a car, public transportation, or walk. Right now, Great Rivers Greenway (supported by Saint Louis sales taxes) is spearheading a study on bringing a bike share program to Saint Louis.

The study estimates that the cost to implement bike sharing in Saint Louis would range from $12.4 million to $14.7 million over five years. However, they also want to be able to use federal and local taxes to fund the system. That is both unnecessary and unfair.

It is unnecessary because many bike share programs across the United States are funded almost entirely by users and private sponsors, including the Kansas City B-Cycle. Far from being controlled by the city in a top-down fashion, Kansas City residents have taken to crowdfunding bike share stands they want to use. That kind of bottom-up, voluntary approach not only is innovative but it means no one pays for the bike share who does not choose to.

Supporters of public subsidies for bike share make arguments very similar to those made for public transportation, such as reducing congestion and helping people without cars. But while transit’s main beneficiaries are commuters and the economically disadvantaged, bike share’s benefits mostly accrue to the well-off engaged in recreation. As we wrote previously:

survey of riders using Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., found that 95 percent of users held a college degree (56 percent had a masters or doctorate). As for income, 80 percent made more than $50,000 per year and 45 percent earned more than $100,000 per year. For perspective, per capita personal income in the district is about $45,000 and less than half of all residents have college degrees. . . . Furthermore, from data collected in Kansas City, we know that most riders use the bikes on the weekends in the downtown core. In short, a city-supported bike share uses public dollars to support the weekend excursions of highly educated, upper-middle-class residents.

Bike share programs are a great way for cities to provide residents and tourists with a fun and healthy way to see parts of town. However, residents should remember that spending public resources on bike shares is a subsidy to the wealthy and, thankfully, unnecessary.

November 15, 2014

Why a Teaching Degree Is Easy as 1-2-3

Having experienced firsthand the ease of a teaching program, I wasn’t surprised by the results of a recent National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) study, which examined the demands of teacher training programs. Like many pre-service teachers, I knew that if I was to become an effective teacher, it wouldn’t be due to the rigors of my program. Here is an example of an assignment I completed during graduate school.

The assignment was to explain some differentiated instruction techniques I planned to use in the classroom—by drawing a cartoon. This is what I turned in:

mat blog picture

Clearly, I’m not an artist, but still, this is absolute nonsense—I received minimal points off. This is the kind of assignment the NCTQ would refer to as criterion-deficient. Criterion-deficient assignments are broad in scope and may be difficult for instructors to give high-level feedback. Unlike assignments that allow instructors to measure mastery of knowledge or skills, criterion-deficient assignments are subjective. How could an instructor give high-level feedback to the above garbage?

The NCTQ found that on average 71 percent of grades in teacher preparation courses rely heavily on criterion-deficient assignments. The study also found there is a correlation between the percentage of criterion-deficient assignments and high grades—teacher candidates are 50 percent more likely to receive honors at graduation than candidates with other majors.

I hope these embarrassing findings are a sign to universities that they should stop focusing on reflective assignments that are subjective in nature and, instead, build an environment of rigor that will ultimately draw more quality students to the teaching profession.

November 14, 2014

North-South MetroLink Line Wasteful, Unnecessary

A group of Saint Louis officials and former regional planners are again making the case for a north-south MetroLink line, this time running from Ferguson to Bayless Avenue in South Saint Louis County. While we have consistently argued that public transportation investments are best made around this corridor, the light rail option is many times the cost of Bus Rapid Transit or other improvements.

So how much will the proposed line cost? According to the Post-Dispatch: “The original north-south proposal was initially estimated at $1 billion in 2007 dollars. Members of the coalition would not venture a guess this week at the current price tag.”

nsmlr

The latest plan actually goes further north than the $1 billion plan suggested by East-West Gateway (EWG) in 2008. According to East-West Gateway’s Vision 2040 (released in 2011), the cost for a route from Florissant Valley Community College to Butler Hill (going further south than the current proposal) was more than $1.6 billion. It is therefore safe to assume that the plan will cost between $1 billion and $1.6 billion, probably closer to $1.6 billion when adjusted for inflation. To put that in perspective, this MetroLink expansion would cost between $2,700 and $4,406 for every person living near the proposed line.

Proponents hope, and likely require, that the federal government will pay up to half of the costs of building the new route. Even allowing that, the city and county would be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in capital costs and additional annual operating costs likely to exceed $20 million per year. That will mean tax increases in the city and county, all to add 12,000 to 15,000 transit riders per day. For perspective, Saint Louis City and County combined have more than 630,000 daily commuters.

There exists a much more cost-effective way of increasing transit service along the city’s north-south corridor: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT can, and does in other cities, provide the speed and comfort of light rail service for a fraction of rail’s price. Metro is in the process of implementing BRT in Saint Louis right now, and we have argued that BRT routes serving the city and North Saint Louis County make the most sense. According to EWG, running BRT on Grand from Natural Bridge to Chippewa would cost a total of $24 million to implement. That’s less than half the cost of one mile of the proposed MetroLink expansion. In fact, Metro could afford to implement all five of its preferred BRT routes for less than 20 percent the cost of the north-south MetroLink proposal.

MetroLink proponents make the same ungrounded claims about the rail transforming marginalized communities as they did two decades ago (remember the golf course in East Saint Louis?). Now, just as then, it is not rail, but rather improved transportation that raises living standards. And in terms of improving transportation, the relative merits and incredible cost differential between BRT and light rail should be the end of the argument.

Vail Lifted from Teacher Collective Bargaining Negotiations in Colorado

Colorado voters said YES to Proposition 104 last week at a ratio of 7 to 3. The ballot initiative will open collective bargaining negotiations between teachers’ unions and school boards to the public. Supporters say the new law will bring transparency to local government, allowing parents and taxpayers a look into what teachers’ unions ask for during negotiations.

Should Missouri pursue similar reform?

Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Many existing agreements can be viewed on Show-Me Sunshine. Here are just a few of the hundreds of items teachers and school boards have bargained for:

  • Salary
  • Benefits
  • Sick days
  • Student behavior
  • Parent communication
  • Amount of time a parent may spend in the classroom
  • Paid release days for union activity
  • Hiring policies

Parents may not be aware of the restrictiveness of some of these contracts. A study by USC Associate Professor Katharine Strunk found that in school districts with more union power school boards had less flexibility in decision making. This is unnerving, as school board members are elected by citizens; teachers’ unions are not.

Perhaps if Missouri’s Sunshine Law was expanded to include collective negotiations, school boards would be less likely to give in to cumbersome demands in the presence of taxpayers and parents. In the absence of a collaborative policy, this would bring parents and taxpayers a step closer to having a place at the bargaining table.

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