Tag: local governments

Food Stamps Cut?

Prior to last week’s passage of another $26 billion in bailout money for state and local governments, I noted that the legislation wasn’t really offset:

Congressional Democrats say the measure is paid for with a combination of spending cuts elsewhere and tax increases. However, the new spending is front loaded and much of the spending cuts wouldn’t be realized until after 2013. For example, the Congressional Budget Office’s score of the legislation shows savings from the food stamps program of $12 billion from 2014-2018. Congress can come back any time before that and rescind the cuts.

It’s typical Beltway budgetary sleight-of-hand: increase spending up front and “cut” spending on the back-end to get a more deficit-friendly score from the CBO. Democrats don’t really intend to see these cuts actualized, and have indicated as much. That hasn’t stopped media outlets from across the ideological spectrum from running sensationalist headlines.

A headline from CBS News says “Food Stamps Slashed to Pay for Teachers Job Bill.” A hysterical headline at the leftish Huffington Post reads “Cutting Food Stamps to Save Teacher Jobs: A Hateful Trade-off.” And a headline on the conservative Human Events website claims “Democrats Rob Food Stamps to Pay Teachers.”

Adding to the heat is legislation moving through Congress that would “cut” future food stamps spending to help pay for increased child nutrition programs. But as was the case with the bailout legislation, the only change that’s being proposed is to move forward the expiration date for the temporary food stamp expansion contained in the 2009 stimulus bill.

In addition to unnecessary hand-wringing over the future, the near past is all but being ignored. As the following chart shows, the cost of the food stamps programs has exploded over the decade thanks to the recession and benefit increases under presidents Bush and Obama:

The food stamps program needs to be cut. In fact, the entire federal welfare system needs to be devolved to the states, or preferably, private charity. That phantom cuts following a massive increase in food stamps spending would cause such angst indicates that those of us who believe the needy aren’t best served by Uncle Sam have our work cut out.

Government Program Competes with First-Time Home Buyers

If there should ever be a great time to be a first-time home buyer – it should be now.  Mortgage rates are at historic lows.  Prices have fallen almost 30% across the country since the peak.  Builders continue to add supply into already saturated markets.  Yet, as the Wall Street Journal reports, potential first time home buyers are facing stiff competition from investors…and from the government.

Congress has appropriated about $6 billion to local and state governments to buy foreclosed properties.  President Obama is proposing to add another $1.5 billion that could be used for similar purposes.   The argument is supposed to be that these funds would eliminate the negative impact of foreclosures on communities, while also providing shelter to needy families.  Part of the program’s rationale is that local governments’ will select a better group of tenants and purchasers that would private investors (the history of public housing should rebut that assumption).

With the exception of cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, many of the country’s boom areas still have significant population and other amenities (like sunny weather).  Many people would continue to choose to live in these areas, if only they were more affordable.  After all these years of massive subsidies for home-ownership, there seems a great irony in having the government now be one of the largest barriers to families achieving home-ownership – by using tax dollars to bid up and compete away existing homes.

Less Is More in Education Funding

Spend more money on education, the President says? Actually, we should be looking there for savings … here are some of the numbers:

State governments spent 35 percent of their general funds on K–12 education in 2007, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. In contrast, Medicaid — which is continually singled out as a problematic state-budget item, even though most Medicaid funds come from the federal government — accounted for just 17 percent of general-fund expenditures. Combined, state and local governments spend 27 cents of every dollar they collect on public K–12 education system, but only 8 cents on Medicaid.

Federal Transportation Follies

The 2009 stimulus bill gave the U.S. Department of Transportation $50 billion to distribute to the states for highways, roads, and bridges. A House bill passed in December would add another $28 billion. According to Washington folklore, spending on infrastructure is always good because it’ll create jobs and spur economic growth. However, three recent examples are a reminder that the government often does a poor job of allocating resources.

First, an Alaska legislative audit concluded that the state should not have spent federal transportation money building a road to the site of the proposed “Bridge to Nowhere,” which was canceled after a national outcry. Alaska kept the federal money originally earmarked for the bridge, and then-Governor Sarah Palin agreed to spend $26 million of it on the road despite the fact there was no bridge.

Second, the Department of Transportation is supposed to exclude “unethical, dishonest, or otherwise irresponsible” parties from receiving federal funds. But according to a report from DOT’s inspector general, the average case took DOT officials “300 days to reach a suspension decision and over 400 days to reach a debarment decision.” For example, Kentucky awarded $24 million in transportation stimulus money to companies with officials under review by the Federal Highway Administration for bribery, theft, and obstruction of justice. The FHA took 10 months to review the companies before ultimately suspending them, but Kentucky had already given the companies the money.

Third, a Tennessee television station analyzed the state’s use of federal transportation stimulus money and found that it “spent an average of $161,500 per job created and that some paving jobs, which were temporary, cost taxpayers more than $1 million each.” The station interviewed a construction company that had been busy during the summer when it had federal money. Now its trucks are idle and the workers it hired have all been laid off.

Randal O’Toole says that “The best test of infrastructure value is whether users are willing to pay for it.” There’s almost no connection between infrastructure projects funded by federal taxpayers and the typically local users. Leaving infrastructure projects to state and local governments to fund would make more of a connection. Privatization, which would utilize tolling and other user fees, would be even better.

Spending Our Way Into More Debt

Huge deficit spending, a supposed stimulus bill, and financial bailouts by the Bush administration failed to stave off a deep recession. President Obama continued his predecessor’s policies with an even bigger stimulus, which helped push the deficit over the unimaginable trillion dollar mark. Prosperity hasn’t returned, but the president is persistent in his interventionist beliefs. In his speech yesterday, he told the country that we must “spend our way out of this recession.”

While a dedicated segment of the intelligentsia continues to believe in simplistic Kindergarten Keynesianism, average Americans are increasingly leery. Businesses and entrepreneurs are hesitant to invest and hire because of the uncertainty surrounding the President’s agenda for higher taxes, higher energy costs, health care mandates, and greater regulation. The economy will eventually recover despite the government’s intervention, but as the debt mounts, today’s profligacy will more likely do long-term damage to the nation’s prosperity.

Some leaders in Congress want a new round of stimulus spending of $150 billion or more. The following are some of the ways that money might be spent from the president’s speech:

  • Extend unemployment insurance. When you subsidize something you get more it, so increasing unemployment benefits will push up the unemployment rate, as Alan Reynolds notes.”
  • “Cash for Caulkers.” This would be like Cash for Clunkers except people would get tax credits to make their homes more energy efficient. Any program modeled off “the dumbest government program ever” should be put back on the shelf. 

  • More Small Business Administration lending. A little noticed SBA program created by the stimulus bill offered banks an “unprecedented” 100 percent guarantee on loans to small businesses. The program has an anticipated default rate of 60 percent. Small businesses need lower taxes and fewer regulations, not a government program that perpetuates more moral hazard.

  • More aid to state and local governments. State and local government should be using the recession to implement reforms that will prevent them from going on another unsustainable spending spree when the economy recovers. Also, we need fewer state and local government employees – not more – as they’re becoming an increasing burden on taxpayers.

The president said his administration was “forced to take those steps largely without the help of an opposition party which, unfortunately, after having presided over the decision-making that led to the crisis, decided to hand it to others to solve.” Mr. President, nobody has forced you to do anything. You’ve chosen to embrace – and expand upon – the big spending policies that were a hallmark of your predecessor’s administration.

Greedy Local Politicians Attempt to Grab Revenue Far Outside Their Borders

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with the tax competition battle, which largely revolves around high-tax governments attempting to track – and tax – economic activity that migrates to lower-tax jurisdictions. But this is not just a global fight between decrepit welfare states such as France and fiscal havens such as the Cayman Islands. American states also compete with each other, and there are numerous examples of high-tax states such as California and New York trying to grab money from people who escape to zero-income tax states such as Nevada and Florida. The fight even exists at the local level, and a good example is the attempt by politicians to tax faraway online travel agencies. The Orange County Register opines about these extraterritorial tax grabs:

A recent legal victory for some Texas cities against online travel companies over hotel taxes may have given Anaheim officials hope for their own case, but they shouldn’t start celebrating just yet. Other cities have not fared as well in similar lawsuits. …Here’s what Fairview Heights, Anaheim and other cities wanted to change: In a typical transaction, a traveler picks a hotel and books a room, stays there, and pays the hotel a room charge plus a local occupancy tax based on the room charge. The hotel keeps the room charge and forwards the tax money to the government. Enter online travel companies like Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity, which allow travelers to sort through hotels and book a room on a central Web site. These companies do not reserve or resell hotel rooms, but act as intermediaries to facilitate the transaction between hotel and traveler. The hotel receives an amount for the room, on which the city’s hotel tax is based. Let’s say I search a Web site and book a $100 hotel room. The online company charges me $10 for their service. Anaheim argues that hotel occupancy tax should be paid not only on the $100 room charge, but also on the $10 service fee. …A federal bill is pending to limit hotel taxes to amounts collected by a hotel for occupancy purposes, excluding service fees and markups by intermediaries. The Constitution permits Congress to pass such laws if there is a danger that state and city laws are interfering with interstate commerce. Hotel taxes are attractive to local politicians because they are a way to shift the tax burden to “outsiders.” But because every U.S. city has a hotel tax, we’re all somebody else’s “outsider.” The net result is that everyone is taxing everyone else in an unaccountable way, and unless the cities and their lawyers are stopped, in an unpredictable way, too.