August 23, 2014

The Pension Problem Non-Teaching Personnel Pose

In a recent post, Education Policy Research Assistant Brittany Wagner discussed a new study examining the large growth in non-teaching personnel in schools. The study found that over the past 60 years, schools have increased non-teaching personnel positions by 702 percent.

Besides their salaries, non-teaching personnel also accrue pension benefits through the Public Education Employee Retirement System of Missouri (PEERS). According to the PEERS annual report, “PEERS is a mandatory cost-sharing multiple employer retirement system for all public school district employees (except the school districts of St. Louis and Kansas City), employees of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, and community college employees (except St. Louis Community College).” Members of the plan and their employers both contribute to the pension.

Over the last five years, the unfunded liabilities (liabilities minus assets) of this plan have increased by more than $64 million. Pension benefits like PEERS benefits are guaranteed and must be paid out. If PEERS can’t make those payments, taxpayers (i.e., you) will have to.

One way to prevent a situation like the one described above is to shift these pension plans away from a defined benefit plan (PEERS) to more effectively structured plans like defined contribution plans, hybrid plans (a plan that is a mix of defined benefit and defined contribution), or cash balance plans.

Maybe the addition of new non-teaching hires over the past 60 years is justified, but maybe it isn’t. School districts are making the public pension bomb bigger, and if they aren’t going to defuse it, shouldn’t school districts at least give the taxpayers, who are ultimately on the hook if these pensions can’t make their payments, some evidence to support their increase in hiring?

July 15, 2014

Breaking: Another Study Backs Up The Show-Me Institute

The Competitive Enterprise Institute grabbed our attention when it released a new report comparing the unfunded pension liabilities of all 50 states. Spoiler alert: Missouri ranks in the middle third (more on this later).

An interesting point raised in the report was that, “…the discount rate used in the valuation of liabilities should be a low-risk rate, ideally as low as the rate on Treasury bonds.” In a Show-Me Institute Policy Study, Andrew Biggs also urged state pensions to use a low-discount rate in valuing their liabilities (the discount rate is the interest rate that pension plans use to translate future liabilities into current dollars). It’s encouraging to know that other institutes are reaching similar conclusions.

However, it isn’t encouraging that this report found that after using a more appropriate discount rate, the amount of Missouri’s unfunded pension liabilities totaled more than 4 percent of Missouri’s entire economy. As of the end of last year, Missouri’s economy was $258 billion; 4.2 percent of that is $10.8 billion. If the state cannot make up that amount, then you, the taxpayer, are on the hook to make up the difference. Table7.1There are other states whose pensions are in much worse shape than Missouri’s, but our state still faces an economic ticking time bomb. Whether dealing with a grenade (Missouri) or a daisy cutter (Illinois), taxpayers will not be happy to be caught in the blast. The Show-Me Institute has written extensively about how Missouri can start to address its pension problems by shifting to more efficient plans such as defined contribution or cash balance plans. Hopefully, this new report can serve as a wake-up call to policymakers that change is needed.

June 30, 2014

Vetoes, Vetoes, And More Vetoes

There has been a lot of consternation in the Missouri Legislature about Gov. Jay Nixon’s vetoes and withholds (withholds differ from vetoes in that withheld money can be released if state revenues are available later in the year, while vetoed funds are just not spent) from the fiscal year 2015 budget. Many legislators are upset with the governor for claiming that their budget is out of balance while his own executive budget was larger than the one the legislature passed. To be fair, a lot of the difference is due to the governor’s budget including funds for expanding Medicaid, but the governor’s budget also was relying on revenue growth that was higher than even the legislature was expecting.

All that said, there actually is a lot to like in these vetoes. For example, the governor vetoed more than $7 million in funds for biodiesel incentives. The state should be eliminating these types of incentives and it is a good thing that Gov. Nixon is cutting back on them. The governor also is vetoing $2 million in funding for the Rolling Stock Tax Credit. The Show-Me Institute has published numerous writings about the desirability on cutting back on these types of tax credits. It is good to see Gov. Nixon trying to do so.

Gov. Nixon’s vetoes could go further. For example, he withheld $5 million from efforts trying to lure the Republican National Convention to Kansas City. There has been a lot said about using government money to try to lure big events, but in this case, the money isn’t necessary because the Republican National Committee has already narrowed its search down to Cleveland and Dallas. Gov. Nixon should have simply vetoed this specific appropriation.

There was a lot to like in the governor’s vetoes. If the legislature was more disciplined, many of the vetoes would not have been necessary. Hopefully, state spending can be controlled going forward.

June 27, 2014

Lovely Rita’s New Meters

Yesterday, I attended a town hall meeting that the Saint Louis Treasurer’s office hosted regarding citizen feedback on the parking technology field tests in downtown Saint Louis and the Central West End. The city is running these tests in order to modernize parking operations in the city. The vendors included T2 Systems, Aparc Systems, Xerox, and Duncan Solutions. All of the vendors gave impressive demonstrations.

The city should go state-of-the-art with its technological upgrades, no half measures. People have told me, and I agree, that it is annoying to have to go to a centralized meter, pay, wait for a printout, and then go all the way back to the car to place the printout. It is an added pain to go refill the meter when there is heavy rain or snow outside. If the city upgrades its meters, it should either have a meter at each individual space and/or allow people to pay through a smartphone app. At the town hall, all of the vendors stated that they will allow people to pay through a smartphone.

There also should be some flexibility in regards to charging different prices based on the time of day. During busier times, the prices for parking should increase. During quieter times, prices should be lower. This would allow the city to properly react to the demand for parking and hopefully reduce congestion.

However, no matter the appeal of state-of-the-art technology, the city needs to balance that against the costs of the upgrades. Added parking convenience is one thing, but the city should not break the bank for it.

Overall, it is good to see the city looking to upgrade its parking systems. With all that we can do with digital technology, it is about time parking meters join the 21st century.

June 18, 2014

Supply, Demand, And The Minimum Wage

Early last week, Lindenwood University Professor and Show-Me Institute Fellow Howard Wall debated the merits of raising the minimum wage on St. Louis Public Radio. It was an interesting discussion, but  one thing stuck out for me. In the debate, Chris Sommers, who co-owns Pi Pizza and is in favor of raising the minimum wage, stated that (at 5:37), “We raised the wage in order to also attract better people.” This was said in the context of Pi raising the wages its pays its employees.

This is interesting because Pi raised its wages voluntarily. It didn’t need the government to mandate a hike in pay, it chose to do it because it made sense from a business perspective. That is how it is supposed to be. In fact, that is what businesses do. They pay their workers a competitive rate commensurate with the value that these employees generate for the business. If they pay their employees too little, other businesses can offer these workers a higher rate and they will leave. Sommers mentioned his workers moving to another business because it offered a 25-cent increase in hourly wages (at 4:30). This is the market working.

Take what happened in North Dakota as an example. Because businesses were so desperate for workers, even fast food establishments had to significantly increase what they would pay their employees. For example, Taco John’s, a local area fast food restaurant, had to offer new employees $15 an hour salaries in order to get them to work there.

north dakota

I want to help the poor do better, but there are betters options available than raising the minimum wage, like the Earned Income Tax Credit. This would ensure the benefits would go to the people who really need them, the working poor.

June 6, 2014

Ballpark Village Crushing It . . .

It seems that state and local development officials hit a home run when they decided to subsidize the construction of Ballpark Village. Yet, as I mentioned in my post last month, other local businesses feared that while Ballpark Village would do well, they would suffer losses. Their fear is now turning into reality.

Ballpark Village 2

As reported in the St. Louis Business Journal, bars and restaurants are taking serious hits to their sales. For example, Paddy O’s, a popular bar for pre-game and post-game activities, is expecting to draw $1.3 million in revenue this baseball season, a far cry from the $2.5 million they received last year. The Flying Saucer, another restaurant located near Busch Stadium, is looking at a 20-25 percent drop in business. These reports are anecdotal, but they fall in line with what economists find when they examine subsidies for similar types of developments, such as sports stadiums. While the subsidized development might do well, in many cases, it comes at the expense of other businesses in the area. Little to no actual wealth is actually created.

The government should not be subsidizing private developments. Even the ones that actually do well, such as Ballpark Village, just end up shifting consumer spending from one location to another. Instead, the government should be focusing its spending on areas that can benefit the public at large, such as public safety.

Breaking: New Study Supports Old Show-Me Institute Study

I admit that I like to spend a good portion of my spare time at the casino. I gamble even though I know that the odds favor the house. At least I’m gambling with my own money. Public employee pension systems, on the other hand, make bets with other people’s money. Increasingly, they are taking riskier bets in the hope of hitting the jackpot. That’s what the Pew Charitable Trust found in their  new study. As the study’s authors show in the figure below, public pensions are shifting away from safer investments (e.g., U.S. Treasuries and Corporate Bonds) and toward riskier assets (such as equities and commodities) that are expected to deliver higher returns on investment.

Pension Asset Allocation

This behavior is taking place in Missouri. For example, in the late 1990s, the Missouri Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees Retirement System (MPERS) had 42 percent of their assets in fixed income and cash. Equities and alternative investments such as real estate made up the rest. Now, MPERS has 22 percent of its assets in cash and fixed income.

The pensions are doing this “to deliver higher long-term returns in order to keep funding costs low . . .” In fact, in one of our previous policy studies, Andrew Biggs noted this phenomenon when examining how Missouri’s public pensions value their liabilities: “U.S. public sector plans, by contrast, have taken on greater investment risk, because doing so allows them to lower the accounting value of their liabilities and put off difficult decisions such as raising contributions or lowering benefits.”

I don’t have a problem with a pension plan seeking higher returns, but if these investments don’t deliver as hoped, then Missouri taxpayers will be on the hook to make up the shortfall. That is why I favor retirement plans such as defined contribution plans or cash balance plans that limit the exposure of the taxpayers to investments failing to generate expected returns. Hopefully, we can make a shift before one of these risky bets fails to pay off.

U.S. public
sector plans, by contrast, have taken on
greater investment risk, because doing so
allows them to lower the accounting value
of their liabilities and put off difficult
decisions such as raising contributions or
lowering benefits

June 3, 2014

Show-Me Institute Presents: Missouri’s Economic Record In The 21st Century

During good times and bad, Missouri is failing to keep up economically with its neighbors. In the Show-Me Institute’s new essay, “Missouri’s Economic Record In The 21st Century,” by Rik Hafer and me, see why we give Missouri’s economic performance during the current century a grade of “D” and how such a record could mean serious trouble for future Missouri residents. Please give it a look.

May 23, 2014

Does Ballpark Village Really Need Subsidies?

We are two months into the baseball season and while the Cardinals might be off to a slower start than many had hoped, people’s reception of Ballpark Village has been positive. From what I have seen, the place looks amazing and I can’t wait to visit. However, does this popularity mean that it was correct to award Ballpark Village substantial tax subsides? Scott Beyer, writing in the American Spectator, doesn’t think so, and neither do I.

Beyer contends that public subsidies to developments such as Ballpark Village mean that there wasn’t enough demand in the first place in order to justify investing in them. I agree. I also believe that using subsidies to finance these projects will be of limited economic benefit because they will just shift spending from other local establishments. A waitress who works at one area restaurant told me that her co-workers in Kiener Plaza are expecting a permanent 10 percent reduction in revenue now that Ballpark Village has opened. This example is only anecdotal, but it falls in line with what economists find when they examine public subsidies for similar types of developments, such as sports stadiums. They find that a lot of the economic benefit these developments bring to cities comes at the expense of spending elsewhere in the economy. Little to no actual wealth is created.

The government should not be picking which development gets public money and which does not. Instead, it should be focused on providing public goods such as basic infrastructure and public safety. Ballpark Village looks like it is going to be a great success, as most people thought it would be. Forcing taxpayers to subsidize the development, however, is not justified and is improper.

April 24, 2014

Truth And Falsehoods

The Missouri School Boards Association (MSBA) is doing some pretty lousy work in its efforts to scare people into opposing Senate Bill 509. The MSBA’s “fact sheet” highlighting the harms the tax cut would supposedly do to the state’s foundation formula and individual Missouri school districts is chock-full of errors and mistakes.

First, the “fact sheet” uses the Governor’s Executive Budget recommendation in the analysis of the potential cost impact of SB 509. This is a mistake because the governor’s recommendations are just that, recommendations. The figure used is not the actual appropriation amount for the upcoming year. That has yet to be finalized.

Let’s just grant, for the sake of argument,  that SB 509 will reduce foundation formula funding to $3.13 billion next year. If you look at this year’s budget, you will notice that funding for the foundation formula is actually $3.08 billion. So even if the MSBA’s numbers are correct, the foundation formula will be getting more money next year.

However, this whole exercise is pointless because the first year that the tax cut would go into effect is 2017. Fiscal year 2015 ends in June 2015. This means there won’t even be a tax cut for two-and-a-half years. No revenue will be lost next year (or even the year after that) because of it.

I welcome healthy debate concerning major public policy issues, but people shouldn’t be scared with false facts, and that is what the “fact sheet” from the MSBA is: scare mongering filled with plainly false information.

April 18, 2014

Here We Go Again . . .

One of the biggest fights out of last year’s Missouri legislative session was about Missouri House Bill 253, which cut individual and business income taxes. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill and the legislature failed to override his veto. This failure didn’t stop the legislature from passing a new tax cut bill, Senate Bill 509. Below are some highlights of the bill:

  • The top tax rate is cut by .1 percent per year if state revenues increase by $150 million. Once fully phased in, the new top tax rate will be 5.5 percent.
  • Tax brackets are to be adjusted for inflation.
  • Business owners who pay their company’s taxes at the individual level will be able to deduct 5 percent of their business’s income. This deduction will increase by 5 percent every year until it reaches 25 percent.
  • Creates an additional $500 personal exemption for people with incomes less than $20,000.

Nixon already denounced the legislation and will likely veto the bill. He has trotted out the same talking points he used when he vetoed last year’s tax cut. “Once again, members of the legislature have chosen to ignore evidence that Missouri is already a low-tax state — sixth lowest in the nation,” Nixon said. I guess the governor felt that Missouri’s taxes weren’t low enough for Boeing when he signed a $150 million incentive package for the company to move manufacturing jobs here. Also, Missouri is not a low-tax state, particularly when it comes to income taxes.

You probably also will hear progressive groups complain that passing this bill will blow a hole in our budget and seriously harm state revenues. That’s what the Missouri Budget Project is doing. However, the group doesn’t show its arithmetic in its report. This is par for the course for the Missouri Budget Project and the “report” isn’t very useful for actually discussing the bill’s merits.

I’m glad the legislature is trying to cut taxes. I prefer more significant cuts (such as fully eliminating the individual and corporate income taxes). However, I’ll take any forward progress in cutting taxes. Hopefully, this time, the cuts will get enacted.

April 15, 2014

Hazelwood Tax Increases And Places To Cut Spending

City officials in Hazelwood, a suburb of Saint Louis, are considering a proposal to implement a 6 percent utility tax in order to raise revenue to offset decreasing funds coming from sales taxes. The proposal is expected to raise $1.3 million in revenue. Now, I’m not opposed to raising revenue in all cases. However, I only favor revenue increases when it is absolutely necessary. If there are places in the budget to cut, do that first, before asking taxpayers for more money.

Case in point. In the course of my research regarding public pensions, I found that the city of Hazelwood maintains a pension for just its mayor and city council. It isn’t a very large pension. As of 2012, it had $96,000 in assets. But I question why such a pension exists in the first place. Is it really necessary for the council of a small municipality that meets only once or twice a month on average to have its own pension? No other municipality has a separate pension plan for its city council. Despite its size, the city still spends money on the plan. For fiscal year 2014, the city plans to spend $17,000 on the city council pension plan. That is $17,000 too much.

I’ll be the first to say that there is a large difference between $17,000 and $1.3 million. However, before asking for more taxpayer money, I would look at ways to trim the fat. As much as the law allows, I would phase out Hazelwood’s pension for the city council and save the city some money. It is not nearly enough to offset this proposed tax increase, but every little bit helps.

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