April 30, 2015

Some Good Economic News (Well, at Least About Cost of Living)

Economic data released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) last April continued to show that income in Missouri just isn’t increasing very rapidly. The data also provide some good news: It is cheaper to live in Missouri than almost any other state in the union.

The BEA now adjusts nominal incomes at the state level for price-level differences across states. This is made possible by the development of regional price parities (RPP). Basically, the state RPPs measure geographic differences in prices; that is, comparable costs of living. The 2014 release marks the first time these series are being recognized as “official” statistics. What do the new data tell us about Missouri?

The chart below shows that growth in Missouri’s real personal income for 2011-12, the most recent years for which the data are available, falls in the next to lowest quintile of states. We have eight other low-growth cohorts, including neighboring states Nebraska and Kentucky. But the vast majority of states (and most of our neighbors) experienced faster growth in real personal income compared with Missouri.

hafer1

The income data is disheartening. But the evidence about Missouri’s cost of living compared to other states strikes a definite positive note. The chart below shows that Missouri’s RPP in 2012 places it near the bottom of the ranking. And being at the bottom of this ranking is good news for a change. This means that the general level of prices in Missouri is below the national average and lower than all but three states.

hafer2

Translation: While Missourians’ real incomes still are not rising as fast as we’d like, the cost of living in Missouri is less than nearly every other state. Maybe the BEA’s next release of this data, scheduled for July 1, 2015, will provide positive news on both fronts.

Promise Zone Just the Latest of Many Development Zones for Saint Louis

This week, the Obama Administration announced that parts of Saint Louis City and North Saint Louis County would become the latest federal “Promise Zones,” a designation that will put these areas in the front of the line when it comes to getting federal poverty aid and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding. While there is hope that the zone can be a catalyst for change in Saint Louis, this is hardly the first time the Saint Louis region has become part of a federal zone or the target of HUD aid.

Creating special zones to channel development is not a new concept in Saint Louis. Much of the city is part of a federal “Empowerment Zone,” which gives distressed areas tax incentives and federal grants. East Saint Louis is already part of an Empowerment Zone and an “Enterprise Community.” Saint Charles became a federal “Renewal Community” following flooding in the 1993. In addition, areas of North County have Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) status (the entirety of the city and county are FTZ eligible), which qualify some businesses for customs-free imports. Much of the city and parts of the county are in “HUBZones,” which are designed to give federal procurement preference to small businesses in distressed areas.

EmpII
HUbII
Even at the state level, the Saint Louis area has special development zones. Much of Saint Louis City is an “Enhanced Enterprise Zone,” which provides state tax credits to certain types of businesses setting up in certain areas. Nearly 100 census tracts in the Saint Louis area are designated as distressed communities, making businesses eligible for large tax credits through the state’s Rebuilding Communities program.

Aside from special zones, the Saint Louis area has been the recipient of just about every type of development aid that HUD has available. In the 1990s, the state received $15 million in Section 108 grants to spend on housing. In the late 1990s, the city received $20 million in Community Development loans and $2 million in Community Development grants. The city spent that money on the Renaissance Center hotel, which turned out to be a financial disaster. More recently, HUD gave a grant for the planning of the Lemay Community Center. The only major HUD programs the Saint Louis region has not benefited from are those targeted at rural areas and arson/terrorism.

When we consider that Saint Louis City, North Saint Louis County, and East Saint Louis have, since the early 1990s, benefited from exactly the kind of federal attention the “Promise Zone” would bring, it is difficult to conclude that adding yet another zone is part of the answer. Given the continued “disinvestment” in these targeted areas over the last 20 years and the growing evidence that such zones do not generate progress, it may be time to consider other policy solutions to combat economic decline.

April 29, 2015

Paper Release—Interdistrict Choice for Students in Failing Schools: Burden or Boon?

Interdistrict-Choice-ShulsToday, the Show-Me Institute is releasing my latest paper, “Interdistrict Choice for Students in Failing Schools: Burden or Boon?” The abstract of the paper is below:

In June of 2013, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a state law that allowed students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to nearby accredited districts. The student’s home district would be responsible for making tuition payments and providing transportation. Using data, firsthand accounts, and structured interviews with school district superintendents, this paper examines what happened in response to the transfer program. Specifically, it examines how the districts responded. In all, more than 2,000 students transferred from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts, roughly a quarter of the total student population. These students transferred to two dozen area school districts. Except in isolated cases, evidence suggests that these students were largely absorbed into receiving school districts without causing much disruption. For the unaccredited school districts, however, the transfer program had a profound impact on school finances.

I invite you to check out the full paper by clicking here.

April 28, 2015

Missourians Take to the Skies With Increasing Numbers

In 2014, total airline passengers grew at Missouri’s largest airports by just over 1 percent, reversing the losses over the past two years and giving those airports almost 11.6 million departing passengers (enplanements). This mirrors national trends, as total U.S. airline passengers grew at around 2.5 percent in 2014.

The fact that air traffic grew faster in the rest of the nation than it did in Missouri could be taken as meaning that Missouri is lagging the rest of the nation in growth. But in reality, most of Missouri’s airports—including Kansas City International (MCI), Springfield-Branson (SGF), Joplin Regional (JLN), and Columbia Regional (COU)—grew faster than the national average, in the case of Springfield, Joplin, and Columbia much faster (at 8.4 percent, 11 percent, and 16 percent, respectively). Springfield’s recent growth may be enough for it to regain its small hub airport status, which SGF lost following the recession. The performance of Missouri’s largest airport, Lambert-St. Louis International (STL), dampens the state’s overall numbers. Despite a concerted push to get more flights, STL’s passengers actually decreased by about 0.6 percent last year.

MO_enplane

The poor performance of STL compared to other airports in Missouri and nationally may be in part due to a relatively weak recovery in the Saint Louis area. It is well understood that underlying economic conditions mostly determines total airline traffic in large cities. However, Saint Louis did see some positive economic growth in 2014, along with a large increase in employment.

Another factor that may affect STL’s ability to gain both flights and passengers is cost. STL’s cost per enplaned passenger, at almost $15, is about three times the costs at MCI or SGF. Higher costs can mean fewer or more expensive flight options, dampening demand. STL’s elevated prices mainly stem from massive debt taken on to build a new runway in the early 2000s, planned when the airport was still a TWA hub.

STL’s leadership, unlike those at another Missouri airport, see the airport’s high costs as a major hurdle toward increasing traffic and are taking aggressive steps to bring in more revenue and rein in costs. This includes leasing out unused land to local businesses and attempting to attract more national and international cargo shipments.

Whether or not these strategies will succeed is as yet unknown. But perhaps the lesson from STL’s experience for all Missouri’s cities is that if their airport provides what it needs at a low price, it will be in the best position to contribute to, and benefit from, better economic growth.

April 27, 2015

More Progress on Ridesharing in Kansas City

In the last year, Kansas City has been slowly but surely opening up to ridesharing companies. The city government’s initial response to the entry of Lyft last March was negative, with officials acting almost offended at the idea that: 1) existing taxi regulations were not up to date, and 2) a company would dare to start operating without their prior approval.

LyftSince that time, the city has made progress. Officials have given up the pretense that ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft need only apply for a permit; the city has now overhauled their entire for-hire vehicle code. When Uber and others argued that some new regulations needlessly required city-managed background checks and yearly driver registration fees, the city recently amended the code once more.

This is not to say that the city would not be served by further reductions in regulation. While ridesharing regulations are much improved, existing taxi regulations have been left largely untouched. If Kansas City persists with a lightly regulated ridesharing market and heavily regulated taxi market, it risks the destruction of the traditional taxi business model. However, some taxi industry leaders are behind the most recent compromise, which could mean that taxi companies feel they can compete with Uber given the current regulatory setup. (Alternatively, it could mean that new ridesharing regulations will turn out more restrictive than they now appear.)

These caveats notwithstanding, Kansas City officials deserve credit for their progress on this issue. Their efforts certainly contrast favorably with policies in place at the other end of I-70, where regulators seem committed to keeping ridesharing expensive and unavailable in Saint Louis.

Power Play: State to Give Special Electricity Deal to Favorite Business

Have you ever taken a look at something and thought to yourself, “Wait a minute, I don’t think you’re using that right”? Kinda like that scene in Tin Cup when Kevin Costner uses a shovel instead of a 3 wood when golfing. Well, it appears that the Public Service Commission (PSC) has decided to get in the economic development game.

The PSC serves to regulate utilities in the state so that Missourians receive safe and reliable services while the utility companies charge rates that allow them to earn a reasonable rate of return on their investments after they recoup project costs.

winnersHowever, the PSC recently instructed its staff to prepare an order granting Noranda (an aluminum company in Southeast Missouri) a reduced rate on the electricity it consumes. The reasoning behind this decision is to allow Noranda to save on costs so that it can improve its financial position and avoid financial difficulties in the future.

This is yet another attempt by the state to help improve Noranda’s bottom line. Noranda already pays the lowest electricity rates in Missouri. Since it is the largest consumer of electricity, I can understand why that would be the case (bulk discounts for large purchases aren’t uncommon). However, the state also specifically passed legislation that allows Noranda to shop for its electricity provider. No other person or business in the state has such a privilege.

Now the state wants to lower Noranda’s rates even further. Why? That’s simple: to save jobs, which is a noble sentiment, but this is not the role of the PSC. This order amounts to the government picking winners and losers, just through a different means than what we’re typically used to seeing.

I want Noranda to stay in business, but it’s not the PSC’s job in order to guarantee that. If we work to keep the cost of doing business low in Missouri, everybody, including Noranda, will benefit.

April 25, 2015

Traffic Fine Law on the Verge of Passing

On April 22, SB 5, which greatly strengthens a law that limits how much revenue a city can raise via traffic fines, passed the Missouri House.

The bill has changed somewhat since it was introduced in the senate. Starting in 2016, the cap on how much a municipality can raise from traffic fines will fall from 30 percent to 20 percent of general revenue, unless the municipality is within Saint Louis County, where it will fall to 15 percent. These provisions are somewhat weaker than the original bill, which would have brought the cap down to 10 percent in populous counties. The amended bill includes more provisions that make courts transparent and protect people arrested due to unpaid fines.

The bill’s text still includes the enforcement provisions that the existing law, known as the Macks Creek Law, lacks. No enforcement has meant fines have become a significant revenue stream for cities, especially in Saint Louis County.

nstl

If this bill passes, revenue from fines and fees will be well defined, reporting requirements will be strict, and penalties for failing to comply are significant, including triggering a vote on disincorporation.

Many municipalities still object to the law, claiming that this prevents them from enforcing the law. But as we wrote before:

This argument falls flat because revenue collected in excess of SB 5’s provisions is simply remitted to the state, which in turn gives that money to the school systems in the county of the municipality in question. If police in local cities need to fine people to protect health and safety, they can still do so. But SB 5 takes away the narrow financial interests of the city government.

If the senate agrees to the house’s alterations to the bill, SB 5 will only require the governor’s signature to become law.

April 24, 2015

Of Stadiums and Economic Spillovers

Recently, we wrote a letter to the Post-Dispatch that criticized the idea that new tax revenue from a riverfront stadium would “pay” for $405 million in public subsidies. In response, one Saint Louis County resident claimed that: 1. spending on the Rams is not diverted from other areas; and 2. he trusts the governor and his numbers, not the Show-Me Institute’s.

First, we’ll address the substitution effect, or the idea that money spent on the Rams does not necessarily mean new economic activity. Our critic claims that if the Rams leave, he and many others would not be spending their dollars downtown. The problem with that reasoning is that it conceptualizes the Saint Louis region as municipally balkanized, and not as part of a regional or state economy, which in fact they are. Thus, if he and other county residents stay in the county on Sunday and spend money there, the regional and state economy is unaffected, along with the regional and state tax base.

Addressing the second point, if our critic does not believe Show-Me Institute’s numbers, why not the Brookings Institution, which wrote:

A new sports facility has an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment. . . . No recent facility has been self-financing in terms of its impact on net tax revenues. Regardless of whether the unit of analysis is a local neighborhood, a city, or an entire metropolitan area, the economic benefits of sports facilities are de minimus . . . most tax collections inside a stadium are substitutes: as other entertainment businesses decline, tax collections from them fall.

Or our critic could also read a review of the economic literature, which finds:

Because sports facilities are not expected to generate additional net output in a metropolitan area and no systematic empirical analysis ever finds evidence that they do, sports facilities cannot be counted on to augment tax collections.

Put simply, the evidence on whether sports stadiums generate economic growth or sufficient tax revenue to justify large subsidies is overwhelmingly in the negative. Our findings accord with these prior results, the governor’s and Post-Dispatch’s do not. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whose heart is leading whose head.

Missouri Bureaucracy Seeks to Tie Yoga in Regulatory Knots

warrior-pose

The Missouri Department of Higher Education is seeking to regulate yoga teacher training programs (YTTs) as “vocational schools” under its Postsecondary School Certification Program. From the Yoga Alliance:

Regulation under this program means that YTTs must comply with extensive requirements and pay expensive fees. We share the concerns of Missouri yogis that regulation of YTTs in this manner is not only unnecessary, but harmful to the yoga community and small businesses in this state.

Other states, including New York and Minnesota, have attempted to license yoga teachers as well.

Yoga is an old practice, and it has done just fine without state occupational licensing. I don’t think we need the state to start tinkering with it now.

I hope Missouri government bodies have the common sense not to butt in here—like they have with African hair braiding and massage therapy.

April 23, 2015

Health Care Bills On the Move from the House to the Senate

We’re approaching the end of the session, and it’s worth highlighting a few health care-related bills that are winding through the Missouri General Assembly.
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  • HB 769 makes “medical retainer agreements” exempt from regulation by the state’s Department of Insurance. MRAs are direct-pay arrangements—where a patient and a doctor contract directly for care. Such contracts are not a matter of insurance, but in other states there have been pushes to regulate them under the “insurance” umbrella. HB 769 would preempt such a move.
  • HB 985 enhances Missouri’s Medicaid eligibility verification system by leveraging the resources of a third party. Over the past year MO HealthNet has been hit by a series of embarrassing reports of waste and mismanagement. Suffice it to say, money wasted is money that cannot go to the poor beneficiaries who need it most. HB 985 tries to tackle the problem of waste on the enrollment side by trying to make sure those limited dollars flow to beneficiaries who, in fact, qualify for them.
  • HB 319 expands on an existing state law dealing with MO HealthNet telemonitoring services, also known as telemedicine. Telemedicine allows medical professionals to diagnose medical problems remotely, which for people in medically underserved communities is a great technological innovation and benefit. Section 208.670.1 of current law already allows for reimbursements for telehealth “in the same way as reimbursement for in-person contacts”; HB 319 pushes MO HealthNet to further adopt and advance telemedicine practices.

A Choice for Timothy

Infant_with_cochlear_implant

Timothy Farr wasn’t born deaf. As a baby, he contracted meningitis, and soon after he lost the ability to hear. His disability shouldn’t have stopped him from receiving a quality education. Yet, now in the fifth grade, Timothy has fallen devastatingly behind, and his mother is worried about his future.

Timothy attends a public elementary school in Jefferson City, Missouri.

“When he first went to school, they didn’t understand his (cochlear) implant,” Timothy’s mother Colleen Farr said. “They lost all of his equipment.”

“In first grade, the teacher told me he was misbehaving. She said, ‘You need to tell him that school isn’t for playing, it’s for learning.’ [My son] kept telling her, ‘I can’t hear! I can’t hear!’ He came home . . . the cochlear implant wasn’t in.”

Teachers and administrators in public schools may try their best to serve students with unique needs, but they often lack the ability to do so, which is one reason why Missouri needs to adopt programs that create educational options for students with disabilities.

Yesterday, the legislature held a hearing on Senate Bill 531, which would create an Education Savings Account (ESA) program for students like Timothy and countless others.

While Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires public school districts to provide students with disabilities a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE), this federal protection does not often provide the customization students with disabilities need to reach their full potential.

ESAs allow parents to customize their child’s education by choosing educational services that fit their child’s unique abilities. So far, Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi have adopted ESAs, and yesterday, Tennessee’s ESA bill passed out of the state house.

Through Arizona’s ESA program, mother Kathy Viser receives $27,000 a year to educate her 10-year-old son who has cerebral palsy. Viser directs the funds toward private reading tutoring, science classes at a local museum, and therapeutic horseback riding, among the core subjects.

SB 531 would allow children like Timothy to reach their full potential, breaking with the status quo of school success determined by zip code and bringing real social justice to people with disabilities.

You can view the testimony James Shuls submitted here.

Tolling Coming to I-70?

With the prospect of a fuel tax increase looking more and more remote in the Missouri Legislature, policymakers are once again looking to the possibility of tolling I-70 as a method of staving off an impending funding crisis at the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT).

Tolling would be an effective way of raising funds to rebuild the aging I-70, with only those using the new highway paying for its reconstruction and maintenance. Tolls can be set higher for vehicles that do more damage to the roads, like interstate trucks, which on many parts of I-70 make up more than a quarter of total traffic, as the chart below demonstrates:

I70trucks

Furthermore, if the state would lease I-70 to a private entity, it potentially would generate billions for MoDOT. To get an idea of just how much a toll road can be worth, a 66-year lease of the Indiana Toll Road (with similar traffic levels to I-70) is in the process of being sold for $5.7 billion. If Missouri can raise even a small fraction of that amount, MoDOT could retire Amendment 3 debt and ensure sufficient matching funds for federal dollars. A bill in the Missouri Senate, SB 534, sets up the framework to make this kind of lease possible.

Using a public private partnership to rebuild I-70 is not without pitfalls. If the state does not ensure competitive bidding or make sufficiently stringent lease requirements, the project could come out poorly for highway users. Furthermore, using large upfront lease payments on I-70 to bail out the rest of the state highway system will require higher tolls so that the private company can recoup its costs. In essence, I-70 drivers would pay for both I-70 and other state roads. That being said, given many examples of successful privatization in Missouri, as well as numerous privately operated highways worldwide, Missouri can and should navigate these obstacles.

Using a public private partnership to toll I-70 would be a big step forward for Missouri, and lease payments could be used to plug short-term gaps in MoDOT funding. However, without more extensive use of tolling (not currently allowed under federal law), it would be best for the state to combine a small gas tax increase now with plans to increase use of tolling in the future.

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