September 6, 2014

St. Louis County: Does It Have Too Many Municipalities

Many municipalities in Saint Louis County, large and small, rely on fines that harm their populations to fund local government. This week, the Washington Post published a story illuminating how clusters of small municipalities, each attempting to fund their governments through citations, turn parts of the county into a minefield for cash-strapped residents.

Saint Louis County contains 90 municipalities, some with less than 1,000 residents. Many of the smaller municipalities are in North Saint Louis County and rely heavily on traffic tickets and court fees. For example, Beverly Hills (population of 571) issued more than 3,000 tickets and collect more than $200,000 in court fees last year. Charlack, a small city in North Saint Louis County (population 1,362), derives 29 percent of its revenue through traffic fines alone. By contrast, most cities in Missouri receive less than 5 percent of their revenue from fines and fees.


But size is not everything. As the Post article points out, even the larger municipalities in North Saint Louis County are guilty of issuing numerous citations. Florissant (population 52,000) issued almost 30,000 traffic tickets for more than $3 million in fines last year, accounting for 13 percent of its revenue. Saint Ann, notorious for its I-70 speed trap, expects that 36 percent of its revenue ($3.3 million) will come from fines and court fees in 2014.

Furthermore, small Saint Louis County municipalities do not all rely so heavily on fines. For instance, Grantwood Village (population 863) only issues around 120 traffic tickets a year. In 2012, it collected only $34,000 in fines and fees. Black Jack, a small municipality in North Saint Louis County (population 6,920), receives less than 5 percent of its revenue from fines. What do Grantwood Village and Black Jack have in common? They both contract out police from Saint Louis County and do not operate their own police departments.

A combination of necessity and opportunity likely drives cities, large and small, to pursue aggressive citation policies: the necessity arising from a dearth of other funding sources, the opportunity from having a piece of Missouri’s highway system.

Fining residents to generate revenue, instead of promoting public order, is not the way to achieve good governance in Saint Louis County. In future blog posts, we will discuss these problems further and explore ways residents and policymakers can reform local governments.

September 5, 2014

Charity Is Not Your Strong Suit, Francis Howell

 Annual Performance Report

On Wednesday, Elisa Crouch and Jessica Bock of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Francis Howell will allow transfer students from the Normandy School District to return. That is, if those students take legal action and force the school district to comply with the law.

The Francis Howell School District will continue to require court orders for students from Normandy who want to transfer, said Jennifer Henry, district spokeswoman. The district sent a letter today to parents to inform them that it was possible 350 students could be returning, but that it was unclear how many would take legal action. 

So far, 17 transfer students have returned to Francis Howell through court orders. 

Henry said district leaders continue to believe that the transfer situation depletes the resources for the larger student population who remain in the school district.

The district claims it is not accepting all of the students, as other school districts have done, because they are concerned about draining resources from the unaccredited Normandy School District. This is simply taking a faux moral high ground.

Francis Howell is a great district. They have great teachers, administrators, resources, and students. Because of the large size of the district, roughly 17,000 students, it easily can accommodate an influx of 350 to 400 students in need of better educational opportunities. And, as we just found out, student achievement in the district was not negatively impacted by the influx of Normandy students.

If Francis Howell really wanted to take the high ground, they would open their doors to students desperate for a quality education and they would lower their tuition rate. Even with a lower tuition rate, the district could still see a financial windfall. If they did that, they would be showing true compassion for the students who want to transfer and the students who do not.

Forcing students to sue in order to obtain their spot that they are promised by state law in order to save Normandy money is not charitable, it is poor form and simply bad policy.

September 4, 2014

Is the Super Bowl a Super Boost for Local Economies?

The Kansas City Star published an article reporting on the creation of a task force whose goal is to bring the Super Bowl into Kansas City. My colleague Patrick Tuohey did a great job explaining how claims of large economic impacts to Super Bowl host cities have been overstated. However, there is more to the story than just saying the economic impact of a Super Bowl is overstated.

Does the Super Bowl have any positive net economic impact on a host city?

The answer is it can, but it probably won’t. In a 2009 study, Michael C. Davis and Christian M. End found that hosting a Super Bowl has no economic impact on a city’s real per capita income, and in some cases it can have a negative effect. Robert A. Baade, Robert Baumann, and Victor Matheson examined the economic impact of mega-events (including the Super Bowl) in Southern Florida from 1980 to 2005. During that period, three cities (Tampa Bay, Miami, and Jacksonville) hosted the Super Bowl a total of seven times. The Super Bowl had a statistically significant positive impact on the city’s economy in only one instance (Tampa in 2001). Dennis Coates found that Houston saw increased sales tax revenue because of the Super Bowl in 2004. But the next year in Jacksonville, the Super Bowl was found not to have had an economic impact.

This takes us back to the Kansas City Super Bowl task force. Why is the state in the business of trying to lure the Super Bowl to Kansas City? Couldn’t a private group of interested residents and businesses sell the city as a Super Bowl destination just as well? Possibly, but the state can offer the NFL subsidies. However, just because the state can do something, doesn’t mean it should. Economists in general oppose sports subsidies because, “The large and growing peer-reviewed economics literature on the economic impacts of stadiums, arenas, sports franchises, and sport mega-events has consistently found no substantial evidence of increased jobs, incomes, or tax revenues for a community associated with any of these things.”

It’s true that there could be intangible benefits to hosting a Super Bowl, like increased exposure to the outside world. Yet, is there any concrete measure on what kind of return the city would see from such exposure? Will businesses or residents move to Kansas City because it hosted the Super Bowl? I don’t know, and the burden of proof should be on those arguing for government subsidies.

Kansas City is a great football town, and I agree with Joe Clifford when he says, “The Super Bowl’s tremendous.” However, I don’t think the residents of Kansas City nor the rest of Missouri should pay for the privilege.



September 3, 2014

The Score Is Falling! The Score Is Falling!—Or Not

When it was announced that hundreds of students would transfer from the unaccredited school districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens to higher-performing districts, receiving communities had a few concerns. One of these concerns was that transfer students would negatively affect their school’s standardized test scores.

Young families hunting for a house often use standardized test rankings as a tool to select a neighborhood. This is highly evident in the Lindbergh School District, where, aside from its relatively low tax rates and housing turnover, the district’s rising enrollment has been attributed to its top-ranking achievement record.

Data released from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) reveals the (receiving district MAP score) concerns were unfounded. In fact, receiving school districts saw little to no decrease in test scores in comparison to the previous year without transfer students. An analysis by St. Louis Public Radio shows that transfer students had no effect on the Annual Performance Report (APR) of many receiving districts.

Some districts did see a change in APR score, and this could be explained by a number of variables. For instance, the state itself saw a decline in scores overall. Also, standardized test scores are strongly correlated to the socio-economic makeup of a district. This may explain why Ferguson-Florissant, a low-income receiving district, saw the most decline—3.6 percentage points.

The transfer of 2,200 students did not cause the sky to fall—or scores for that matter. What it did was give students an educational opportunity. For the receiving district that has chosen not to accept transfer students, this should be a sign that it’s time to take those 350 children back.

Transfer students may not have made a difference on receiving districts’ APR scores, but the receiving districts certainly made a difference on transfer students.



September 2, 2014

Make Bus Rapid Transit Serve Bus Users

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is likely to make its debut in Saint Louis in the next couple years. Regional planning agencies are narrowing down the list of potential candidates, and MoDOT is preparing to spend more than $10 million constructing the service from 2015 to 2016. Unfortunately, the prime candidate for the first BRT route in Saint Louis is likely to be a wasteful route to West Saint Louis County.

In the Saint Louis area, the vast majority of transit (and bus) usage is in areas with low income, low vehicle ownership rates, and high population densities. Virtually all busy bus routes in the Saint Louis area are concentrated in the city (mostly in North Saint Louis City) and North Saint Louis County. Conversely, most bus routes that serve West and South Saint Louis County (where vehicle ownership and incomes are higher) see little ridership. Many of those routes lose more than five dollars for every passenger that steps on board. For instance, the 158 Ballas-West County route, which currently serves what would be the western half of the I-64 BRT route, has a fare box recovery ratio of 6.6 percent, meaning it loses a staggering $15 per passenger.

Despite these facts, the prime choice for a $42 million BRT route is one serving West County, going from downtown to Chesterfield along I-64. Planners prefer this route as it connects area workplaces and (they hope) can draw new “choice” transit ridership. However, if demand for current transit is any guide, ridership is likely to be low, especially because end-to-end travel time is only being cut from 76 minutes to 53 minutes. With the same trip taking less than half the time by car (and the vast majority of people living around the proposed line own cars), that’s unlikely to get many people out of their personal vehicles.



A second finalist for BRT is a route along Natural Bridge and West Florissant. As the map above shows, that route would travel through areas with high public transportation usage (high FBR) and low rates of car ownership. It would be very likely to have high ridership and greatly improve the mobility of local residents. It is far superior to an I-64 BRT, as are both the Halls Ferry and Page Avenue routes (both of which failed to make the final selection).

If Saint Louis can only implement one BRT route in the next five years, the Natural Bridge and West Florissant route is likely to have the highest ridership and best service for those who need transit. Even if they go forward with more than one BRT route, the I-64 option likely would waste tens of millions in a futile attempt to chase choice ridership, and planners would do better to choose another route that serves Saint Louis City or North Saint Louis County.

August 31, 2014

Tolling I-70: A Semi-Solution to MoDOT’s Funding Problems

With the defeat of Amendment 7, officials are looking for ways to fund Missouri’s highway system. MoDOT needs adequate funding, not only to maintain existing highways, but also to fund future multibillion-dollar projects, principal among these is the reconstruction of I-70. One possible solution is to introduce tolls on I-70, which would allow those who benefit from the highway to pay for its improvement.

Those who directly benefit from I-70 are drivers, especially from companies that own commercial vehicles (interstate trucks). According to MoDOT, at least 25 percent of the traffic on I-70 is attributable to commercial vehicles (more than two axles). These vehicles also make up much of I-70’s cross-state traffic, with 70 percent of commercial vehicles passing straight through Missouri. If the state would toll I-70, both passenger and commercial vehicles would pay to use the interstate based on their size and distance traveled. In other states, commercial vehicles typically pay four to five times more than passenger vehicles. They pay extra to compensate for the extra damage they cause to the roadway. In fact, toll roads in other states generate much, if not most, of their revenue from commercial vehicles.


Toll Road System commercial vehicles as   a % of total vehicles % miles on road from commercial vehicles % of toll revenue from commercial vehicles
Ohio Turnpike 21.00% 33.10% 55.69%
New York Thruway 11.02% 15.59% 47.10%
Pennsylvania Turnpike 12.88% 20.30% 42.62%
Oklahoma Turnpike 8.72% 18.18% 38.86%
Kansas Turnpike 11.60% 17.80% 36.88%
Illinois Tollway 11.71% - 34.01%
North Texas Tollway System 1.87% - 22.39%
Florida Turnpike System 3.95% 5.06% 19.12%


If Missourians decide to rebuild I-70 using toll revenue, it is likely that much, or even most, of that revenue would come from commercial vehicles. That’s a fair solution, because commercial trucking entities cause the most wear on highways and benefit the most from good roads. In fact, a well-maintained highway saves trucking companies money, because it reduces delays and vehicle damage. The failure of Amendment 7 doesn’t mean that Missourians want bad roads; it means they want good roads paid for in a sensible way. A sound tolling solution would allow drivers and interstate truckers alike to invest in the highway from which they so benefit.

August 30, 2014

Normandy Transfers: Taking It to the Courts

Earlier this week, I sat down with attorney Joshua Schindler. Schindler represents several Normandy students who would like to transfer to accredited school districts. Last year, roughly 2,200 students transferred from two unaccredited school districts in North Saint Louis. Due to a change in Normandy’s accreditation status, four districts chose not to allow Normandy students to return.

Francis Howell, Pattonville, Ferguson-Florissant, and Ritenour transfer students were devastated. They had to return to a school district in which 16.8 is the average ACT score (the state average is 21.6).  In a recent Washington Post article, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux wrote:

Carmen Clemons has two teenage sons who were in advanced-placement classes. One wants to be an engineer, the other a firefighter. She describes them as “nerdy, nice kids.”

This year, they were told they had to go to Normandy High. The school didn’t have the same advanced classes they had been taking. And on Day 5 of the academic year, they told their mother they had been “jumped,” or beaten up.

“No one broke the fight up,” Clemons said. “I was never notified. I had to go running in today to talk to the principal. We’ve worked so hard to raise respectful kids. My boys are such good students, but my son came home terrified when another student said, ‘If I see those shoes on your feet, I’m gonna take them.’ ”

Now she’s calling private schools, begging for scholarships. And she and her husband, who barely make enough to pay the bills, are thinking about selling their three-bedroom house.

After Judge Michael Burton’s decision to allow the Normandy students named in the lawsuit to return to their receiving districts, Pattonville, Ferguson-Florissant, and Ritenour chose to accept all students that had reapplied for the 2014-15 school year—Francis Howell interpreted the ruling to mean only one student may return.

Since Francis Howell’s decision to reject all but one transfer student, Schindler has begun laying the groundwork for a class-action lawsuit. Watch this video to learn more about the history of the Missouri transfer law, as well as the current legal situation surrounding the law.

August 29, 2014

Vindication for New Hampshire’s Scholarship Tax Credit Program

In February, the Show-Me Institute released “Live Free and Learn: A Case Study of New Hampshire’s Scholarship Tax Credit Program,” written by Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute. Bedrick also discussed this school choice program at an event we hosted at Lindenwood University (see video above [starts at 4:00]). At the time, he noted that the scholarship program was being challenged in the New Hampshire courts. Yesterday, the New Hampshire Supreme Court issued a big win for the families benefiting from the program.

Blogging about the ruling, Bedrick writes:

“The New Hampshire Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s flawed and unprecedented decision, which had forbidden scholarship recipients from using the funds at religiously affiliated private schools. The lower court held that the scholarship funds constituted ‘money raised by taxation’ and therefore violated the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which states:

“[No] money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination. (New Hampshire Constitution, Part II, Article 83)

“The New Hampshire Supreme Court did not address the merits of the lower court’s decision because it held the petitioners were unable to demonstrate that ‘their personal rights have been impaired or prejudiced.’ Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court, in rejecting the petitioners’ standing in ACSTO v. Winn, held that the tax-credit funds did not constitute public money because they had not ‘come into the tax collector’s hands.’”

Like New Hampshire, Missouri has a Blaine Amendment that prohibits public dollars going to religious institutions. That is why this ruling is important for private school choice supporters in Missouri to take note of this case. Because the funding in a tax credit scholarship program does not enter into the public treasury, the funds should not be considered public dollars. For this reason, a tax credit scholarship program may have the best chance of passing constitutional muster in the Show-Me State.

August 28, 2014

Will California Teacher Tenure Lawsuit Affect Missouri?

Earlier this month, The View’s Whoopi Goldberg spoke out against teacher tenure, “Teachers who do not do a good job in teaching have no right to tenure.” The recently released 2014 EdNext poll shows that 50 percent of the public agrees with Goldberg and thinks that teachers should not be granted tenure. This is up 3 percentage points from last year.

Public sentiment against teacher tenure may have risen due to the highly publicized Vergara v. California case, in which Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled California teacher tenure laws violate the state’s constitution in regards to equality of education.

Tenure laws vary across states. A teacher is tenured in Missouri after teaching in the same district for five years. Tenure laws encourage a system in which school districts undergoing layoffs must keep low-quality, tenured teachers and fire high-quality, non-tenured teachers. This is an ineffective system, as research shows teacher performance has a strong correlation with student achievement.

In a 2013 StudentsFirst poll, Missourians overwhelmingly favored tenure reform—74 percent of those surveyed reported that they would favor a system in which teachers had to demonstrate performance in order to earn or keep tenure. Show-Me Institute Distinguished Fellow James Shuls found that even Missouri superintendents are in favor of teacher tenure reform.

If Missouri wants to be among the top 10 performing states by 2020, tenure reform should be a priority. Teacher tenure may protect good teachers, but it also protects bad teachers. To ensure every child receives a quality education, student welfare must take precedent over the interests of low-performing school employees. This is what the Vergara lawsuit taught the nation.

Will Regulations Keep Uber Out of Columbia?

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported that Uber is considering expanding its service to Columbia, Missouri. While Uber’s entrance could provide improved for-hire vehicle service, Columbia’s outdated taxi regulations might keep the company out, to the detriment of city residents.

Uber, a transportation network company (TNC), is disrupting over-regulated taxi markets across the country, including Missouri. By using an app to connect passengers with drivers operating personal vehicles, Uber and TNCs like it have the potential to vastly increase the quantity and quality of affordable taxi service. Unfortunately, these business models run afoul of municipal taxicab regulations and entrenched cab industry opposition. Saint Louis and Kansas City have invoked Byzantine, competition-restraining regulations to restrain TNCs like Uber and Lyft.


Columbia’s for-hire vehicle regulations are not as onerous as those in Saint Louis or Kansas City. However, they might be just burdensome enough to make Uber’s entry difficult, if not impossible (especially if city officials are opposed to Uber). The city’s regulations are written to deal with taxis, limousines, and buses, not TNCs.

Based on the plain language of these ordinances, it is unclear which sections of Columbia’s city code would govern Uber. If Columbia officials classify Uber as a taxi service, the company would be required to have a phone dispatching service, taxi meters, vehicle color schemes, and a taxi light on top of every car. This would make Uber’s business model, which uses dynamic pricing (without meters) and utilizes its drivers’ private vehicles, noncompliant with existing regulations.

Likewise, Uber’s business model also would be impossible under Columbia’s limousine regulations, which require a limousine to charge a fixed fare from the airport or an hourly rate (with a charge of no less than one hour) for intra-city service.

Uber could fall into a nebulous “vehicle for-hire” regulatory category, which might allow the company to avoid the regulations listed above. However, Columbia does not appear to offer any type of business license for general livery service, so that needs clarification.

Columbia officials should consider altering their regulations, as other states have, so TNCs like Uber can provide service to city residents. Better yet, Columbia could reduce regulations so that those (be they Uber, Lyft, or other drivers) who pass background checks, pass vehicle inspections, and purchase proper insurance can offer Columbia residents a ride.

August 27, 2014

Of Super Bowls and Economics

Following the passage of a resolution in the state legislature, the Missouri Department of Economic Development has convened a Super Bowl Task Force to consider what Kansas City needs to do to attract the annual event. According to The Kansas City Star,

“‘I can think of no better place to host the Super Bowl than Kansas City, the best football town in America,’ [State Senator Paul] LeVota said in a statement. ‘We’ve got incredible fans and a city more than capable of handling such a huge event.’

“Not only would the fans love it, but the economic impact would be enormous, he said.”

Ah, there is that elusive term, “economic impact.” It is thrown about to justify all sorts of government spending, but it is little examined by media and little understood by the taxpayers whose money will be used. We recently reviewed similar claims about Kansas City’s effort to attract the GOP convention. In that piece, we cited a Daily Beast story about the recent Super Bowl in New Jersey:

“So, there’s no economically sound way to predict a Super Bowl’s impact before the event and those that try have been proven wrong again and again. But don’t expect that to stop the cheering from the few with the most to gain. When asked for a more detailed analysis of Super Bowl XLVIII, the host committee demurred, but assured in a statement, ‘Super Bowl XLVIII is expected to be an economic boom [sic] for the region.’”

A 2006 study conducted by the College of the Holy Cross, “Mega-Events: The effect of the world’s biggest sporting events on local, regional, and national economies,” analyzes past Super Bowl impacts. The report concludes with a sobering warning to those who would embark on such expenses:

“The most important piece of advice that a local government can take regarding mega-events, however, is simply to view with caution any economic impact estimates provided by entities with an incentive to provide inflated benefit figures. While most sports boosters claim that mega-events provide host cities with large economic returns, these same boosters present these figures as justification for receiving substantial public subsidies for hosting the games. The vast majority of independent academic studies of mega-events show the benefits to be a fraction of those claimed by event organizers.”

Hosting a Super Bowl in Kansas City would be a great opportunity to show off our city to the rest of the world. Afterall, the term “Super Bowl” was coined by Chiefs owner and American Football League founder Lamar Hunt. But regional boosters need not wear blinders. At what cost does such an event cease to be worthwhile, especially when so many basic services in Kansas City already seem to be falling by the wayside? If we’re going to bring people to the City of Fountains, let’s at least make sure we can afford to operate the fountains.

August 26, 2014

Public Transportation in Columbia, Missouri: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Officials in Columbia, Missouri, are celebrating the successful launch of “CoMo Connect,” the city’s rebranded bus system. The heightened service is part of Columbia’s recent push to improve its public transportation system through a significant increase in spending. While that investment has yielded positive results for the level of service the bus system provides and the overall ridership, increasing transit costs may become a burden for local taxpayers.

The Good: Setting aside the overall merits of the increased transit spending, Columbia’s bus system has better service and many more riders than it had a decade ago. From 2006 to 2012, Columbia made more than $10 million in capital improvements to its bus system. These improvements have come in funding spurts, one between 2006 and 2007 and another from 2010 until today. Columbia has spent the money on new buses, better facilities, and increased service. As a result, the number of buses plying Columbia’s streets has almost tripled and vehicle revenue hours have more than doubled since 2006. Technology has improved as well. Today, it is easier to track your bus in Columbia than in Saint Louis.

The Bad: While ridership has almost tripled since 2006, most of that increase followed the first $4 million in capital improvements made from 2006 to 2007. Significant spending in 2010, 2011, and 2012 actually has been followed by decreased ridership. Officials have blamed an increase in fares for the drop-off, but at $1.50, Columbia’s fares are cheaper than many cities and still highly subsidized; annual fare revenue only accounts for 10 percent of the system’s operating costs. Furthermore, improved service has steadily pushed up operating costs, from $2.7 million in 2006 to more than $6 million in 2013.


The Ugly:  More taxes might be on the way for city residents. Although officials claim CoMo Connect is resulting in record ridership, they fail to mention that they temporarily have made the bus free. At the same time, the bus system’s goal of holding down growth in its operating budget is increasingly unlikely, and city officials are looking at ways to increase funding. Columbia currently funds transit with a local sales tax, student housing contracts, bus fares, and downtown parking fees. Columbia might have to further increase these taxes and fees to fund transit, despite the fact that less than 1 percent of Columbians use the bus to get to work.

Columbians would do well to consider what they hope their bus service can achieve and how much those achievements are worth. Otherwise, the decisions will be made by those who have made transit usage an end in and of itself.

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