March 31, 2015

Show-Me Institute Presents: Pension Reform in Missouri

Hawley

It’s not news that Missouri’s pensions are underfunded. In fact, they’re an economic ticking time bomb that could leave taxpayers on the hook for billions. Unless we want taxpayers to get stuck with the bill, these pensions need to be reformed. However, there are legal barriers that might stand in the way of any reform effort. These barriers have been difficult to determine . . . until now.

Yesterday, the Show-Me Institute released a new policy study titled, “Pension Reform in Missouri.” The study’s author, Erin Morrow Hawley, sets out the legal framework that will govern pension reform in Missouri. In analyzing the statutory provisions related to Missouri’s public pensions, questions arise:

  • What interests are protected?
  • May the general assembly modify pension benefits retroactively? Prospectively?
  • What about contribution increases or decreases?

This study analyzes the statutory provisions related to these inquiries and sets forth a variety of pension reform measures that may be possible under Missouri law.

With the need to reform pensions becoming more acute every year, it is vital that any reform effort be able to successfully address the legal issues that might arise. With this new study, doing so has become much easier.

March 30, 2015

Sending Out Subsidies Until the Cows Come Home

Missouri has a long history of spending on items of dubious merit. That’s why my stomach shouldn’t curdle when the legislature approves spending on something that seems udderly ridiculous. Yet still it does.

milkingLast week, the legislature approved the Missouri Dairy Revitalization Act, which, among other things, would provide up to 70 percent reimbursement  to dairy farmers who pay their federal Margin Protection Program insurance premiums. The total estimated cost to Missouri taxpayers is between $2 million and $5 million a year. That’s a lot of moolah.

Now, I have nothing against dairy products or dairy farmers, but I am wary awarding state subsidies to agriculture, even if it’s for insurance premiums. Why can’t the private sector provide insurance for dairy farmers? Why is the state supplementing this federal program? Are the premiums too high? If so, shouldn’t that be a warning sign that there is something wrong with the federal program itself? I am genuinely curious, but if we end up getting cheesy answers from proponents of this legislation, then it shouldn’t be enacted. Legislators have better things to do than cowtowing to agricultural special interests. Unfortunately, this bill already has passed the legislature, and by overwhelming margins. Currently, it’s awaiting the governor’s signature, so there is a decent chance this bill will soon become law.

I want Missouri to have a thriving dairy industry, but surely there are butter ways to spend taxpayer money. I know this might sound tired, but a whey better option would be across-the-board tax cuts for businesses. If everybody, including dairy farmers, were allowed to keep more of their money, things like dairy insurance would be more affordable and the government wouldn’t be giving special handouts to favored industries.

March 25, 2015

Are Things Looking Up in Kansas?

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

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

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

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

March 24, 2015

Still Coughing Up More for Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 16, 2015

New Study on City Spending Confirms What We Already Know

800px-Union_Staion_Kansas_City_6169

Photo: Union Station in Kansas City by Dual Freq

Visitors to Show-Me Daily have probably come across the numerous ways that Kansas City has wasted money. Now, it’s possible that these were isolated incidents. However, WalletHub published  a new study that points to Kansas City having a larger, systemic problem with how it spends taxpayer dollars.

According to this study, Kansas City ranks 61st out of 65 cities in regards to spending efficiency. I won’t bore you with all of the gritty details on how WalletHub came up with their figures. The Reader’s Digest version is that this study divides a city’s total park acreage, test scores, and crime rate by it’s per person spending on parks, education, and police. The city with the highest quotient is the “most efficient”.

Besides pointing out the ways that Kansas City has wasted money, the Show-Me Institute has also shown that Kansas City spends a lot of money overall. In a 2013 case study, I examined St. Louis and Kansas City’s per person expenditures compared to six other other cities. Kansas City spent the 3rd most, just barely behind Denver. The case study didn’t say whether Kansas City was being efficient or not with taxpayer money, but with such high spending, the chance for inefficiencies increased. The WalletHub Study lends further credence to the notion that Kansas City taxpayers aren’t getting the best bang for their bucks.

The WalletHub study isn’t the definitive work on city spending, but it should serve notice to policymakers that maybe Kansas City should take a good look at how to improve the way it runs things.

March 4, 2015

Schools and Libraries Should Get a Piece of the Action

Localities engaged in a tax subsidy bender shouldn’t be surprised if they wake up with a nasty hangover in the form of increased property taxes. When cities decide to binge on Tax Increment Financing (TIF), the cities themselves may not feel the pain, but other taxing districts like schools and libraries are impacted. This has caught the attention of some in the legislature. While it appears that forcing localities to sober up is off the table, they are at least working on giving taxpayers an aspirin.

The pain relief comes in the form of Senate Bill 114 (SB 114), which aims to redirect 50 percent of incremented property tax revenues (i.e., the additional property taxes that would be generated by the increases in assessed value of new developments in a TIF district) back to the school and library districts. Currently, these other taxing districts do not receive additional property tax revenue from any increases in assessed value for redeveloped property in a TIF district. Since TIFs can last up to 23 years, the amount of property tax revenue schools and libraries can forgo is quite considerable.

This is especially troubling for school and library districts, since they both rely heavily on property tax revenue. That is why there has been a long history of these taxing districts opposing TIF projects. School district opposition to TIF projects stretches back at least into the 1990s. They understand that as operating costs grow over time (due to inflation, added population, and so forth), they will have to find additional revenue. Forgoing property tax revenue through TIFs means they will have to resort to tax increases on the people and businesses not located in the TIF district. If SB 114 is enacted, hopefully these rate increases can be forestalled or even avoided altogether.

No matter the context, I’m generally not a fan of overindulging. When local governments overindulge on TIFs, I am particularly appalled. Considering the fact that TIFs don’t work in stimulating net economic development, I’d rather localities avoid their use altogether. Barring that, at least some legislators are trying to mitigate some of TIF’s more damaging side effects.

February 26, 2015

The Great L.A. Gambit

chargers+raiders+stadium+rendering+9

The battle for the L.A. market is joined! According to NBCSanDiego, the Chargers are working with the Oakland Raiders. Their goal: a new stadium in the L.A. area (Carson, California, to be precise). Of course, their home cities can talk them out of it, for the right price.

It’s not shocking that teams other than the Rams might want to move to Los Angeles. L.A. is the country’s second largest media market, and with that comes a lot of TV money. However, still color me skeptical about the whole thing. I think (and I’m not alone) this is more of a ruse for the Chargers and the Raiders to extract sweetheart stadium deals from their home cities. The Chargers have been trying to get a workable proposal from San Diego for the past 14 years. They’ve even recently published some remarks to the San Diego stadium task force regarding what it wants in any new proposal. Needless to say, it’s quite a lot.

I think the Rams’ L.A. proposal is more serious. Why? Because of Stan Kroenke’s silence regarding the Rams’ latest proposal, or anything for that matter on what exactly he wants in order to stay in Saint Louis. The Chargers are giving San Diego an idea of what it is they’re looking for in a new stadium, Mr. Kroenke isn’t.

No matter the likelihood of the Chargers’ or the Rams’ proposals succeeding, I think that neither team should receive public subsidies. If billionaires want new stadiums, they should pay for them themselves. I don’t think taxpayers should get the bill, especially since there won’t be any economic return to them for doing so.

L.A. seems to be the place to go to for teams that can’t get a new stadium. Will policymakers be scared into throwing more money at teams in an attempt to prevent them from leaving? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

 

February 13, 2015

An Imminent Eminent Domain Case

When most Saint Louisans think about eminent domain abuses, they tend to conjure up thoughts of Maplewood razing neighborhoods in order to build a Walmart or Clayton trying to seize land to hand over to Centene. But what of eminent domain in the case of government agencies? Can that justify taking families’ homes?

If you are a Saint Louis City alderman who wants to keep the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) from moving to Fenton or Mehlville or even possibly Scott Air Force Base, there is a good chance that you’d say yes. That’s why plans to use eminent domain to seize property as part of the plan to keep the NGA in Saint Louis are moving forward. Yet despite this “progress,” that doesn’t mean the aldermen are correct. For the people of North Saint Louis, the abuse of eminent domain is imminent.

Eminent domain has a legitimate purpose. Sometimes it is necessary to seize property to use for the public good, such as highways or sewers. Yet, there is no reason in this case to think that using eminent domain would serve as a public good. Unlike highways, which must go more-or-less in a straight line, the new NGA headquarters is flexible in how it is laid out and where it can locate. Even if the NGA moves to the county or to Scott Air Force Base, NGA employees living in the city are unlikely to move. Why violate somebody’s private property rights when it is not necessary?

The truth is that the city stands to lose millions in earnings taxes if the NGA moves out. It’s understandable, especially when budgets are tight, that the city would want to try anything to avoid losing even more revenue. However, people’s homes matter more than extra tax revenue. Being hard up for money doesn’t give the city a valid reason to take people’s homes.

February 11, 2015

The Big Bad Bet

People of goodwill can debate some of the proper functions of government, but I think most of us can agree that gambling with taxpayer money is not one of them. Yet that’s what is happening with this Rams stadium situation. Public officials are betting that a new stadium will be a winner for the region and for taxpayers.

Yesterday, Gov. Nixon announced that Ameren and Terminal Railroad have agreed to make adjustments to their assets (moving power lines and rail lines) so that the proposed new stadium on the riverfront can be built. I guess he thinks that’s good news, and it would be if it was the only thing standing in the way of a private developer wanting to build a new stadium on the riverfront, but that’s not the only thing.

The key ingredient to this project moving forward is that we are going to have to cough up more of our money ($405 million to be exact) to help finance this thing. Now it’s possible that such an investment could be worth the price tag if it will lead to redevelopment of the surrounding area. That’s what the governor believes. What’s the evidence that there will be redevelopment? It didn’t happen when we financed construction of the Edward Jones Dome. Why is this time different?

Gov. Nixon also stressed that if we did nothing, the city and state would lose out on millions in income tax revenue. It’s true, players do pay earnings taxes, but how much more money will we have to spend in order to make sure we still get those income taxes? Overall, will taxpayers see more in added tax revenue than the amount they had to pay in subsidies? It’s possible, but it’s also equally (if not more) likely that taxpayers would lose money. That’s why this whole thing feels like gambling, but at least at the casino you know the odds before you play. That’s not the case here. How much will players’ salaries grow (which influence income tax revenue)? How many people from out of state will visit the region to watch the Rams (this affects how much new sales taxes we get)? These questions and many more will affect the amount of added revenue the region will receive. It’s an awfully big risk to be taking with public money, and honestly we shouldn’t be giving a billionaire (Rams owner Stan Kroenke) taxpayer money on the hope that we MIGHT see a positive return.

Yesterday’s press conference was supposed to be an encouraging sign for those who want to keep the Rams here in Saint Louis. For me, it looked like someone was putting down a big marker on the roulette table with our money on the line. No matter if the project lands in the red or the black, in the end Stan Kroenke is going to be getting green.

February 10, 2015

Show-Me Study Featured in New Book

Tax subsidies for economic development were designed to go to poor areas that actually needed development. But that is not how they are used in Kansas City, Missouri. My colleague Patrick Tuohey and I showed that, in regards to Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in Kansas City, the vast majority of TIFs and other economic development subsidies went to wealthier areas such as Country Club Plaza and the Power & Light District.

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The folks of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City have included our essay in their new book, Picture of Health: 2015 State of Black Kansas City. They are having a book release party at the Kansas City Public Library-Downtown Central on February 12 at 5:30 p.m. The event promises guest speakers and authors discussing topics such as racial equality. If you’re in the area, consider going. If not, I encourage you to get a copy of the book.

January 23, 2015

Thoughts on Gov. Nixon’s State of the State Address

The president’s State of the Union address is always filled with lots of pomp and formality. It’s the closest thing we have to a monarch addressing Parliament. On Wednesday evening, we had the mini version of that same spectacle when Gov. Nixon gave his State of the State address at the Missouri Capitol. In it, he outlined his priorities for the upcoming year. You can watch the speech here or read a transcript here.

There were some appealing aspects to his speech, like his thoughts on how to address our transportation infrastructure. Gov. Nixon stated:

One option is a toll road on Interstate 70. The Highway Commission’s recent report showed that this approach could make I-70 better and safer … and free up tens of millions of dollars for other roads around the state. Trucks and out-of-state vehicles that do the most damage to I-70 would have to pay their fair share. That deserves serious consideration. Here’s another option: the gas tax. Missouri’s gas tax hasn’t gone up a penny in nearly 20 years. It’s the fifth-lowest in the nation.  With gas prices as low as they are now, this is worth a very close look.

Kudos to Gov. Nixon for at least considering user fees as a way to finance transportation in the state. My colleague Joe Miller has written extensively about the benefits of tolling and how gas taxes are a better way to fund roads than the sales tax. Tolling is a fair way of financing improvements to Interstate 70 because it can be done in such a way as to get much, or even most, of its revenues from commercial vehicles, which cause the most damage to our roads and highways.

However, not everything in Gov. Nixon’s address was good policy. The governor still insists on expanding Medicaid.

Now I’d like to talk about another challenge … but an even greater opportunity: Strengthening and reforming Medicaid. Let me remind you, a lot has changed since last year. Since I stood here last year, Missouri taxpayers have sent $2 billion to Washington. Those dollars are being used right now, in other states, to reform and improve their Medicaid systems. That’s 2 billion Missouri taxpayer dollars.  And this year, there’s another $2 billion at stake. If we keep standing still, that’s $4 billion Missourians will have lost to other states by the end of this year. Across the country, people are moving past the politics.

To help you decipher politico speak, when the governor talks about reforming Medicaid, he really means expanding Medicaid. Show-Me Institute Senior Analyst Patrick Ishmael has done a tremendous job explaining why expanding Medicaid is a bad idea. Not only would it strain future Missouri budgets by adding billions in new spending (Medicaid already takes up 22 percent of Missouri General Revenue expenditures, up from 17.5 percent just 10 years ago), but the program doesn’t work. The poor should get decent health care; Medicaid fails on that front.

Gov. Nixon raises the point about Missouri taxpayers sending money to Washington, and by failing to expand Medicaid, other states get to spend our money. This is also false. Patrick lays out why this claim is wrong in his most recent Forbes piece. First, Missouri is a net recipient of federal tax dollars. This means that Missouri gets more in federal aid than it sends out in tax dollars. Also, the money for Medicaid expansion is not like some large pie that gets distributed to the states that participate in the expansion. Each state has its own allotment of money to help pay for expansion. If the state doesn’t expand Medicaid, the money isn’t reallocated. That’s why you are seeing the overall cost of Medicaid dropping. Fewer states are signing up for expansion, and thus the actual cost growth of Medicaid is falling below what was projected. If the money was being redistributed, actual cost growth would be closer to projections.

Gov. Nixon’s speech was a mixed bag. The legislature should feel free to ignore the bad ideas. I hope, though, that the good parts mentioned above do more than just receive serious attention. There are serious issues in this state that need addressing, and we need pro-market solutions.

January 21, 2015

A Bad Idea That Sounds So Good

I love my dog Wiley. She is sweet and loyal and kind. I adopted her nine years ago, and I can’t imagine my life without her. That’s why I can’t begrudge someone who wants to encourage others to adopt pets. Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal wants to do just that with her bill that would offer a $300 tax credit for adopting pets from licensed shelters.

In all the areas of government overreach and wasteful spending, this doesn’t come close to taking the cake. Honestly, it’s an appealing prospect. I mean, look at the picture below. Who would be against this puppy getting adopted? It shouldn’t take a tax credit for someone to support adopting puppies.

GoldenRetrieverPuppyDaisyParkerBut this proposed bill wants to do just that, subsidize pet adoption, and the subsidy is the bad idea.

I want dogs to be adopted. I have a soft spot for dogs, and whenever a dog dies in a movie, I turn into Niagara Falls (don’t judge me—a lot of guys cry at the movies). However, the government shouldn’t be in the business of helping people pay for pet adoption. It should be in the business of providing basic goods and services necessary for a functioning society (police, firefighters, and prisons jump immediately to mind). Pet adoption is the purview of individuals and private organizations. If the government kept its spending down to the bare essentials, taxes would be low enough so that taxpayers would have more money to spend on a variety of admirable things: adopting puppies, saving the spotted owl, and preserving the rain forest.

Missouri has issued tax credits to things that frankly don’t need them, like country clubs and movie stars. Adopting pets isn’t nearly an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars as the former two, but it still shouldn’t occur. I hope it will never get the chance.

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