Tag: state governments

Biennial Budgeting: Baloney Budget Reform

I don’t recall ever agreeing with the left-liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), but their new paper on the drawbacks of the federal government switching to biennial budgeting is a good read. Congressional Republicans, including House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), are the chief proponents of switching to a biennial budget cycle. By providing (qualified) support to the CBPP paper, I’m hoping to demonstrate to would-be GOP naysayers that criticism of biennial budgeting isn’t confined to one area of the ideological spectrum.

I don’t agree with everything in the paper and I don’t share some of the authors’ concerns, but here are three solid points that the paper makes:

  • In 1940, 44 states practiced biennial budgeting. Currently, only nineteen do. In addition, larger states typically have an annual budget cycle. The authors correctly ask, “if large state governments find that biennial budgeting is not the best approach given the responsibilities they shoulder, is it likely to prove appropriate for an entity with the far more extensive domestic and international responsibilities of the U.S. government?”
  • The authors call the claims made by proponents that biennial budgeting will free up more time for oversight “overstated.” Authorizing committees can conduct oversight anytime they want. The appropriation committees conduct oversight when they review agency budget requests each year. What’s the benefit of having oversight conducted by the appropriations committees every two years?  (For the record, I think the value of congressional oversight is overstated for public choice reasons, but I’ll play along for today.)
  • The authors explain what I consider to be the fatal flaw with biennial budgeting:

The desire of many lawmakers to rein in such supplemental appropriations and reassert meaningful control over all annually appropriated funds — and the practice the Obama Administration has followed of including war funding within the regular defense appropriations bill, which has improved budget transparency — would become much harder to fulfill if biennial budgeting were implemented. It is not possible for Congress effectively to plan ahead for unexpected needs in the second year of a biennium. Large supplemental appropriations to meet such needs outside of the two-year budget plan would almost certainly become a regular part of the budget process and could further erode budget controls and accountability.

(Note: A recent paper from Cato adjunct scholar Veronique de Rugy explains that supplemental appropriations are already a problem.)

As a former budget official in a state that uses biennial budgeting, I just don’t understand what congressional Republicans think they’re going to accomplish. The cynic in me thinks that at least part of the support stems from the unwillingness of most Republicans to get specific on what they’d eliminate from the federal budget. Like the Balanced Budget Amendment, I think a lot of Republicans are simply using biennial budgeting as political cover.

An Education in Bizarro Constitutional History

Last week, Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) published a call in The Hill for a much bigger federal role in elementary and secondary education. His plans are loaded with flaws too numerous to dissect here, so I’ll just highlight one, depressing thing about his piece: his bizarro constitutional history. Follow Honda’s narrative and you’d think for most of our history the feds stayed out of education because of the Articles of Confederation, and a jerky little state called Rhode Island:

Inequity in education has historical roots. At its inception, the Federal Government lacked the capacity and the authority to take responsibility for public education. Before the Constitution was drafted, the 13 colonies operated under the Articles of Confederation, created by the Second Continental Congress. The Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote of the states. Any state had effective veto power over any proposed change.

In addition, the Articles gave the weak federal government no taxing power. It was entirely dependent on the states for its money and had no power to force delinquent states to pay. In fact, Rhode Island, fearing that the Convention would work to its disadvantage, boycotted the Convention in the hopes of preventing any change to the Articles. When the Constitution was subsequently presented to the Confederation, Rhode Island refused to ratify it. To placate the states, the Tenth Amendment ceded broad authority to the state governments.

Consequently, as regions of the country developed their own public education systems, disparities opened up.

That Rep. Honda published this dreck is as good as any argument for keeping Washington way out of our schools, especially our American history and civics classes.

The Articles, for one thing, were weak on purpose – Americans were extremely concerned about concentrating too much power in the hands of a central government. Mr. Honda, however, sounds almost as if Americans somehow arrived to find the Articles of Confederation already in place and just had to put up with a bad situation.

Much more egregious – but also, I’m afraid, more common – Honda writes as if the Constitution does not contain Article I, Section 8, which purposely gives the federal government only specific, enumerated powers, and automatically leaves all others to the states and people. The 10th Amendment – which Honda asserts is what long kept DC out of education – does not actually change in any way what power belongs to the feds, states, and people – it just makes it more explicit.

Finally, very few Americans in the 1770s and 1780s would have even recognized something called “public education,” much less tried to give the national government “responsibility” for it. Back then education was almost entirely a family, church, and community affair, and most people wouldn’t have imagined anything different. 

Sadly, Honda’s piece is just further confirmation that many of our representatives in Washington care not one whit about what the Constitution says and permits Washington to do. That, or they really don’t know. Either way, it helps explain why the nation is in a world of hurt, and makes very clear that the obstacles to getting Washington out of education are very tall, indeed.

Mismanaged States Blame Messenger

Mismanaged municipal and state governments around the country are finding a new target to blame for their own self-inflicted wounds:  the growing market for credit defaults swaps (CDS) on municipal debt.

A municipal credit default swap would be a derivative that pays off in the event of default by a specific state or a default on one of said state’s debt instruments.

As reported in today’s Wall Street Journal, a handful of state treasurers are demanding information from Wall Street firms on who exactly is “betting against” these states.

It should come as no surprise, except to state officials, that the major buyers of these CDS are the very bondholders investing in their state.  In fact the availability of municipal CDS will likely increase the demand for municipal debt.  Just speaking for myself, there’s no way I’d buy debt issued by California if I couldn’t at least hedge some of that credit risk

Of course states complain that “betting on a default creates a perception of risk,” as if there wasn’t already a widespread perception of risk to investing in municipal debt of certain states.  The states also express concern that adverse movements in the price of CDS could impact their credit ratings, and hence their cost of borrowing.  Given the slow speed of which credit ratings moved on sub-prime mortgage debt, I am not sure that cities and states have much to worry about rating agencies being “too aggressive”.  If these states had even a small understanding of how markets work, they’d understand the rating is just one element that goes into pricing.  Witness the large spread in yields of similarly rated debt.  No rating, or credit default swap price for that matter, is going to fool investors into believing that many American local and state governments are just anything other than mini versions of Greece.

Unions and State Government Management

State and local governments that have high levels of unionization have a harder time efficiently managing their finances and other aspects of their operations. At least, that’s my argument. The other day, I showed that states with higher levels of debt had higher levels of unionization. The statistical correlation was very strong.

Today, let’s look at the quality of state management, as measured by a major report by the Pew Center on the States. The Pew report gave letter grades to the 50 state governments for management of finances, employees, infrastructure, and information. Pew also provided an overall state score.

I’ve converted the Pew overall state government management scores to numbers from 1 to 10 and plotted them against state unionization rates (“10” is the best management score). The chart below shows that as the share of a state workforce that is unionized grows, the overall quality of state management falls, as measure by the Pew scores. The chart shows the raw data in blue dots and the statistically fitted line in pink. 

The bottom line: public-sector unionization is not a good idea, as it apparently leads to lower-quality government management and to higher debt levels. As such, I’ve argued that collective bargaining in state and local government workforces should be banned.

(Details: R-square at 0.12 indicates that unionization explains only a small share of management quality, but the F statistic at 6.3 and the t-stat on the management variable of -2.5 indicate that the regression is quite strongly statistically significant. Note that the unionization variable is the union share in state and local governments, but the Pew data regards only the states. Thus, I’m assuming that my unionization variable is a reasonable proxy for state-level unionization.  Thanks for data help from Amy Mandler )

The States Respond to ObamaCare

Today Politico Arena asks:

Do the 13 state attorneys general have a case against ObamaCare?

My response:

Absolutely.  It will be an uphill battle, because modern “constitutional law” is so far removed from the Constitution itself, but a win is not impossible.  There are three main arguments.  (1) Under the Constitution, as properly interpreted, Congress has no power to enact such a plan.  (2) The plan conscripts state governments into carrying out and paying for federal mandates.  And (3) the individual mandate amounts to an unlawful capitation or direct tax.

The first argument will almost certainly lose, because under post-1937 readings of the Commerce Clause, Congress can regulate anything that “affects” interstate commerce, which at some level is everything.  Under modern “constitutional law,” that’s what we’ve come to – under the pressure of FDR’s infamous Court-packing scheme, a Constitution authorizing only limited government has been turned into one that authorizes effectively unlimited government.

The second argument has promise: In New York v. United States (1992) and Printz v. United States (1997) the Court held that the federal government could not dragoon state legislatures or executives into carrying out and paying for federal programs.  Yet that is just what’s at issue here with the “exchanges” that states are required to establish.  To be sure, the states can “opt out,” but as yesterday’s suit argues, with so many people already on the Medicaid rolls, that option is effectively foreclosed.  Indeed, the new bill will force millions more on to the Medicaid rolls, which is one of the main reasons these states, already strapped by Medicaid expenditures, have brought suit.  Florida alone estimates that the added costs will grow from $149 billion in 2014 to $938 billion in 2017 to over one trillion dollars by 2019.

The third argument holds the most promise.  ObamaCare compels individuals to buy insurance from a private company (why stop there? why not cars from GM?), failing which they will be required to pay a tax (fine?).  This is an unprecedented expansion of Congress’s power “to regulate interstate commerce.”  But even if it were to pass the modern Commerce Clause test, the tax should fail because it’s not apportioned among the states in accordance with their population.

Let’s be clear, however.  This suit was brought because the 13 states (and I predict more will follow) see the handwriting on the wall.  ObamaCare will mark the effective end of federalism as we’ve known it, will bankrupt the states, and, because of that – here’s the clincher – is but a  stalking horse for federal single-payer health care in America.  This suit will keep the issue alive until November, when the American people will have a chance to weigh in.

To Kill ACORN, Kill the Programs

Last year, when the issue of defunding ACORN was a hot-button issue, I told countless radio talk show audiences that the focus should be on eliminating the underlying fuel that created the organization—the flow of federal subsidies.

Chris Edwards pointed this out in September. If Congress simply stops subsidizing ACORN, its activists will reincorporate under new names and again become eligible for funds. Alas, that’s precisely what ACORN is currently doing.

From FoxNews.com:

One of the latest groups to adopt a new name is ACORN Housing, long one of the best-funded affiliates. Now, the group is calling itself the Affordable Housing Centers of America.

Others changing their names include what were among the largest affiliates: California ACORN is now Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and New York ACORN has become New York Communities for Change. More are expected to follow suit.

A comment from Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Republicans on the U.S. House oversight and government reform committee, doesn’t indicate that the GOP has quite received the message:

To credibly claim a clean break, argued Hill, the new groups should at least have hired directors from outside ACORN.

It appears that for many Republicans, attacking ACORN represented political opportunism, not a statement about the proper role of the federal government.

Further rendering the GOP’s ACORN agenda moot was last week’s ruling by a U.S. District judge that singling out ACORN for defunding is unconstitutional. It truly boggles the mind what passes for constitutional and unconstitutional in this country.

Tuesday was the birthday of James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution.” Reflecting upon Madison’s wise words, it’s hard to understand how the federal “community development” programs that have funded ACORN could pass constitutional muster:

“The government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.”

“[T]he powers of the federal government are enumerated; it can only operate in certain cases; it has legislative powers on defined and limited objects, beyond which it cannot extend its jurisdiction.”

“With respect to the two words “general welfare,” I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.”

See this essay for reasons why these HUD community development programs should be abolished.

Ray LaHood as Santa Claus

U.S. News & World Report’s columnist Paul Bedard reports that Transportation secretary Ray LaHood told him that it’s fun playing Santa Claus to states and cities around the nation.

So let’s take a look at some recent examples of DOT gift-giving with federal taxpayers’ money:

  • DOT’s Federal Highway Administration helped restore an old brewery in Petosi, Wisconsin with a $450,000 gift. That should make taxpayers want to drink.
  • Dolgeville, New York intends to use DOT stimulus money to repair sidewalks even though the village acknowledges that the new sidewalks will have to be torn up and replaced again due to impending water and sewage line upgrades. Keynes would be particularly proud of this one. Last year the city received a $1 million gift from DOT for the “installation of period street lights, trees, accent pavers, street furniture and sidewalk improvements” on the city’s Main Street.
  • The Michigan Department of Transportation plans on spending $5 million in federal DOT money on a bunch of projects that are of unquestionable national importance: cobblestone streets in Grand Rapids; exhibits at the Detroit Science Center; rehabilitating the historic Quincy and Torch Lake Railroad Engine House in the Upper Peninsula; a bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians over the Clinton River in Utica and bike racks at several locations in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

These projects might be worthwhile, but they should be paid for by the local interests who can best judge their worth.

In his 1932 book, Congress as Santa Claus, constitutional scholar Charles Warren offered a prescient warning on the dangers of federal subsidization of state and local affairs:

The continuance of this practice of shifting to the National Government responsibility for payment for matters which formerly were dealt with by individual initiative, by community cooperation, by voluntary organizations, or by local or State governments – the continuance of this practice of making drafts on the National Treasury to carry out purposes not within the enumerated or implied powers of the National Government will inevitably have two results.

So far as these Government donations consist of direct appropriations for private or local interests, they will deaden and finally destroy the eagerness or willingness of State Governments and local communities to pay for their own needs. So far as they take the shape of the so-called Federal Aid laws for local projects to be matched by local appropriations, they will have ‘a tendency to induce excessive expenditures by State and municipal governments, with top-heavy bond issues and oppressive local taxation.’

I doubt in Warren’s worst nightmares could he have envisioned the examples of DOT spending above, let alone the existence of a $90 billion federal Department of Transportation.