Tag: Mississippi

The Year of Educational Choice: Update II

Educational choice is on the march.

As I noted back in February, the stars appeared to be aligned for a “Year of Educational Choice.” By late April, state legislatures were halfway toward beating the record of 13 states adopting new or expanded school choice laws in 2011, which the Wall Street Journal dubbed the “Year of School Choice.” The major difference in the types of legislative proposals under consideration this year is that more than a dozen states considered education savings account (ESA) laws that allow parents to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services and save for future education expenses, including college.

On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Individualized Education Act, an ESA program for students with special needs. Earlier this year, Mississippi enacted the nation’s third ESA law, behind Arizona and Florida. Lawmakers in Montana also passed an ESA, but Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed it earlier this month.

Nevertheless, Gov. Bullock allowed a universal tax-credit scholarship bill to become law without his signature. The law is an important step toward educational freedom, albeit a very modest one. Taxpayers can only receive tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations up to $150, meaning that a single $4,500 scholarship will require 30 donors. No other state has such a restrictive per-donor credit cap. Unless the legislature raises or eliminates the cap, Montana’s tax-credit scholarship program is likely to help very few students.

The Year of Educational Choice: An Update

Back in February, I speculated that 2015 might be the “Year of Educational Choice” in the same way that the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 the “Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted new or expanded school choice laws.

This year, in addition to a slew of more traditional school choice proposals, about a dozen legislatures considered new or expanded education savings accounts (ESAs). As I explained previously:

ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Currently, two states have ESA laws: Arizona and Florida. Both states redirect 90% of the funds that they would have spent on a student at her assigned district school into her education savings account. The major difference between the two laws is that Arizona’s ESA is managed by the Arizona Department of Education while Florida’s is privately managed by Step Up For Students and AAA Scholarships, the nonprofit scholarship organizations that also issue scholarships through the Sunshine State’s tax credit law.

Both Arizona and Florida expanded their ESA programs this year. Earlier this month, Arizona expanded eligibility for the ESA to students living on Native American reservations. And just today, the Florida House of Representatives voted unanimously to expand its ESA. Travis Pillow of the RedefinED Online blog explains:

A Win for Educational Choice in Mississippi

Mississippi is poised to become the third state, behind Arizona and Florida, to enact an education savings account (ESA) law. Yesterday, the Mississippi Senate voted to concur with the state House’s version of the bill, which would provide ESAs for students with special needs to cover numerous education expenses, including private school tuition and fees, tutoring, textbooks, educational therapy, assistive technology, and higher education expenses. Gov. Phil Bryant has indicated that he will sign the legislation.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice provides a useful breakdown of the ESA legislation. While about 63,000 Magnolia State students would be eligible for an ESA next year, “this opportunity is limited to 500 students in year one, with an additional 500 students added to the program each year during a ‘pilot’ period of five years.”

The state will fund the ESAs at $6,500 annually in the form of reimbursements for eligible expenses. The reimbursement model may make it difficult for lower-income families to participate—something policymakers should monitor and address if necessary. Arizona provides ESA parents with restricted-use debit cards that allow parents to conveniently access ESA funds while minimizing the potential for fraud.

In a 2013 survey, parents of students with special needs in Arizona overwhelmingly reported being satisfied with the education they purchased for their children with ESAs. ESAs empower parents to completely customize their child’s education based on his or her unique learning needs. As Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation and I explained in a recent article:

Parents can also save unused funds from year to year and roll the funds into a college savings account. These two features of ESAs—the ability of parents to completely customize their child’s education and save for future educational expenses—make them distinct from and improvements upon traditional school vouchers. ESAs empower parents with the ability to maximize the value their children get from their education services. And because they control how and when the money is spent, parents also have a greater incentive to control costs.

Whether or not 2015 ends up being the Year of Educational Choice, Mississippi has taken an important step toward educational freedom.

No Obamacare Exchange in 36 Mississippi Counties?

The Associated Press:

People in 36 of Mississippi’s 82 counties may not be able to buy health insurance through the new federal online marketplace when it starts enrolling customers in October. Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney says two insurers have announced offerings so far, planning to serve 46 counties.

Unless more companies sign up or the existing companies expand their plans, consumers in the remaining counties won’t be able to buy health insurance through the online exchange. Coverage under those policies begins Jan. 1. 

“I don’t know what to tell you about the other 36 counties,” Chaney told The Associated Press in a phone interview this week. “You’re just out of luck.”

That means they won’t be able to use federal tax credits offered to consumers with incomes of between 133 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s up to about $46,000 for an individual and about $94,000 for a family of four, with those at the top end getting little or no subsidy.

People who don’t buy insurance are required to pay a $95-a-year penalty starting in 2014. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Treasury Department couldn’t immediately say Thursday whether people would be penalized in counties without offerings.

My reading of the statute is that this should have little effect on the penalties that Mississippians face under Obamacare, since the state’s refusal to establish an exchange has already exempted 128,000 residents from penalties under the individual mandate, and all Mississippi employers from penalties under the employer mandate. 

But assuming the IRS gets away with illegally offering Obamacare’s penalty-triggering “premium assistance tax credits” in states that have refused to establish exchanges, Mississippi employers cannot be penalized for failure to provide “affordable” health insurance to residents of those 36 counties because without any exchange at all, those residents will not be able to receive the tax credits. But employers could be penalized for failing to provide those residents “minimum value” coverage–if a firm employs even a single person in one of the other 46 counties that do receive such a tax credit.

Individuals would still seem to be subject to the individual mandate as they otherwise would. But without an exchange, fewer of them would qualify for the unaffordability exemption from the individual mandate, because there would be no “annual premium for the lowest cost bronze plan available in the individual market through the Exchange” with which to calculate whether they are eligible for that exemption. Of course, the federal Department of Health and Human Services could just throw residents of those counties a hardship exemption.

On ObamaCare’s Discriminatory Subsidies, Brewer Bows When Arizona Should Keep Slugging

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) recently set aside her vociferous opposition to ObamaCare’s costly Medicaid expansion by announcing she will support implementing that expansion in Arizona. A significant factor in her reversal, she claimed, was that if Arizona did not expand its Medicaid program, then some legal immigrants would receive government subsidies while U.S. citizens would get nothing.

Brewer’s analysis of this “immigration glitch,” and her remedy for it, are faulty. Fortunately, she, Arizona’s legislature, and its attorney general have better options for stopping it.

An odd and unforeseen result of the Supreme Court’s decision upholding ObamaCare is that, in certain circumstances, the law will now subsidize legal immigrants but not citizens. What triggers this inequity is a state’s decision to implement an Exchange – not the decision to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. (Even if a state implements both provisions, legal immigrants would still receive more valuable subsidies than citizens.) The good news is that states can therefore prevent this inequity simply by not establishing an Exchange. If Brewer wants to avoid this “immigration glitch,” there is no need to expand Medicaid. She already blocked it when she refused to establish an Exchange.

The bad news is that the Obama administration is trying to take away the power Congress granted states to block those discriminatory subsidies, and the punitive taxes that accompany them. Contrary to both the statute and congressional intent, the IRS has announced it will impose that witch’s brew in all states, even in the 32 that have refused to establish an Exchange.

Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt has filed suit to stop that stunning power grab. If Brewer is serious about stopping the “immigration glitch,” the way to do it is by filing a lawsuit similar to Oklahoma’s, while adding a complaint that the Obama administration’s illegal subsidies also violate the Equal Protection clause.

A Property Rights Victory in the Magnolia State

One of the unambiguously good results from last Tuesday’s off-year elections came in Mississippi, the state I called home the year before I moved to D.C.  By the impressive margin of 73% to 27%, voters in the Magnolia State took a stand against judicially sanctioned eminent domain abuse, specifically the government’s taking of private property in the name of so-called “economic development.”  

By passing Measure 31, which prohibits most transfers of condemned land to private parties for 10 years after condemnation, Mississippi joins 44 other states in enacting legislation that strengthens property rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s horrific ruling in Kelo v. New London.  In Kelo (2005), you’ll recall, the Court held that state and local governments can condemn private property not for some sort of public project like a highway or military base nor because it is a “blight” that creates a health or safety risk, but simply to transfer to another private party who claims to put it to better economic use. 

We at Cato are all in favor of economic development, of course, but not if that development comes via raw government power that treads on constitutionally protected individual rights.  If a developer thinks he can put a given piece of land to a higher-value use, let him buy that property fair and square from the owner rather than effectively forcing a sale at below-market value.

Indeed, Kelo’s holding was flawed precisely because its rationale that transferring ownership of “economically blighted” property would promote economic development is bad economics. If a proposed project were actually a better use of a given property, the developer would be willing to pay a price sufficient to induce the current owners to leave.

Kelo also undermines property security, making owners less willing to invest in their property and use it productively, lest the government swoop in, declare it “blighted,” and sell it to someone else. And securing property rights is not just a good thing economically.  It also helps prevent powerful private interest groups from undercutting the property rights of minorities and other groups who may be vulnerable due to prejudice or political disadvantage.

And the American people agree: Kelo turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for developers and their public-official cronies, such that most of the country is now better protected against eminent domain abuse than it was before Kelo.  Notably absent from the list of states where property rights are better off, however, is New York (see my comment on a recent instance of eminent domain abuse in the Empire State).

The judiciary’s abdication of its role as a protector of property rights is bad enough, but our elected officials haven’t done much better. Tellingly, the drivers of successful anti-Kelo legislation have tended not to be state legislators (with some exception) but rather citizen-activists.  While special-interest groups, such as big car companies in Mississippi, may pressure legislators to avoid anti-Kelo legislation, even as referenda show that popular opinion is on the side of the property rights activists.

Measure 31 is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. The Founders took care to protect private property rights in the Constitution, and it’s heartening to see citizens taking an active role to vindicate those protections even when the Supreme Court abdicates its duty to do so.

For more commentary on the Mississippi vote, see Ilya Somin’s recent op-ed.