January 28, 2015

The Wonderful Evergreen Clause

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Imagine you had a contract with your employer that could never be altered unless both you and your employer agreed to the changes. Imagine this contract was a windfall for you, giving you a four-day weekend, up to three months paid vacation each year, and the ability to retire early with a great pension. That might be great for you, but would it be fair?

If you live in the Saint Louis Metropolitan Area, as a taxpayer you might be the employer bound to such an agreement. The beneficiary of this arrangement? Your local firefighters union.

Nicknamed “evergreen clauses” because they make a contract last forever, these contract provisions are popping up in government collective bargaining agreements across the country. And they create a situation where elected officials cannot alter the pay, benefits, or work rules captured in a union contract unless the union agrees to this change. In practice, this means that pay and benefits can be ratcheted up in years when public finances are good and the union controls public officials, but pay and benefits cannot be brought back down when the union loses its influence or public coffers are tapped.

In West County, the Monarch Fire Protection District has tried to change the terms of its contract with International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 2665, but it is limited by an evergreen clause. At issue in the contract are provisions that state:

  • There will be no duties (other than an alarm) assigned to safety staff after noon of each working day. Each working day is a 24-hour shift.
  • A firefighter/paramedic works three days in each nine-day period (two-to-three days each week).
  • A firefighter/paramedic with 15 years of service (most of the shift staff) is entitled to 27 days of paid vacation each year. Working nine days a month, this comes to about three months of vacation a year.
  • In addition to vacation days, a firefighter/paramedic also receives paid days off in the form of sick days and “Kelly” days.
  • Sick leave accrues over time and can be “cashed out” for pay.

Perhaps these provisions made sense when they were adopted several years ago, but now the fire district, and by extension the taxpayers, are powerless to change them.

Contracts like this shift the power of government away from the democratic process to the government union benefiting from the contract. Missouri citizens should consider whether they really want their government to have the power to bind itself to a contract indefinitely.

At the time this story went to print, the firefighters union had not responded to our request for comments.

January 22, 2015

Open Collective Bargaining at Monarch

Firefighter Turnouts-Gear Rack
In October 2013, the Monarch Fire Protection District implemented a new approach to collective bargaining with the union representing rank-and-file firefighters. Rather than hold meetings on pay, benefits, time off, and work rules behind closed doors, the board of the fire district decided to make these meetings open to the public.

With open collective bargaining, any citizen, journalist, or Monarch employee interested in the process could show up to a meeting and see the demands made by the union and the board. In theory, this process would keep demands in check, tactics civil, and allow the public to see how government decisions are made.

One might think that a more transparent process for determining how a government entity delivers services and spends taxpayer money would be welcomed by all; however, it appears that the union did not like the arrangement.

“The union lawyer tried stunts to close the meetings to the public,” says Jane Cunningham, one of three members of the fire district board.

According to Cunningham, when collective bargaining was held behind closed doors, it was easy for the union to get whatever terms they wanted in the contract. In essence, the union was able to exert complete control over the fire district because it had majority control of the board and could collectively bargain without public scrutiny.

No one would suggest that private-sector collective bargaining should occur in public forums. That’s because the terms and conditions of private employment are, well, private. But the public has an interest in what public employees are paid, both because taxpayers are picking up the tab and because the right balance of compensation is important to getting good service without being overcharged.

Now that open collective bargaining is in place at Monarch, it appears that the union is no longer getting exactly what it wants in collective negotiations, and community interests are being better served.

Will other government entities open their collective bargaining negotiations? Only time will tell. For now it appears that Monarch is taking a step in the right direction with this innovative approach to government transparency.

At the time this story went to print, the firefighters union had not responded to our request for comments.

January 9, 2015

Thoughts on the Latest Rams Press Conference

With the recent news that Rams owner Stan Kroenke is planning to build a new football stadium, the chances of the Rams leaving Saint Louis have increased substantially. Late last year, Gov. Nixon appointed a two-person team whose mission was to investigate options for keeping the NFL in Saint Louis. The team, which consists of former Anheuser-Busch executive Dave Peacock and Clayton area attorney Bob Blitz, presented their report on Friday. Below are key points raised in that report:

  • Plans are for a new stadium located on the riverfront, north of Lumiere Casino and northeast of the Edward Jones Dome.

Stadium2.0

  • The stadium also would be available for professional soccer.
  • It would be a public asset owned by a public entity and leased to the team. Also, the new stadium would come with a new lease, 30 years or more.
  • Cost estimate: $860-$985 million, at least half of which would be privately financed (minimum $200 million from Stan Kroenke and another $200 million from the NFL).
  • No new tax burden, although there would be public money involved.
  • Estimated completion date: 2020.

After listening to the press conference and going over some of the points raised here, I have my misgivings about this project. First, I would like to know specifically where the money is coming from to pay for this new stadium. During the press conference, Peacock said that the sources of public financing would not be ascertained until there was a commitment from the NFL and from the Rams on moving forward with this project. Second, the $860-$985 million price tag would only be for the new stadium. Additional money (it wasn’t said how much) would be needed to upgrade the current Dome so it will be a full-time convention center. How are we going to pay for that as well?

My biggest misgiving is the fact that we will be publicly subsidizing this thing at all. Kroenke’s proposal in Los Angeles would be completely privately financed. Why should the public put up money when Kroenke can afford to pay for the costs himself? The most recent trend in stadium construction is toward private investment. That’s what happened in San Francisco and New York, so why should Saint Louis be different?

I know it is easy to be wowed by beautiful pictures of sparkling developments like the one above. Yet, nice pictures aside, these kinds of plans do not produce the economic benefits that would make these developments worthwhile. I want Saint Louis to remain an NFL town, but I don’t want to spend taxpayer dollars to do it.

January 7, 2015

What Do Home Care Union Executives Really Want: A Wage Increase for Their Workers or a Union Contract?

residentialworker1On Christmas week, while many Missourians were exchanging presents or grabbing Chinese food, members of the Missouri Home Care Union were hard at work lobbying the governor. Ostensibly seeking higher pay for the home care attendants the union represents, the union placed carolers outside the governor’s mansion singing Christmas songs with lyrics altered to convey their message. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” became “I’m Dreaming of a Fair Governor,” and St. Louis Public Radio captured union members singing several bars of “home care workers are coming to town.”

The odd thing about this press junket is that the governor wants to give home care workers the pay increase the union is asking for, but the union objects to the method the governor proposes to give home care workers this pay bump. From the governor’s Office of Administration:

“The governor supports the wage range provision of the labor agreement between the Missouri Quality Home Care Council and the Missouri Home Care Union that provides a pay raise for home health care workers. To ensure the wage range provision of the agreement has the full force and effect of the law, the administration will be implementing the wage range recommendation through an administrative rule.”

Jeff Mazur, executive director of the union, responded by calling the governor’s proposal to enact the pay raise “unnecessary and unwise.” It appears union executives like Mazur are really after a governor’s order implementing a collective bargaining agreement. We’ve seen this before in other states.

Home health care unions, like the Missouri Home Care Union, formed to represent home care attendants who received Medicaid funding for acting as a personal assistant of a person in need of care. In many states, such as Illinois and Michigan, once home care unions were formed, they negotiated a union contract that forced all home care workers to pay a portion of their check to the union, whether or not the worker wanted union representation.

Imagine you’re enrolled in Missouri’s home care program and you’re getting a check from the government to help offset the cost of taking care of a disabled relative. Now imagine that the state bound you to a union contract against your will, and a portion of your check is going to union executives and their pet political causes.

Governor Nixon is right to be cautious of the union’s demands. If Missouri is better off increasing payments to people enrolled in the home care program, it can do so without entering a collective bargaining agreement. Such collective bargaining agreements can have bad consequences for the home care assistants subject to them, who often cannot afford to have their benefits tapped into by a union that they do not support.

October 17, 2014

Government Pensions Should Be Portable, as Well as Sustainable

I was hired by the California Legislative Counsel right out of law school at the age of 25. At the time, I could see myself spending the next several decades there, but I wasn’t ready to commit to the proposition. Unfortunately, in order for my retirement package to be valuable, I would have had no choice but to make a career of it.

California’s retirement system uses a defined benefit plan and would have paid me a generous amount each month during retirement, but only if I spent several decades in the system. If I stayed at my job for less than a decade, my retirement benefit hardly would have been worth the contribution I was paying into the system.

Situations like mine are common where government employees are in a defined benefit system. The following chart illustrates my point by showing benefit growth in the New York City Teachers’ Retirement Plan.

NY teachers pension graph

 

An employee who stays in that system for a full 15 years will only earn $100,000 in benefits, but 15 years later, the value of the benefits will quadruple. These types of formulas often incentivize employees to stay at a job longer than they would like. They also make the position unattractive to new hires who might not want to stay with the job for 20 or 30 years.

Sustainability is the main problem with defined benefit pensions. Unlike with a 401(k)-type retirement system, where an employee invests a definite amount each paycheck and collects the return during retirement, defined benefit plans commit public institutions to vast pension obligations to be paid out years in the future. The discrepancy between promised benefit and actual amount invested means that defined benefit systems are often inadequately funded and can create fiscal crises when pensions mature.

An important side benefit of pension reform is the potential increase in the quality of government workforces. By switching to a more portable system, governments would attract a more experienced and a more diverse workforce. Employees would join government workforces at the middle and end of their careers, bringing valuable private-sector experience with them, and people would feel free to take a government job at the beginning of their careers, even if they weren’t sure they wanted to be there until retirement.

August 26, 2014

How to Attract Jobs, or at Least Not Repel Them

Public officials in Kansas City and elsewhere are eager to be seen as job creators. Almost every taxpayer-subsidized development project, every act of crony capitalism, every public project like a new $1.2 billion airport terminal, $62 million-per-mile streetcar, or convention hotel is discussed in terms of the jobs it will create. Politicians tells us, as they did in the TIF Commission hearing for the Burns & Mac handout, that the city cannot “wait for the free market,” that government must act.

But is government’s use of taxpayer dollars more successful than people making their own decisions?

Economist Enrico Moretti was interviewed on NPR’s Here and Now about his book, The New Geography of Jobs. He was asked about how successfully innovative regions are created and replicated [segment begins at 8:27]:

“[Interviewer] This is the unsettling part of your book: How do cities replicate these innovative job clusters?

“[Moretti] It’s very tough, because if you look historically where the innovation clusters are located, almost none of them [were] created by some deliberate, explicit policy. It’s really hard to engineer an innovation cluster. We talk about Seattle, but if you look at a lot of the clusters, they were all born in very random, often serendipitous, ways. So it’s really hard for policy makers to engineer from scratch.”

There is no magic formula known to bureaucrats or politicians about which companies and industries will be successful in the future. But they use public resources time and again chasing that white rabbit of jobs and growth. And unfortunately, the impact of taxing many businesses to subsidize a few is more often than not a recipe for destroying jobs, or at least keeping them away.

A better investment, as Show-Me has argued for years, is for government’s action to be broad and neutral: keep taxes low for everyone, maintain infrastructure, deliver necessary city services, and ensure quality education. Maybe those aren’t as appealing as large edifices named after politicians, but they are more successful.

August 13, 2014

Streetcar Fever: Is it Now Or Never To Expand The Kansas City Streetcar?

Following the defeat of their expansion plan in Kansas City, today, streetcar proponents are wondering aloud about how to move their project forward – and fast. The mayor has vowed that the city’s leadership is not going tolet it go,” and supporters are considering how to form a new streetcar district that can win prompt voter support.

Clearly, one thing streetcar proponents do not want to do is wait to see the results of the initial streetcar line, but why the rush? Why do city officials think the streetcar expansion proposal is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”? Some streetcar proponents fear that the Republicans might win the presidency and stop giving money to transit, and at more than $50 million a mile, streetcar projects are just too expensive for cities to undertake without federal help. As one streetcar supporter put it, “Do you think President Ted Cruz would fund urban transit?”

The answer to that question is yes, actually, if history is any guide. Below is a chart of federal spending on capital improvements for transit, through two Republican and Democratic presidents.

FedCaptrans

While the Obama administration has increased support for transit, the George W. Bush administration was also a big spender. What’s more, a future Republican administration is unlikely to be catastrophic for transit funding, as almost 80 percent of funds come directly from a federal Mass Transit Account. This account will continue to provide a baseline of transit funding under any new administration.

What streetcar advocates really have to fear is not the defunding of urban transit, but the defunding of streetcars in favor of other forms of transit. Past administrations favored transit projects that reduced congestion or improved mobility, so streetcars received few federal dollars. The Obama administration’s desire to use transit projects to create “livable communities” has made federal streetcar funding possible.

But if the more than 10 planned streetcar projects are as successful as proponents hope – both in terms of development and boosting transit – the next administration (Team Red or Blue) would likely fund more streetcar projects. Only if the streetcars fail to meet expectations, given their massive cost, would federal money dry up for streetcars.

Perhaps it’s that possibility – that streetcars face a tough accounting in future– that has supporters in a rush. What’s certain is that federal transit funding is not going anywhere, and if streetcars are so great for urban areas, the money will be there if Kansas City ever decides to expand its streetcar line. And if streetcars turn out to be an urban planning fad and that funding disappears? Kansas City will be better off for its caution. When it comes to expanding the streetcar, Kansas City residents should feel free to emulate the streetcar and take it slow.

August 12, 2014

That Burns & McDonnell TIF And Vandalism

Earlier this year, the Kansas City Council voted to use tax dollars to subsidize a project for Burns & McDonnell, one of the nation’s largest engineering firms. The Tax Increment Financing (TIF) site — a property featuring a former synagogue and school but otherwise dominated by a large parking lot — is literally next to the company’s world headquarters. We wrote at the time the TIF was being considered that the subsidy would be a poor use of limited public resources, especially for a successful firm that could certainly afford to expand and build upon a vacant property adjacent to its own.

Of course, Burns & Mac got its taxpayer subsidy, in part because of the “vandalism” that had occurred inside the empty buildings. In a hearing before the Kansas City TIF Commission, Scott Belke, the consultant who prepared the blight study, said, “This is one of the most vandalized buildings I’ve seen in my 29 years of work.” Thus, TIF supporters argued, the site and buildings needed to be remediated … with taxpayer support.

Belke admitted in questioning that he has never failed to find a site blighted, and that’s no surprise; we at the Show-Me Institute have been unable to find any case in the entire state of Missouri where a consultant has not considered a proposed TIF site blighted.

So, how were the buildings remediated? They … were bulldozed.

B&Mdemolition

Why was vandalism even considered a reason for blight if the entire structure was going to be razed anyway? Burns & Mac was never going to inhabit the synagogue; the building’s condition was, in practice, irrelevant to what Burns and Mac’s plans were for it: destruction. The only reason the building’s condition was an issue was because it was a foothold for the company to steer taxpayer dollars to its project, through TIF. That’s a cynical and objectionable path to getting city taxpayer money, but that’s business as usual in Kansas City.

Some people believe in the power of TIF, and perhaps it has a role to play in some development projects. But in Kansas City and elsewhere in Missouri, TIF is so frequently used and abused — and not even in legitimately blighted urban areas for which TIF was intended — that the whole enterprise has become a farce: a farce, as in this case, that enriches wealthy developers at the cost of city taxpayers.

July 28, 2014

Do We Need Amendment 7 To Match Federal Highway Dollars?

Representatives from the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) often warn that without more money, be it from a transportation sales tax or elsewhere, Missouri will not be able to match federal dollars for highways. Essentially, they are saying that if the state does not raise more money, it will leave eight to 10 times that amount in federal dollars on the table. However, these statements fail to clarify that: 1.) the federal dollars going to Missouri are limited, and 2.) the amount Missouri needs to match those funds is nowhere near $534,000,000 per year (the annual amount Amendment 7 would raise).

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Federal dollars for highway improvements is a fixed amount that comes for the federal Highway Trust Fund, which the federal fuel taxes mainly support. The amount that Missouri currently receives is fixed by federal obligation limitations and the proportion that the state received in the past. State lane mileage and vehicle activity mostly determined the portion the state received in the past. Simply put, the amount of money available for state highway projects is mostly fixed, and currently, Missouri does not leave any money on the table. If Missouri decided to spend an extra billion dollars this year, it is unlikely that federal money to the state would increase.

According to MoDOT’s cautious projections, in which the federal government reduces its support to Missouri, the state will begin failing to match federal funds in 2020, leaving $186 million on the table. But to meet that match (of 80 percent federal, 20 percent state) Missouri would only have to increase local revenue by just less than $50 million, nowhere near the current $534 million proposal.

If we assume that the federal government fixes the federal highway funding problems and support does not decrease, the problem of matching funds is larger. By 2022, Missouri would be leaving about $530 million of federal dollars unmatched. However, under that scenario, Missouri would only have to increase local revenue by $130 million per year to get that money.

When it comes to federal dollars, unless there are major policy changes in Washington, the amount Missouri could get for the highways is relatively fixed whether or not Missouri raises taxes. While Missouri may lose the ability to match those dollars in the future, Missouri will eventually need to raise annually between only $50 million and $130 million. If Amendment 7 passes, the federal government will not make it rain; if the amendment fails, the sky is not going to fall.

July 16, 2014

The Report The Airport Advisory Group Doesn’t Want You To See

Granted, that is a cliché title, but we can defend it. Twice, Show-Me Institute staff reached out to the Kansas City Airport Terminal Advisory Group (ATAG) about incorrect claims they were making in their presentations. We know from an open records request that they received our offer, considered it, and then ignored it while trying not to seem like they were ignoring it.

Dave Fowler, co-chairman of ATAG and a former managing partner at KPMG in Kansas City — one of the world’s largest auditing firms, — shockingly wasn’t ever concerned with the cost details. And whenever people provided financial information that did not align with the city’s talking points, it was dismissed. The affordability of the whole scheme was never seriously considered.

Until now.

Joe Miller, a policy researcher at the Show-Me Institute, has compiled all the cost data and concluded that over 30 years, it would be cheaper to renovate the Kansas City International Airport (MCI) twice than to build a new $1.2 billion terminal. Add this analysis to the many other points we’ve raised about the environmental or competitive need for a new terminal and it becomes impossible to find any worthwhile reason to tear down one of the country’s finest airports.

July 8, 2014

The Math Does Not Add Up For Murky Kansas City Streetcar Deal

In a previous post, we commented on how officials from Kansas City and the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) are hammering out a deal to divert $144 million of the proceeds from the proposed statewide sales tax to the Kansas City streetcar. According to the Kansas City Business Journal and the Kansas City Star, the plan will cap the sales tax increase in downtown Kansas City at 1 percent (0.25 percent for the streetcar Transportation Development District, or TDD, and 0.75 percent for the proposed statewide sales tax).

Source: Kansas City Business Journal

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Speaking of bad math, the cost of the projects in MARC’s chart (above) adds up to $800.4 million, not $775.7 million. So what’s getting cut? Does anyone check these things? 

On the surface, that sounds great for residents of downtown Kansas City (if not elsewhere). Previously, they were asked to pay a 1 percent higher sales tax to get the streetcar expansion. Now, they still pay 1 percent more, but they get other road and transit projects that state taxpayers fund, in addition to the streetcar expansion.

Haven’t seen a deal like that since Billy Mays died. But wait, there’s more!

Actually, the math for that “swap” does not work. The TDD’s 1 percent sales tax was supposed to bring in approximately $30 million a year. If the city reduces that rate to 0.25 percent, it will create a funding gap of almost exactly $210 million. That’s the reason the city was originally asking for $210 million; it was not some random number (although the city is not beyond doing that).

Drop the amount that streetcar gets from the state to $144 million, and a $65 million funding gap opens up. And remember that the original plan already had a $31 million unresolved budget gap. That leaves almost $100 million up in the air, ready to come crashing down on Kansas City taxpayers. Unless there is some other very large source of funding for the streetcar, the TDD sales tax cannot be held to 0.25 percent. It would need to rise to about 0.50 percent to maintain adequate funding (but still not addressing the initial $31 million shortfall).

The underlying problem is the incredible expense of building a streetcar system. Even if the federal government and Missouri taxpayers cover massive portions of the streetcar’s cost, there’s still a significant burden for residents in downtown Kansas City. Residents in the proposed TDD, Kansas City, and state will have to decide whether the streetcar is worth it.

July 7, 2014

Kansas City’s Murky Streetcar Deal Goes Public

During the last couple of weeks, we have commented about the developing story of the closed-door dealings between Kansas City officials and the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) regarding the future of the streetcar and the proposed 0.75 percent statewide transportation sales tax. We also have pointed out how this process arbitrarily discards the regional priorities that a transparent public process created. Both of these terrible transportation policies are on the Aug. 5 ballot, so naturally Kansas City officials were worried that a whopping 1.75 percent increase in the sales tax for downtown Kansas City might end in mutual defeat.

Kansas City officials cooked up a plan that would make the tax increase a more palatable 1 percent in downtown Kansas City. They proposed a “swap” that would cap the streetcar’s Transportation Development District (TDD) sales tax at 0.25 percent on condition that the 0.75 percent sales tax passed (a total tax increase of 1 percent). In return, they called for $210 million to be diverted to the streetcar to make up for lost revenue. As we noted, that incredible amount of money could only result in virtually no money for other transit improvements or cuts to road funding. The media in Kansas City, despite ample evidence of a burgeoning deal, did not report on the story until the day before the long Fourth of July weekend.

The Kansas City Business Journal finally reported on July 3 that a deal was in the works, with $144 million going to the Kansas City streetcar, accompanied with sharp cuts to other transit and pedestrian improvement projects. That means about 18 percent of all regional transportation funds will be diverted to a questionable development scheme in downtown Kansas City, should the transportation sales tax pass.

FundsMARC2

Both the Business Journal and the Star reported that the plan to cap the downtown tax increase at 1 percent is part of the deal, even though simply arithmetic makes this simple “swap” impossible (as a future post will detail).

This murky deal is the worst type of policy making. The “swap” essentially makes the streetcar policy and the transportation sales tax more politically palatable to those living in downtown Kansas City by making state taxpayers unwittingly pay for a massive share of the streetcar. This is the type of bargain that is only necessary because the state and Kansas City plan to spend huge sums on wasteful “transportation” projects, and only possible because a sales tax means that who pays has nothing to do with who benefits.

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