December 16, 2014

Support This Blog and the Show-Me Institute

As you consider your charitable contributions for the end of 2014, we truly hope that you will renew your support of the Show-Me Institute by making a tax-deductible donation this year. We could not perform our mission of advancing free-market solutions for Missouri public policy without the support of people like you. Your prior financial support has allowed the Show-Me Institute to become the primary source for free-market research and policy solutions in Missouri.
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With your help, we will continue to fight for limited government, individual liberty, reduced regulations, and entrepreneurial freedom.

If you enjoy reading this blog and agree with the ideas it presents for free-market based policies in Missouri, I hope that you will renew your support of our mission by making your tax-deductible contribution today!

June 17, 2014

Hairbrained Licensing Of Hair Braiders

Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) filed suit in federal court in Saint Louis to overturn Missouri’s awful licensing system for women who wish to perform African-style hair braiding. Why is this particular licensing rule so objectionable? Because, while there are many other unnecessary occupational licensing regulations in Missouri, at least the others usually require you to do things that at least relate to your future professions. With African-style hair braiding, the required cosmetology coursework, training, etc., has absolutely nothing to do with hair braiding. It would be like requiring dog walkers to get an electrician license before they can walk dogs. It simply makes no sense.

Watch a clip from today’s press conference about the issue, and check out some of the Show-Me Institute’s prior work. I applaud IJ for taking up this cause in Missouri. More importantly, I applaud the two plaintiffs, Tameka Stigers and Joba Niang, for standing up for their chance to pursue their dream of owning their own business without unnecessary government interference.

June 16, 2014

Power Play In Southeast Missouri

Ameren is one of the state’s largest electrical utilities. Noranda is an aluminum company in Southeast Missouri that, due to the nature of making aluminum, uses an enormous amount of electricity. This is a tricky post to write because it is certainly complicated stuff and I don’t have a Ph.D. in electrical engineering like my father-in-law does. Noranda and Ameren have several cases before the Public Service Commission (PSC) that are being considered. In an effort to simplify things, it all basically comes down to two issues:

1) Claims that Ameren has been overcharging its customers from what the PSC allows it to receive in profits, and

2) Demands for mandated lower rates for Noranda itself, the state’s largest electricity consumer.

As to claim No. 1, if that is correct, then the PSC will take appropriate action. While rates themselves don’t directly compare to returns, in fairness to Ameren, the most recent annual electricity rate survey just showed Saint Louis as having the second-lowest residential electricity rates in the survey (which included much, but not all, of the country). The same survey showed Ameren having among the lowest commercial rates as well. So, while it may be possible to over-earn while charging comparatively very low rates, Ameren is hardly holding its customers (at least its Saint Louis customers) over the barrel.

As for Noranda’s demands for even lower rates, they already pay the lowest rates in the state. Furthermore, the Missouri General Assembly has already given Noranda the unique right to shop for electrical providers, unlike any other person or business in the state. I don’t begrudge Noranda any of this. As the largest user, I understand why their bulk discount is so high. Also, while I may want to give more customers the same right to shop that Noranda has, I certainly don’t want to take that option away from them.

That said, there has to be a limit on having the state solve Noranda’s electrical cost issues. If they can’t negotiate an even better deal from Ameren, Noranda does have the right to switch providers. Indeed, that is how they switched to Ameren in the first place. That is more than enough special treatment from the state.

Noranda’s efforts to curb its power costs goes back years. Noranda used to purchase electrical power from the rural cooperative by its smelter. But with the help of a law passed solely for its benefit by the Missouri General Assembly, Noranda was allowed to switch electricity providers. As of 2005, it has purchased electricity from Ameren at a cheaper rate than the cooperative had offered.

It is the role of the PSC to regulate private utilities, but it is not the role of the PSC to fix Noranda’s bottom line. We all want Noranda to successfully continue operating in Missouri, but it is not the role of state government to aggressively interfere in an attempt to guarantee that.


May 28, 2014

Burns and Mac Does Not Ask For Moon: NASA Calls Them ‘Responsible Corporate Citizen’

One theme being bandied about regarding Burns and McDonnell’s request for tax subsidies is that company officials did not ask for as much as they could have and, furthermore, the company somehow deserves credit for this. From The Pitch:

To its credit, Burns & McDonnell isn’t seeking every tax break under the sun. “Greg’s first instruction to us was to find out what we needed to get the rents to be equal [to the company's current headquarters] and stop there,” [Burns & McDonnell Director of Government Affairs Mike] Talboy says.

Or, as KSHB Channel 41 quoted Burns and Mac:

We are not requesting all the incentives that were available to us. Our goal throughout this process was to achieve a package that will allow us to pay fair market value.

Talk about adding insult to injury, after asking for millions of dollars in public subsidies, Burns & Mac wants to be lauded for not taking even more. This is modern crony capitalism: demand hard-earned taxpayer dollars and then expect us to act like you’re Andrew Carnegie.

Let’s be clear. Burns and McDonnell is asking for an enormous amount of subsidies, a.k.a., other people’s money, to build its expansion. The company is seeking a substantial Tax Increment Financing (TIF) package, a real estate tax abatement, a construction sales tax abatement, and probably more that I am missing.

Yael Abouhalkah writes in defense of Burns and Mac (in an overall well-balanced article):

One more thing: Kansas City politicians have approved far more expensive public subsidies — guaranteed by the city and gobbling up 100 percent of TIF revenues. Burns & McDonnell’s project is not city-backed, and it’s a 50 percent TIF.

TIFs are not intended to have the backing of local governments. The ones that are are exceptions, and damaging exceptions at that. So, no credit to Burns and Mac on that one.

The 50 percent claim is more disturbing. One hundred percent of subsidies for TIF are reserved for property taxes. State law limits sales and earnings taxes in TIF to 50 percent. But if you combine earnings and property taxes in the TIF, the company would have to either ask for a TIF far larger in percentage terms than the city normally approves, or it would have to hit its approximately $40 million TIF goal much quicker than 23 years.

Is there a solution that gives the company and the politicians the best of all worlds? Of course there is. Break aside the property taxes as part of a real estate abatement separate from the TIF, only use earnings (and the much smaller utility) taxes in the TIF, and then tell everyone you are making a sacrifice. Even though your subsidies will now last for two years more than they otherwise would have.

From the Kansas City Star (Chapter 100 bonds are the real estate tax abatement vehicle):

The plan includes $41.9 million in tax increment financing assistance over 23 years and a Chapter 100 bond that will save the company $41.8 million in property taxes over 25 years.

Read more here:

Real estate abatements are not generally given alongside TIFs, so let’s toss aside any notion that Burns and Mac is doing the city a favor by asking only for the “50 percent” earnings tax subsidy. This is $84 million in tax dollars the company will not have to pay. That means higher taxes for everyone else to pay for the services people need and want. (I admit that I don’t always agree with the “wants.”)

All this from a company that is proud to pay the earnings tax and gladly supported the effort to keep it in place. I can only imagine how much they would have asked for if they didn’t love paying the earnings tax so much.

The Show-Me Institute and others are not going to take our high school civics lessons and go home as long as modern-day corporate courtiers are abusing government authority to subsidize themselves at the expense of the taxpayers. Burns and Mac certainly has a Ph.D. in backroom cronyism.

Read more here:

May 15, 2014

Great Idea Will Be Hard Sell In Olivette

I think the proposal by BWB Sports to build a privately operated athletic center on leased public land in Olivette, Mo., is terrific. At the same time, I understand the qualms many Olivette residents may have about the proposal. This looks like a great idea that is too much, too fast; a terrific proposal coming at the wrong time, like Galileo under house arrest or Jason Bateman in “It’s Your Move.”

The proposal is for BWB Sports to lease the land that now holds the Olivette Community Center and athletic fields around it. (My kids have played many team sports on those fields.) The company wants to build ice rinks, lacrosse fields, and more, and operate it as a private entity. BWB officials do not appear to be asking for a subsidy (I’ll amend this post if they are), which is one of the reasons I support this. However, the fact that they are going to lease this land will likely limit the expansion of the tax base, as the city will still own the land. (There likely will be some tax base expansion from business equipment taxes, concession sales taxes, etc.) Not to mention the fact that the company will pay Olivette to lease the land.

So, basically, you have some residents of Olivette telling me that the park and community center really are not in very good shape and desperately need an upgrade. While others – the ones showing up at the meetings attacking the proposal – are demanding that the park be protected and the land preserved.

There is no doubt about one thing – this is not a half-measure. This is a major change to the property that I think would significantly upgrade the facilities and use of the land. The only thing the proposal is missing is an outright sale of the property, which is politically impossible and legally complicated. So they are just leasing it, but I doubt that means much to the opponents.

I hope that Olivette officials can see the long-term benefits in this proposal. But, unlike other NIMBY situations, I see some merit in the residents’ concerns. This is not like recent disputes in Brentwood, Maryland Heights, or South County. I understand why some neighbors are objecting. As I said in my study about privatization in Missouri, park privatization proposals are very contentious for good reason. Outsourcing the management of existing park facilities is not that controversial, but wholesale changes to parks themselves are.

This is the latter. I hope it passes. I think the long-term benefits are significant for Olivette and Saint Louis County. This plan would increase use of the property, grow the tax base (somewhat), inject private money into Olivette recreation instead of counting on tax dollars, and more. But I am not going to attack the opponents as NIMBY-based obstructionists, even the Keynesians among them.

May 7, 2014

Going Too Far To Limit Voter Input

There are at least two efforts in the Missouri General Assembly to prevent the ability of local voters to restrict tax incentives within their community. I think these limitations are a very bad idea, to say the least. Both Senate Bill 672 and SB 693 have had the following amendment attached to them:

2. No political subdivision of this state shall by ballot measure impose any restriction on any public financial incentive authorized by statute.

This proposal is almost certainly in response to the attempt to limit tax incentives for Peabody and other energy companies within the City of Saint Louis. A judge’s order turned away that ballot initiative. While I certainly agreed with the attempt to limit tax subsidies, I was never comfortable with the way the initiative targeted one industry. So, you didn’t hear me objecting to the judge’s ruling. Furthermore, I have, in the past, supported legislative preemption of initiative petitions in certain cases, so I am not saying a referendum should always trump local officials.

However, a blanket prohibition against any local votes against the use of tax incentives such as Tax Increment Financing (TIF), etc., goes way too far. This is terrible public policy and improperly restricts local voter rights. If a city or county has an allowance for initiative petitions under their charter, they should be allowed to use it. If local voters want to reduce or eliminate the use of TIF, Transportation Development Districts (TDDs), Community Improvement Districts (CIDs), Enhanced Enterprise Zones (EEZs), abatements, etc., via their local tax dollars, they should be able to do so.

Attempts to use initiative petitions after the fact against approved TIFs have failed for several legal reasons. However, there should be no legal problem with preemptively prohibiting corporate welfare in a community, as long as the prohibition is even and not targeted at select industries. (Feel free to tell me how I am wrong there, lawyers, but the mere existence of these amendments tells me that is correct.)

These amendments are trying to create a legal roadblock against citizen involvement and input into how people’s own tax dollars are spent, and that would be unfortunate for Missouri.

April 28, 2014

‘Tis Time For TIF Reform

That title would make a pretty good protest chant, if you ask me. Although the use of “‘Tis” to help with the alliteration would require the protest be held in Britain. But I digress.

If you follow the work of the Show-Me Institute, you are aware (assuming you agree with us) how badly our state needs Tax Increment Financing (TIF) reform. TIF is severely damaging our state. It weakens the tax base, empowers government planners, encourages crony capitalism, encourages eminent domain abuse,  favors certain types of businesses over others, damages governments that depend on property taxes and have limited say in the decision (i.e., school districts), and all this for something that, in the end, does not succeed in growing the economy. But other than all that, TIF is great.

There are some important pieces of TIF reform legislation in Jefferson City right now. One of the better pieces is Missouri Senate Bill 774. The bill has passed out of the Senate and is now before the House. The most important thing the bill would do is further restrict how TIF dollars are spent in cases where local municipalities in Saint Louis, Saint Charles, and Jefferson counties override a county TIF commission’s decision against a TIF proposal. According to current law, the three above counties have county TIF commissions that make the choice on TIF, but cities have the ability to easily override the county TIF commission’s rejection. Small cities overriding the county TIF commission happens frequently in Saint Louis and Saint Charles counties (not so much yet in Jefferson County). The counties have tried to exercise discipline on TIF use, but small cities keep overriding their choice (Ellisville [initially], Shrewsbury, Saint Charles, etc.) and harming the larger community. Those new limits that SB 774 would enact are needed and would greatly benefit those counties.

The other good thing in the bill is that it adds Boone County to the list of the prior three where these tighter TIF rules would apply. There are great groups fighting corporate welfare in Boone County, and adding Boone to this list of counties is terrific.

Missouri needs TIF reform for all the reasons listed above and several more. Here’s hoping that the legislature will make this extremely important policy change for our state.

April 22, 2014

Missouri Needs The Sunrise Act

Missouri Rep. Eric Burlison (R-Dist. 133) has proposed legislation tightening the requirements for licensing new occupations in Missouri. It is called the Sunrise Act, and I think it would be an important public policy change for our state. (The legislation has been added to another bill at this point.)

This legislation is not radical. It does not ban new licenses. It does not implement extraordinary new requirements for a new license law, such as a greater than 51 percent vote like some tax increases have. It simply requires that attempts to institute a new statewide occupational license actually provide some evidence for the need and benefit of the license. Right now, there is none. The state legislature could wake up tomorrow, agree that every dog walker in the state needs a license to walk dogs for a fee, and pass that law without any supporting evidence. That is not an exaggeration (leaving aside the fact that the bill introductory period has passed).

The legislation further requires that if a license is proposed, the lowest level of licensing necessary to accomplish the public good will be applied. In other words, if you successfully demonstrate that the public will benefit from some level of licensing of dog walkers, you can’t impose heart surgeon-type standards to accomplish that goal. If the necessary public good is served by simply requiring dog walkers to register with the local government and undergo a background check, then you cannot add educational requirements, training hour minimums, continuing education rules, insurance or bond mandates, uniforms, and a host of other rules, all of which are common in licensing laws. For more strict licensing requirements, the Sunrise Act would require some level of additional evidence that those tighter laws are needed.

This issue happens regularly. For example, why are lawyers more stringently regulated than accountants? If you practice law without a license (except representing yourself), that is a crime. But accountants can do many things without a particular license, they just cannot hold themselves out as a CPA (certified public accountant) unless they have met those requirements. People without the CPA license still can be paid to keep company books, prepare tax returns, and much more. They can still do a job they want to do without calling themselves a CPA, and that is what is important.

The point is not to debate lawyers versus accountants. The point is that imposing burdens on people’s jobs and occupations should be more difficult than it is. That is all the Sunrise Act really does. Instead of imposing new burdens on someone’s job, it actually imposes a burden on the person who wants to license that job. That is where the burden should be.

April 20, 2014

But Tomorrow Will Rain, So I’ll License The Sun

Saint Louis County officials are considering licensing landlords who are within the county’s jurisdiction (Bill No. 73). You read that right. If you want to rent out apartments, duplexes, your own home, whatever, you’ll need a county license to do that within the unincorporated parts, which includes 320,000 residents. This is completely unnecessary. Why someone would try to further restrict the housing market anywhere in Saint Louis in 2014 is beyond me.

This will drive up rental unit costs within the county. Not because of the license fee itself, which is very low ($15), but because anything that limits supply will drive up prices. Now, some prospective landlords will not invest within the county because of this new fee and, more importantly, the accompanying regulations. Is that what the county wants? If landlords are allowing renters to do criminal activity within their homes, the county police simply should use existing law to hold people responsible. A general new license on every landlord in the county will do nothing but increase government interference with property rights and decrease the overall supply of housing.

Landlords are to modern politicians what Christians were to Roman Emperors; a quick and easy group to place blame on and abuse whenever they wanted. A study of a very similar proposal in Milwaukee found no evidence for benefits from these programs. You know why? Because there aren’t any. This is another terrible licensing idea from Saint Louis County.

April 18, 2014

Saint Louis Taxi Commission Takes Consumers For A Ride

The only nice thing I can say about the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (MTC) is that at least there is only one taxi licensing agency doing a terrible job for Saint Louis. We used to have two (city and county), and they did a really terrible job.

Short of that, the MTC has made it plain for all to see that its role is to protect incumbent cab companies from competition. Who cares what changes technology brings? They are going to operate the same way no matter what. Mobile phones, GPS, Internet maps, new phone apps, who cares? They have a job to do, and limiting new entrants into the market is job No. 1.

Why does the new technology matter? It matters because it has dramatically evened out the information advantage that taxi drivers used to have over customers. Now, even a first-time visitor to Saint Louis arriving at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport can check out in just a few minutes on their phone: 1) online reviews of cab companies, 2) the clearest route to the destination, 3) estimated fares for the trip, and more information if needed. Consumers are ready and able to negotiate for themselves, and most cab or mobile app-based drivers know that.

We do not need the MTC protecting us. Just as important, by restricting competition, the MTC is actively hurting taxi consumers in Saint Louis (and Kansas City as well).

Bring back the crooked assessor.

March 28, 2014

Further Remonstrances On Clayton Tax Increases

Last week, I blogged about the Clayton economic development sales tax proposal. While that is a bad idea in and of itself, it is unfortunately part of a much larger package of tax hikes. There are four (four!) different proposed tax hikes for voters to consider on the April ballot. If you think that is a lot, well, . . . it is.

I want to focus here on the property tax aspect. The proposals call for two different bond issues, each requiring a separate tax increase. One is for neighborhood road improvements in Clayton, and one is for improvements to Shaw Park, mostly the ice rink. If they both pass, the property tax increase would be 24 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

Supporters of this tax hike, and most tax hikes, like to make the numbers seem small. “Only 25 cents added to an average restaurant meal” or something similar. For this tax hike, I keep hearing it is less than $20 a month for an average Clayton home. Fair enough; that does not sound so bad. (Math is $500,ooo home x 24-cent tax increase per $100 of assessed valuation = $228 annually.)

However, Clayton residents benefit from the enormous business concentration there, and businesses don’t get a vote on the tax hike. (They can vote with their feet, metaphorically.) What is the tax hike here on a Clayton business?

Well, we don’t know it by business, but we can easily figure it out by building. Take one of Clayton’s nicest buildings: 7701 Forsyth. If these two property tax increases go through, it’s owners would pay $21,175 more each year. That is $21,000 more to support park and road improvements that will benefit the businesses far less than the residents. (The road bonds are all for neighborhoods, not the business areas.)

Take its sister building, 7733 Forsyth. That property would pay $32,000 more in property taxes under these proposals. This for a building whose owners already pay well over a million a year in property taxes. That means higher rents in Clayton. These higher rates would also apply to business property (factory equipment, copiers, computers) so there would be less capital investment in Clayton, though I admit that effect likely would be very small.

That is $53,000 per year from two buildings that already pay an extra downtown tax assessment that can be used for their central business district streets. (It usually isn’t, but it can be and likely has been in the past.) At some point, asking Clayton businesses to pay much higher property taxes that will primarily benefit the residents is a poor policy choice, in my opinion. At a minimum, the proposal to increase the property tax for park renovations should be shelved in favor of privatizing the rink’s operations (but not ownership) just like the Saint Louis City has done with Steinberg Ice Rink.

March 14, 2014

Bloodletting In Clayton

For centuries until approximately 200 years ago, bloodletting was a common treatment for illness. If you were sick, you would go get a nice bleeding. We finally learned what should have been obvious: with the exception of one or two illnesses, bleeding was a terrible idea that did more harm than good. The Missouri local tax equivalent to bloodletting is the economic development sales tax.

Government does a terrible job planning the economy, whether it is a Soviet five-year plan or retail TIFs (tax increment financing) in Saint Louis County. Municipal government can improve the local economy by doing the things it needs to do well: police, fire, local roads, etc. It does not need to “develop” our economy, especially because “economic development” in Missouri is synonymous with taxpayer subsidies and corporate welfare.

Clayton, the Saint Louis County seat and the region’s other downtown, is considering an economic development sales tax, along with three other tax increases, on the April ballot. Doing four tax increases at once (four!) is crazy, but the point of this post is just the economic development sales tax.

Clayton has been careful in its use of tax incentives and other economic development tools in comparison to other Saint Louis County municipalities, which admittedly is a very low bar. Clayton deserves credit for that. So I can’t understand why it would propose raising a tax to do more of something it should not do in the first place: government planning of the local economy.

Clayton officials likely would claim that the intention for the new tax funds is not more use of subsidies or more local planning, but a continued focus on business recruitment, retention, etc. I believe them, and in the short run, I am sure that would be true. But, in my opinion, the increased use of, and funding for, government economic development activities will almost certainly be followed by heavier use of various subsidies and tax incentives. Cities such as Clayton should be moving in the opposite direction with less or zero use of these types of programs, not increasing taxes to do things they should skip from the start.

More to come on these four tax increase proposals next week.

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