February 24, 2015

Fuel Taxes Back on the Table in Missouri

Recently, two Missouri House Bills (HB 995 and HB 738) proposed to increase fuel taxes in Missouri to fund the state highway system.

The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) has been ringing the alarm bell for years about the impending shortfall in the funds necessary to maintain Missouri’s state highway system. With the failure of Amendent 7 last year, MoDOT unveiled its 325 Plan, which shows how the state would prioritize its declining construction budget. While much of the vital portions of state highways could be maintained in the condition they are in today, more than 20,000 miles of state highways would fall into disrepair.

Much of the problem lies in the gradual deterioration of the user-fee funding base of MoDOT, specifically the state fuel tax. The fuel tax last increased in 1996, and Missouri now has the country’s fifth lowest regular gasoline tax and fourth lowest diesel fuel tax.

But now that could change. HB 738 would scrap the cent per mile fuel tax altogether and replace it with a per gallon tax equal to 10.6 percent of the wholesale per gallon price of gasoline, based on regular six-month averages. The result of moving to a percentage calculation is if the fuel price remains low, at say two dollars wholesale, the fuel tax would be about 21 cents a gallon. But at a price of three dollars, the fuel tax would be around 31 cents a gallon. At three dollars a gallon, MoDOT would have an extra $400 million to spend on the state highways over what the 17 cent gas tax currently raises.

HB 738’s method of calculating the fuel tax would, at higher gas prices, essentially wipe out MoDOT’s funding problems in one fell swoop and ensure that as input costs for MoDOT rise (because of higher fuel costs), so does funding. However, it also means that, as pain increases at the pump for the average Missourian, taxation piles on.

In contrast, HB 995 proposes to simply raise the fuel tax by two cents beginning next year. That would raise approximately $78 million in new revenue, 70 percent of which ($55 million) would go to MoDOT (the other 30 percent goes to cities and counties for their transportation needs). Because those funds can be used to match federal dollars on a 4:1 basis, that two cent tax increase could retain $230 million federal transportation dollars.

HB 995, while not immediately solving all of MoDOT’s problems, has its own advantages. The comparatively small increase in the fuel tax gives consumers time to adjust to the changes and would not increase taxation as fuel costs rise. Furthermore, the increase is small enough that it is likely not to trigger the state’s Hancock Amendment, meaning it could pass without going to a public vote. With the addition of tolling the state’s most expensive projects, small increases in the existing fuel tax rate could give MoDOT what it needs.

A fuel tax, unlike sales taxes, is a fair and economically sound way of funding roads. It is good that the legislature is looking into updating its user funding base, although it should also consider whether the response is appropriate to the need.

January 30, 2015

The Return of the Transportation Sales Tax

Last year, Missourians soundly rejected Amendment 7, which proposed a 0.75 cent increase in the state sales tax to fund transportation improvements in the state. Its main purpose was to head off an impending funding crisis for the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), which will not have enough funds to maintain the highway system in its current state by 2017. But it turns out Missourians might not have seen the last of that transportation sales tax.

Whatever the reasons Amendment 7 failed, it was good for Missouri that it did, because it was not wise policy. Using a general sales tax to pay for highways is both unfair and economically unsound. Instead, the state should modernize the user-tax base that currently funds MoDOT. That could mean increasing the fuel tax, raising the motor vehicle sales tax, indexing licensing fees to inflation, implementing tolling, or some combination of those methods. That way, those who use the roads would pay for them, and in proportion to their use. Using general sales tax to fund roads subsidizes driving and interstate trucking that passes right through Missouri. As we wrote before:

… the fact is the vast majority of trucking freight in Missouri is not bound for Missouri. For example, of the 500 million tons of freight traffic in 2011, only 39 percent of that freight is either inbound or intrastate trucking. Forty-six percent of traffic by weight simply passes through Missouri. In terms of value of the goods transported, only 26 percent has a destination within Missouri while 61 percent of goods by value transit the state.

Unfortunately, a new bill in the Missouri House (HJR 33) would simply revive Amendment 7, albeit in a different form. Instead of raising the state sales tax by 0.75 percent, the bill would divert 0.10 percent of the state sales tax into the road fund for five consecutive years until the amount diverted reached 0.50 percent (two-thirds of Amendment 7). If that came to pass, it would mean that 12 percent, or $233 million in 2014 numbers, of state sales tax revenue would be diverted to the state road fund. That is likely to lead to budget cuts in other state programs or higher taxes for Missourians.

As we have written before, the defeat of Amendment 7 opened the door for sound, user-based policy solutions to MoDOT’s funding problems. HJR 33 is not one of these.

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 2, 2015

Map Series: VIII. The Kansas City Streetcar and Tax Abatements

KC_SC_Abatements

The map above shows the route of the Kansas City Streetcar (under construction), as well as tax abatements enacted by Kansas City from 2011 to 2013. As the map demonstrates, this area of downtown, and particularly the area around the proposed streetcar, has seen the ample use of these tax breaks. Although city leaders and news outlets claim the streetcar creates development, these tax abatements and a combination of other planning factors that favor this small section of downtown may be diverting development. Read more from the Show-Me Institute on the Kansas Streetcar and tax abatements here.

 

December 22, 2014

Urban Neglect: Kansas City and TIF

My colleague Michael Rathbone and I authored an essay titled “Urban Neglect, Kansas City’s Misuse of Tax Increment Financing.”

In the essay we examined Tax Increment Financing (TIF) project data provided by Jackson County and census data on household income. We found that in Kansas City the majority of taxpayer subsidies go to parts of town that are relatively wealthy and economically vibrant, rather than to the poor and economically depressed areas for which TIF was ostensibly designed.

Mike Mahoney of KMBC filed a story on our report. In it he interviewed Councilwoman Cindy Circo, who offered:

But it is the private development that drives the actual project itself. The city doesn’t go through the TIF process itself and be the developer.

This is an odd statement because Burns & McDonnell, and every other company that seeks a TIF subsidy, argues that the project could not go forward without public investment. So while Circo may be correct that the city does not choose the individual projects that apply for TIF, the TIF Commission and the city have demonstrated time and again that they aren’t really vetting applications, which has created an “anything goes” environment. One need only study the Citadel project to know that this is true.

If the city’s appointees on the TIF Commission were better at approving only legitimately blighted properties—those that truly require public investment—public subsidies might more often be used in the parts of town that really needed it. Instead, the subsidies flow to well-connected business leaders and their development lawyers, and public dollars unnecessarily go to projects such as Country Club Plaza and River Market.

December 8, 2014

Iowa, Nebraska, and Arkansas Legislators Gear Up for Income Tax Cuts

In 2014 the Missouri Legislature passed a modest income tax reduction which, given its size, by no means solved the state’s tax competitiveness problems. That fact is reaffirmed by the news we’re now hearing from some of Missouri’s neighbors. For instance, in Iowa—where state lawmakers cut taxes as recently as 2013—the income tax reform movement is getting bipartisan support.

State Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said his preference would be to examine corporate and individual income taxes while exploring ways to simplify the tax system. Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said any tax cuts should be focused on helping middle-class Iowans.

“We will most definitely be looking at income tax reform, making the tax code flatter and simpler,” Sands said.

Sands added he hopes lawmakers will offer “substantial and meaningful tax cuts,” although he explained it’s too early to provide a specific dollar estimate because of uncertainties over state revenue.

Iowa is not the only border state looking to make income tax changes. In neighboring Nebraska, legislators (with the help of the Platte Institute) are exploring a round of tax cuts of their own that would also chop the state’s tax on incomes. On Missouri’s southern border, Arkansas is looking to cut its income taxes too, in part by getting the state’s tax exemption culture under control.

“They’re important to you; therefore, they’re important to me,” [Governor-elect Asa] Hutchinson told the [farming] group. “But we are now reaching a point in Arkansas that we need to look beyond more and more exemptions to our tax structure, and we need to look at an across-the-board reduction of our state income tax.”

Missouri lawmakers deserved applause for finally getting a tax cut across the finish line in 2014, but as we said at the time, that small cut alone is not enough to get the state on a firm, competitive footing for the years ahead—precisely because other states in the region weren’t going to stand still on tax relief. News out of Iowa, Nebraska, and Arkansas confirm this.

And make no mistake: The support for tax cuts has never been greater in the Missouri Legislature than it will be in 2015. Legislative leaders should not sit on their hands and let the opportunity pass them by. Our neighbors certainly aren’t.

November 6, 2014

Proposed Property Tax Increase Fails in Columbia

Since the proposed property tax increase failed in Columbia, it seems the city is heading for a disaster of biblical proportions. I mean Old Testament, real wrath of God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes . . . the dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria! Okay, not really. In fact, if you read my commentary on the ballot measure, you’d know that crime, especially violent crime, and the total number of fires are actually declining in Columbia. This is a good thing.

However, what if you’re among the more than 10,000 residents who feel that Columbia needs a bit more in the way of police and fire protection? I’d say don’t despair. There are other means by which the city can increase revenues without resorting to a property tax increase.

For instance, the city could look at the fire expense reimbursement that it receives for services that it performs for the three colleges located in town. According to the Columbia budget, these reimbursements are declining and have been for the past couple of years. Columbia can renegotiate with these colleges in order to get higher reimbursements.

Columbia also could look into privatizing its water and electric utilities. The sale of these types of utilities can bring in an immediate infusion of cash to cities’ bank accounts. For example, the city of Florissant, Missouri, privatized its water utility in 2002 and received $14.5 million from the sale. More recently, the residents of Arnold approved the sale of their sewer system, which brought the city $13.2 million. Not only can the sale of the utilities themselves bring in more money to the city, but privatization can also expand the city’s property tax base, which would generate more revenue in the future.

The instances of crime and fire have declined in Columbia, yet for those who believe that public safety is underfunded, there are other ways to raise revenue besides a tax increase. Maybe it’s time they explore them.

 

October 16, 2014

The Columbia Police Department and Pennies from Heaven

As Columbia residents prepare to decide whether to increase the budget of the police department through property tax increases, they might be interested in how the police department spends the funds available today. In the video below (begin viewing at 8:43), from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Columbia’s chief of police explained how the department used funds derived from civil asset forfeiture. Reducing the tax burden for Columbia residents, however, was not one of those uses.

Without addressing the propriety of civil forfeiture laws, a department does not inspire confidence when it claims it needs more taxpayer dollars although it spends the proceeds of assets seized from residents on “toys,” as though they were “pennies from heaven.” Columbia residents might consider whether the funds the department currently receives are prudently managed before more is allocated.

October 7, 2014

User Fees Stop Pass-through Traffic from Getting Free Ride

In debates over the ill-fated Amendment 7, which proposed a statewide transportation sales tax, opponents often pointed out that if Missouri used sales taxes to pay for roads, trucking companies essentially would get a free ride. Indeed, large trucks, which can do thousands of times the damage of a regular vehicle, make up a significant portion of traffic on Missouri’s interstates. In retort, proponents of using sales taxes to pay for highways have consistently stated that we all benefit from trucking, and that raising prices on commercial vehicles using Missouri highways will simply lead to those companies passing on their higher costs to Missouri consumers. However, Missouri freight data severely challenges this notion.

In the Missouri State Freight Plan, drafted by the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), 2011 data showed that truck freight totaled over 500 million tons, carrying goods valued at approximately $711 billion. Proponents of using sales taxes to pay for highways argue that if it costs more to move those 500 million tons (by increasing user fees for commercial vehicles), shipping companies will charge higher prices to haul goods, leading to higher prices for Missourians.

However, setting aside the counterargument that charging shipping companies for the highways they use promotes efficient supply chains and local production, the fact is the vast majority of trucking freight in Missouri is not bound for Missouri. For example, of the 500 million tons of freight traffic in 2011, only 39 percent of that freight is either inbound or intrastate trucking. Forty-six percent of traffic by weight simply passes through Missouri. In terms of value of the goods transported, only 26 percent has a destination within Missouri while 61 percent of goods by value transit the state.

truck traffic MO

This means that if Missouri were to use general sales taxes—or any other type of non-user fee—to subsidize highways, the downstream price benefits would mostly accrue to consumers and producers in other states. Having commercial vehicles pay the actual costs of maintaining the highways might mean that prices rise on Missouri goods, but most of the effect would be exported to other states.

That’s why user fees are almost always preferable, when feasible, to general taxation; the cost of using the highway is internalized into the cost of the good, no matter where the final consumer lives. The use of general taxation to pay for highways would lead to higher prices for Missourians, who would provide a subsidized ride for shipping companies and artificially cheap products to residents of other states.

September 9, 2014

Ditch the Tax Incentives and Pursue General Tax Cuts Next Year

The Missouri Legislature’s 2014 veto session begins this week, and the chambers are set to reconsider dozens of bills rejected by the governor earlier this summer. While a handful appear to have enough support for an override, most sit in legislative limbo, fates to be determined. Among those bills hanging in the balance are a package of tax incentives I’ve talked about many times before.

These incentives are bad policy in general, but to create these handouts well outside of the legislature’s normal budgeting protocol is inexcusable. The budget must balance, and this late-breaking special interest goody bag throws the state’s budget out the window. Missourians deserve better than to be treated like a cash spigot for the well-connected.

There’s also a larger picture that needs to be understood here. Some of the most vocal tax cutters are also big boosters of tax incentives, but by creating, expanding, and sustaining tax handouts like these, our state is making the enactment of future tax cuts much more difficult. We should all be paying for the cost of our government, but increasingly, well-connected special interests are being exempted from that burden. That’s wrongheaded policy. As a general rule, if taxes are going to fall for anyone, they should fall for everyone. It’s time to kick the tax incentive circus out of Jefferson City.

The legislature should come back next year and pass broad and responsible tax cuts for Missourians. The first step is rejecting this year’s incentives.

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 24, 2014

Local Road Funding in Missouri

The Missouri Department of Transportation’s (MoDOT) growing funding problem has put the issue of state highway funding on the center stage. This focus on the state road system obscures the fact that most of Missouri’s streets are the responsibility, in terms of funding and maintenance, of local governments.

Missouri has more than 90,000 lane miles of local roads that are the responsibility of cities and counties, as compared to 33,000 lane miles of highways under MoDOT’s purview. While MoDOT receives most of its funding from fees placed on drivers, local roads do not. Counties and municipalities partially fund their streets with the 25 percent of state fuel taxes remitted to localities, but in most areas that is inadequate. Local governments, therefore, rely on local sales taxes, property taxes, and specially formed taxing districts known as transportation development districts (TDD) to pay for road improvements.

One source of funding localities technically could use—but do not—are local fuel taxes, even though they might be a fair and economically sound way to fund roads. Paying for streets with fuel taxes, as opposed to other forms of local taxation, also might have the benefit of limiting wasteful spending, because the Missouri Constitution stipulates that all local fuel tax proceeds must be spent on roads.

The likely reason no Missouri localities collect fuel taxes (although attempts have been made) is that the state constitution stipulates that voters approve any such measure by a 2/3rd majority. Other forms of local taxation, such as transportation sales taxes or property taxes, require only simple majorities. TDDs, semi-democratically created ad hoc taxing districts, also are much easier to implement than fuel taxes. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that while no city has a fuel tax, there are more than 170 TDDs in Missouri, collecting revenue with little accountability or oversight.

Moving forward, many of the funding problems that MoDOT faces for highways is mirrored on the local level. Counties and cities face street maintenance backlogs, and residents have noticed. Recent surveys in Springfield and Kansas City showed residents were highly unsatisfied with the state of local streets.

It is hard to tell what portion of the need arises from a genuine lack of funding and what portion is the result of misplaced priorities. However, as Missourians consider if more must be spent, they also should question how more would be raised, and whether the current methods are transparent and economically sound.

 

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