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

Unappointed Charter School Commission Undermines Intent Of Law

School Icon

In 2012, the Missouri General Assembly passed a bipartisan charter school law. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, the bill “could expand charter schools statewide while making it easier to weed out underperforming ones.” That was the intent of the law, to expand and to improve charter schools in Missouri. A key part of this effort was the creation of “The Missouri Charter Public School Commission.” Last year, the Missouri Legislature approved $300,000 for operations of the commission. Yet, almost two years after being established in state statute, that commission has yet to be appointed.

Senate Bill 576 (2012) states the “commission shall consist of nine members appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate.” The governor is to select four candidates, from slates that the commissioner of education, the commissioner of higher education, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the speaker of the House of Representatives provide. The governor appoints the remaining five candidates, but one must be selected from a slate that the Missouri School Boards Association provides.

The commission would play an important and needed role.  Like universities, it could sponsor and oversee charter schools, but it also could serve as an important safeguard. The Southeast Missourian noted, “Under current law, the State Board of Education can suspend a charter school sponsor, but the board then takes responsibility for the schools.” The passed and signed legislation “would make the Missouri Charter Public School Commission responsible for those schools.”

By not appointing this commission, the intent of the law is not being fulfilled. I’m told that the slates have been submitted, but still no appointments have been made.  There is no reason to delay these appointments further.

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.

April 11, 2014

Tell Taxpayers Where Their Money Is Going

On Thursday, the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., disclosed that the city is ponying up another $65,000 to woo the 2016 Republican convention. Jackson Co., Mo., Wyandotte Co./Kansas City, Kan., and Johnson Co., Kan., also are chipping in an additional $65,000 each. This $260,000 total is in addition to the $100,000 that Kansas City, Mo., already spent. We participated in a KSHB TV story about the spending and asserted that taxpayers ought to be told what is being promised in their name.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James argued that hosting the convention is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he may be correct. Certainly, we all are proud of Kansas City and eager to show off on the 40th anniversary of the last time we hosted. Those are arguments for spending the money — they are not arguments for not telling taxpayers how the money is being spent. If the mayor is so confident about his choices, there is no reason to hide who is getting the money and for what. Furthermore, taxpayers ought to know what additional commitments the city is making to the convention committee. Remember, the $165,000 spent so far is just for the bid to host. Hosting itself will cost millions.

The city claims that the convention will have a large economic impact. We previously have written that those estimates are largely useless as they assume that without the convention there would be no economic activity — which is just silly. The city’s “fact sheet” suggests the economic impact to Kansas City would be similar to Tampa’s in 2012: $214 million. The city likely is getting that from a Tampa Tribune story in which they cited a University of Tampa analysis:

The total impact takes in $214 million in direct spending by the groups that put on the convention, including the Tampa Bay Host Committee, the City of Tampa, the convention’s Committee on Arrangements and corporate sponsors.

Note that in addition to ignoring any economic activity that would have happened without the convention, this impact includes spending from Tampa’s taxpayers.

Lastly, it was gratifying to read in their “fact sheet” that the city thinks we have sufficient hotel rooms and bus service to accommodate the convention, and that our airport has more than 50 direct flights. Let’s hope city officials remember this the next time they advocate committing public funds to convention hotels, streetcars, and new airport terminals.

April 8, 2014

Gas Taxes vs. Transit Fares

In a post on NextSTL, the author points out that gas taxes in Missouri have not kept pace with inflation (the last time the tax went up was in 1996) while fares for transit have increased faster than inflation. The takeaway:

As you can see the value of the gas tax has been eroded by inflation while Metro fares have out-paced it. Of course this isn’t the whole picture. Property and local sales taxes and the Federal gas tax (hasn’t increased since 1993) and general revenues also fund streets, roads, and highways, and local sales taxes, Federal, and a minute amount of state money goes into Metro. But this puts into perspective just who is paying their “fare” share.

My position on the gas tax is pretty clear. I have written testimony arguing that Missouri should raise its gas tax, not general taxes, to pay for highways in Missouri. But the fact remains, indirect taxes on drivers mostly pay for roads while only a tiny sliver of the cost of transit in Saint Louis comes from fares.

First for the roads. In 2013, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), which maintains federal and state highways in Missouri, took in $2.1 billion in revenue. Only 23 percent of that came from the state gas tax. But that’s not the end of the story. Forty-four percent of MoDOT funding came from the federal government, the vast majority of which the federal gas tax funds. MoDOT gets an additional 27 percent of funds from vehicle sales taxes and various forms of licensing fees. All told, approximately 80 percent of MoDOT’s revenue comes from taxes and fees on drivers. That’s too low, but adjusting the state and federal gas tax for inflation and controlling road spending would go a long way to making that number close to 100 percent. In addition, one should remember that the Missouri gas tax is split, with 4.5 cents of the 17.6 cents going to local governments, where it is a significant source for local road repairs.

The story is very different for transit. Taking the example of St. Louis Metro, from 1991 to 2012, fares covered only 14 percent of the costs of building and maintaining Metro. Just looking at 2012, fares covered only 16 percent of the system’s total costs. And while fare revenue has increased faster than inflation, the costs of operating Metro have increased even faster, as the chart below shows:


Essentially, fare revenue has covered less and less of Metro’s cost over time. The rest of the funding comes primarily from general local taxes and the federal government (much of which comes from the part of the federal gas tax that is designated to mass transit funding).

Has the government been irresponsible with the gas tax? Many would say yes. But that does not mean that people who use transit are paying more for transit than drivers pay for highways, because they are not.

April 4, 2014

Show-Me Institute Research Discussed On Ruckus

On Thurs., April 3, the Show-Me Institute’s research about the Kansas City streetcar and the proposed $1.2 billion new terminal plan for Kansas City International Airport (MCI) was featured prominently on the program Ruckus. That program aired on public television station KCPT-TV in Kansas City. Show-Me Institute Board Chairman Crosby Kemper III argued that both the new airport terminal plan and the streetcar are wasteful projects, the result of Kansas City becoming a “fact-free city.”

On the video below, discussion of the future of MCI starts at 1:15 and goes to 7:00. The streetcar discussion, directly addressing our writings about the streetcar expansion’s cost-effectiveness and ridership estimates, starts at 12:24 and goes to 18:40.

April 3, 2014

Metro Plans Unfair Fares?

In the past week, Saint Louis’ transit agency Metro has held meetings to discuss a proposed fare increase on Metrobus and Metrolink tickets. Some at those meetings cried foul, arguing that the increases are too much to bear. But not only are Metro fares heavily subsidized, the way Metro operates means that either fares or local taxes must increase to cover ever-rising costs, as the testimony I submitted to Metro details.

Metro has proposed increasing fares on selected ticket options by approximately 10 percent, with the purpose of raising an extra $2.2 million in revenue. Metro’s strategy is to regularly increase fares by small amounts, rather than imposing infrequent large increases. But even this smaller increase has its opponents. As reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, many have spoken out against raising fares. One attendee at a Tuesday hearing stated, “I agree with a partial raise, but not such a big jump on everything.”

The fact is that fares cover an extremely small percentage of Metro’s costs. In the last 20 years, total Metro fares ($746 million) have accounted for only 14 percent of the total costs of building and operating transit in the Saint Louis area ($5.5 billion). Even if one treats the generous grants of the federal government as manna from heaven, local taxpayers pay far more to fund Metro than fares contribute. For example, in 2012, fares ($49 million) made up only 22 percent of local operating funds ($217 million). The other 78 percent principally comes from taxpayers in the Saint Louis region, only 4 percent of whom use the system to get to work. While it is true more use transit occasionally, most residents of Saint Louis City and County rarely use Metro, if ever. With the federal government and local taxpayers paying so much of Metro’s costs, it is hard to argue that Metro users are being charged too much for their tickets.

To make matters worse, the percentage of operating costs that fares cover has been on a steady downward trajectory over the last two decades. In 1991, fares ($23 million) covered about 28 percent of local operating costs ($83 million) while today they only cover 22 percent. Increasing ticket revenue is not keeping up with the rising costs of operating, much less improving, the Metro transit system, as the chart below demonstrates.


We have written before about how Metro spends an inordinate amount of funds supplying near empty buses to far-flung areas of Saint Louis County. We also have written about the high cost of building and expanding the Metrolink. However, Metro officials feel they have a mandate to improve and expand those services, waste notwithstanding, which means ever-increasing capital and operating costs. Given those constraints, if Metro does not regularly increase fares, a higher and higher share of operating that improved system will fall on those who do not use it.

Inexcusably, Medicaid Expansion Proposal Omits More Than $1 Billion In New State Costs

The leading “Medicaid Transformation” proposal in the Missouri House purports to deliver a Medicaid expansion that effectively makes the state money. Suffice to say, that’s a highly questionable claim, and I don’t even have to cut apart any of the bill’s dubious calculations to reach a very different conclusion. Why? The issue is startlingly simple: The bill’s proponents simply did not account for more than half of the new costs of the Medicaid expansion.

Let me explain how that happened. There are two populations that we discuss regarding Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. The more obvious of the two is the population that would become “newly eligible” under the law — those who, by virtue of the law’s passage, would now qualify for Medicaid coverage up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) estimated that had Missouri expanded its broken Medicaid program after the law passed, the newly eligible population would have cost the state more than a billion dollars from 2013 to 2022. The House expansion bill’s hypothetical budget only really integrates that group into its calculation starting in 2015.

It’s the second population, however, that is an even bigger budgetary concern, and it is substantively ignored in the expansion bill. That group is the “currently eligible” population: those who currently qualify for Medicaid but only become enrolled as part of the expansion’s enrollment push. The phenomenon is sometimes called the “woodwork effect,” as this population that has always been eligible emerges and begins leveraging the Medicaid entitlement for the first time. KFF estimated that over that same period, Missouri would pay $1.6 billion for those new enrollees. That’s more than a doubling of the expansion’s total costs. Without even addressing any of the other problems in the bill’s budgetary forecast, how would the state pay the currently eligible cost of the expansion? I haven’t heard an answer to that question for years now.

You can read more about the issue here. So far without expansion, Medicaid enrollment in Missouri has actually declined; under the circumstances, it is reasonable to suggest that implementation of the expansion itself would initiate the uptick in woodwork costs that KFF forecasted. It is inexcusable that these costs have not been accounted for in the House proposal, but rest assured, this isn’t the first Medicaid expansion proposal I’ve read that failed to integrate these expenses.

Spending is no substitute for reform of a thoroughly broken Medicaid program, especially when the forecasted costs are so woefully understated. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now: reform is where the legislature should focus its attention, particularly this late in the session.

March 27, 2014

State Audit Recommends Sunset Of Historic Preservation Tax Credit

You saw the original, and now here’s the sequel. Just weeks after producing an excellent report on Missouri’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit, Missouri’s state auditors have returned with a review of the Historic Preservation Tax Credit (HPTC) program. We have talked about the HPTC at length here on the blog and elsewhere, and I am delighted that the state’s auditors took a look at a program that has hemorrhaged taxpayer money for years.

What did the auditors find? A lot. For starters, HPTC tax credits have cost the state nearly $600 million over the last five years alone and more than a billion dollars over the last 10. Missouri leads the country in “qualified rehabilitation expenses” (QRE) for historic preservation, which relates to the expenses against which the HPTC could be applied. Broadly speaking, the higher the QRE that rehabbers claim under the HPTC, the more money the state will be spending on it.

So, how big is Missouri’s QRE lead? Check out this chart from page 8 of the audit.

For perspective, Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York are all original U.S. colonies. Are we to believe that Missouri should have been subsidizing preservation spending at almost twice the rate as the next closest state… and not only that, subsidizing it at that level for more than a decade?

I can appreciate that we love our old buildings in Missouri, but if anything and everything can get the stamp of being “historic,” then we degrade the things that are, in fact, historic and waste limited taxpayer resources in the process. Could some projects be worthy of taxpayer support? Possibly, but those cases would be an exception, not a billion dollar rule.

To name a fraction of the examples that underscore this reality, Norwood Hills Country Club should not have received taxpayer money. A whole host of private mansions that the HPTC subsidized should not have received taxpayer money. Check out this story, from the audit:

In 2011, the DED issued about $296,000 in credits to an applicant who renovated a 3-story, 5,400 square foot home in an affluent neighborhood in a metropolitan area. The applicant purchased the home in 1993 for nearly $300,000 and reported about $1.2 million in qualified rehabilitation expenditures. The home has a fair market value of approximately $434,000.

So the owner buys a $300,000 house, drops $1.2 million into it, gets nearly $300,000 (almost what he paid for the house originally!) in credits from the state, and the value of the house rises… about $130,000? On what planet does subsidizing a private residence in a wealthy neighborhood make any sense for taxpayers? Why did Missourians have to effectively reimburse this person the purchase price of their home? Who’s looking out for the taxpayers here? And who in their right mind and looking at the numbers thinks this is a good “investment” for the state?

The HPTC is a mess of a program. The least the legislature could do is set a date for this madness to end.

Spending ‘Brewster’s Millions’ On Missouri Public Schools

Brewsters Millions

Imagine your great uncle passes away and leaves you a huge sum of money, but there is a catch. To get the money, you have to spend $30 million on Missouri’s public education system and make a demonstrable impact on student achievement. Contrary to the plot of the 1985 comedy “Brewster’s Millions,” your great uncle demands results. Would you follow Missouri Budget Project’s advice and put the $30 million into the state’s foundation formula for public schools to make up for the funding gap?

If so, you could probably kiss your riches goodbye. You might be better off following Monty Brewster’s lead and organizing a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals. You could invite disadvantaged students to watch the game on a field trip. After all, one study has shown that “poor” readers with more knowledge about baseball outperformed “good” readers with relatively little knowledge about baseball.

All levity aside, there is little reason to believe that pumping more money into the funding formula will lead to improved results.

Let’s imagine that you do put the money in the formula to fill the “underfunding” gap. In the table below, I display how much Missouri schools would get from your great uncle’s generosity. In this graph, schools were sorted into deciles based on the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the state’s math exam (districts were weighted for size). As you can see, you would be giving almost as much money to the highest-performing schools as you would to the lowest-performing schools.

If you would not invest your own money in this manner, why would you invest taxpayer money this way?

I have never denied that Missouri is underfunding the foundation formula; the state is. This does not mean that the formula is infallible. The formula is flawed and is in need of change. It is time to stop asking how much money we can spend on schools and start asking how we can spend our money more effectively, so that we can truly improve the lives of students.

Performance Decile (1=Low, 10=High)

Percent of Funds Received

Brewster’s Wasted Millions



$ 3,268,083.78



$ 3,408,597.58



$ 2,633,148.34



$ 3,562,383.35



$ 2,742,869.50



$ 3,107,064.16



$ 3,026,888.02



$ 3,545,048.73



$ 2,407,816.09



$ 2,298,100.43

March 26, 2014

Kansas City Streetcar Expansion Could Buy More Than 100 Buses

For the same cost as the proposed streetcar expansion, Kansas City could buy and operate 105 additional buses, even with a planned Transportation Development District (TDD).

The TDD is intended to raise $471.9 million to complete the nascent streetcar system throughout the inner city. Our position is that these systems are less efficient at moving people than buses and that the promises of economic development from streetcars are without empirical basis. To their credit, most streetcar supporters spend their time arguing that the streetcars bring economic development and do not try to claim that streetcars are more efficient people movers.

Nevertheless, many proponents have the idea that it is cheaper in the long run to build a streetcar system than to expand bus service. This post addresses these arguments and asks how many buses the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) could buy and operate if it were given the resources of the $500 million streetcar plan.

Using data from the National Transit Database, KCATA, and actual performance of streetcars in Portland, I estimated yearly operating costs and revenue streams for the streetcar and an expanded bus system. While any such calculations on an unfinished system require some estimation, my calculations are streetcar-friendly by assuming high ridership, elevated farebox recovery, and controlled capital and operating costs.

The findings were that KCATA could buy and operate 105 additional buses for the same cost of building and operating 7.6 miles of streetcar lines.  To satisfy objectors who might claim huge life cycles for streetcars, I also made a calculation assuming the streetcars were not replaced and that only buses were replaced. This reduction in streetcar costs meant KCATA would only be able to buy and operate 100 buses.

To put that in perspective, KCATA currently only operates 257 buses for 61 bus routes that serve the entire Kansas City region. Adding 105 buses would significantly improve regional services and would utterly transform bus service if they were bound to the TDD meant to serve the streetcars. The chart below shows what type of bus service 7.6 miles of streetcar lines buys:

Matt Transit Graph

The case is clear. Whatever one believes about the economic development promises of streetcars, in terms of providing mobility, buses are far more cost-efficient than streetcars.

Are Missouri Schools Underfunded?

Though there is overwhelming evidence (here, here, and here) that increasing spending on education will not lead to better results, the calls for more money seemingly never cease. Most recently, the Missouri Budget Project released a report claiming Missouri is underfunding education to the tune of $656 million. Let me say this boldly and clearly, the Missouri Budget Project is correct. That is, if you define “underfunding” as not fully funding the formula. If, however, you define “underfunding” as not providing enough money to provide a quality education, then they may be wrong. Let me explain.

Yesterday on the Show-Me Daily blog, my colleague Michael Rathbone pointed out that “there is no correlation between how much a school district is ‘underfunded’ and its actual performance.” In other words, districts that are more underfunded do just as well as districts that are nearly fully funded.

In the table below, I present all of the districts that scored a 100 percent and a 70 percent or below on the 2013 Missouri School Improvement Program Annual Performance Report (MSIP 5). Next to each district’s MSIP 5 score, I present the amount each district is underfunded per student as reported by the Missouri Budget Project. As you can see, in many cases, schools that are doing very well are relatively more “underfunded” than our lowest-performing schools.

So, are Missouri schools “underfunded”? It depends on what definition you use. They are underfunded when using the definition that the Missouri Budget Project uses, but they may not be if underfunded means “adequately” funded. Maybe we need to start rethinking how we fund education, not just how much.

Level of “Underfunding” in Missouri’s Best- and Worst-Performing Schools

MO Budget Blog Post

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