Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Keeping Their Promises

In blogs over the last several months, I have revisited the fiscal records of the eight Republican presidential candidates who have gubernatorial experience. As the 2016 race heats up, the candidates will begin making many promises on tax and spending issues, but will we be able to believe them?

The records show that some governors worked hard to limit the size and scope of government. Others grew government with more spending and higher taxes. The candidates fit into three categories: the “A’s,” the falling grades, and the consistent “B’s”.

Three of the former governors earned at least one “A” during their tenure: George Pataki of New York, Jeb Bush of Florida, and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Pataki earned high marks for slashing state spending by $2 billion and cutting the personal income tax. Bush passed a billion dollar property tax cut coupled with a large business tax cut. Jindal dramatically cut spending. Spending is down 9 percent in Louisiana since fiscal year 2009.

Kasich’s Fiscal Record

John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio, makes his presidential announcement today. He becomes the 16th person to join the Republican field and the 8th current or former governor.

Kasich is a fiscal policy expert. He has made a federal Balanced Budget Amendment a key talking point in his speeches and appearances so far, and was known for being a budget cutter while in Congress. His record in Ohio tells a very different story. Spending has risen rapidly  during Kasich’s tenure in Columbus.

Data from the National Association of State Budget Officers illustrates the rapid growth general fund spending. From fiscal year 2012, Kasich’s first full fiscal year, to fiscal year 2015, general fund spending increased in Ohio by 18 percent. Nationally, state general fund spending increased by 12 percent during that period. Kasich’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 increased spending further. It included a year-over-year increase of 11 percent. The average governor proposed a spending increase of 3 percent from fiscal year 2015 to fiscal year 2016.

Funding Highways: States Can Do It

Congress faces a deadline at the end of July to extend federal highway funding. Policymakers are likely to cobble together a short-term fix for the funding gap in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), rather than enacting a permanent solution.

Annual HTF spending is projected to be $53 billion and rising in coming years, while HTF revenues will be $40 billion. That leaves an annual funding gap of at least $13 billion. A good permanent fix would be to cut federal spending by $13 billion to match the revenues. State governments could fill the gap with their own funding, efficiency improvements, or privatization.

That straightforward decentralization solution is not popular with highway lobby groups, and it is usually not mentioned as an option by reporters. A recent Washington Post Wonkblog column is typical. It examined road quality and potholes in the states, and then concluded that more federal money was needed.

The Post published my letter in response to Wonkblog on Saturday:

The article noted that some states (such as California) have many car-damaging potholes, while others (such as Florida) have very few. It said that “we haven’t been putting enough money into the Highway Trust Fund.”

Actually, the data reveal that California ought to be learning lessons from Florida on how to spend existing funds more efficiently. The fact that some states have much better highways than others shows that states can solve their own highway problems — without the top-down federal actions suggested in the article.

Here are some of the details from the original Wonkblog story:

… 28 percent of the nation’s major roadways—interstates, freeways, and major arterial roadways in urban areas—are in “poor” condition.

[Other than D.C.] … the worst roads are in California where 51 percent of the highways are rated poor. Rhode Island, New Jersey and Michigan all have “poor” ratings of 40 percent or more. Dang.

And while everybody loves to make fun of Florida, the Sunshine State actually has the smallest percentage of bad roads in the nation—only 7 percent. Nevada, Missouri, Minnesota and Arkansas round out the top 5.

Note that Florida is a warm and sunny, while Minnesota is cold and snowy, yet they both have very good roads. Meanwhile, California is warm and sunny, while Michigan is cold and snowy, yet they both have very poor roads. Wonkblog correctly notes, “I might have expected weather and latitude to play a big role in road quality, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.”

So far so good, but then Wonkblog jumps to his predetermined solution, and completely ignores the implication of the data he had just presented. He says, “One main reason why our roads are in such bad shape is that we haven’t been putting enough money into the Highway Trust Fund to keep up with infrastructure needs.”

According to Wonkblog’s own chart, only 10 percent of the roads in Minnesota are in “poor” condition, while 51 percent in California are poor. Thus, bad roads are clearly a state-level failing. Wonkblog immediately grabs for the magic wand of more federal funding, but he might have asked what it is that states like Minnesota are doing right with the existing funding.  

The other weird thing about Wonkblog’s conclusion is that he says, “we haven’t been putting enough money into” the HTF. But, of course, it is spending that might affect road quality, not the revenues “into” the fund. If you look at HTF spending, it has remained high in recent years because Congress has filled it with general fund revenues, as I chart here.

In sum, there are apparently dramatic differences in road quality between the states. That may stem from differences in state funding, state efficiency, and state competence, but seemingly not climate conditions. All the states have the ability by themselves to have high quality roads, but some states it appears have important road-investment lessons to learn from the others.

Obamacare’s Not-So-Hidden Tax: Thank You for Smoking

Without government interference, insurance markets will naturally charge higher premiums for riskier individuals. For example, life insurance premiums vary considerably based on factors that increase the likelihood of death, such as age, gender, smoking status, and health.

Under Obamacare, many factors that influence healthcare expenditures are excluded from premiums. For example, premiums make no distinction for obesity, likelihood of having a baby, alcoholism or pre-existing conditions. One notable exception is for smokers, where premiums may be up to 50 percent higher than that for non-smokers. I have collected data on premiums for smokers and non-smokers in 35 states, and the data shows large variation in the extent to which smokers are charged more for their choice.

Leon Trotsky on the Weapon of Taxation

“You ought not to forget that the credit system and the tax apparatus remain in the hands of the workers’ state and that this is a very important weapon in the struggle between state industry and private industry….

The pruning knife of taxation is a very important instrument.  With it the workers’ state will be able to clip the young plant of capitalism, lest it thrive too luxuriously.”

–Leon Trotsky, The First 5 Years of the Comintern, Vol 2 (London, New Park, 1945) p. 341

Scott Walker’s Fiscal Record

Monday is Scott Walker’s turn to join the crowded presidential field. Walker has served as Wisconsin’s Governor since 2011. He rose to prominence quickly after the State Capitol in Madison was overtaken by protesters opposing his labor reforms. Walker has passed a number of government-limiting measures, earning a “B” on Cato’s Governor Report Card in both 2012 and 2014, but he continues to support higher spending.

When Walker took office Wisconsin had a $3.6 billion budget deficit and needed urgent reform. His first big legislative achievement was Act 10 which overhauled the state’s collective bargaining rules and benefit programs for state employees. Under Act 10, state employees must contribute 12 percent of premium costs to their state-provided health insurance plan. In addition, pension contributions are now split evenly between the employee and the employer. In 2015 that contribution was 6.8 percent of income.

Act 10 also limited collective bargaining subjects to base wages, removing the ability to negotiate on overtime, pension, and health benefits. It has saved taxpayers in Wisconsin $3 billion since its passage in 2011.

Walker has also passed several tax cuts while in office. In 2013 Walker signed a plan that cut the state’s personal income tax by almost $500 million a year. The plan consolidated the state’s five income tax brackets into four brackets, with the larger cuts skewed towards the lower end of the income scale. In 2014 the state made further cuts to the lowest income tax bracket. In total, the lowest bracket fell from 4.60 percent to 4 percent. Work is still needed. Wisconsin’s total income tax rate of 7.65 percent is still one of the highest in the country, and its Business Tax Climate is a discouraging 43rd in the nation, according to the Tax Foundation. 

Walker has had success on labor and tax issues, but spending continues to grow rapidly in Wisconsin. From fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2015, Wisconsin state spending grew 15 percent. For comparison, state spending grew by 8 percent nationally during this period.  So while Walker turned a $3.6 billion deficit when he took office into an $800 million surplus by June 2013, he has continued to spend excessively.  His budget for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 included another $1 billion in increased spending. 

Walker’s policies have targeted numerous areas of Wisconsin’s budget. He reformed the state’s labor laws as they related to state employees and saved $3 billion in four years. He cut personal income taxes. Overall, his actions have helped restore fiscal sanity to Wisconsin. But voters concerned about Washington’s debt and profligacy should be aware Walker’s record of increasing state spending even while cutting taxes.

Washington Helped Create Puerto Rican Crisis

On Monday, I highlighted the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico. The island’s governor announced that it cannot fully pay back its $70 billion in outstanding debt. Much of the attention this week has focused on how Puerto Rico has mismanaged its finances. San Juan has delayed necessary reforms. But missing in most news articles is the role that Washington, D.C. has played in creating the mess.

Over at Fox News, I have a new piece describing how the federal government has contributed to the island’s problems.

For instance, the federal minimum wage contributes to Puerto Rico’s challenges:

The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour applies on the island. The minimum wage’s effects are well-known, but it has disproportionate influence in Puerto Rico. The island’s median income is only 40 percent of the mainland. Twenty-eight percent of Puerto Rico residents earn $8.50 an hour or less, compared to 3 percent on the mainland. So the minimum wage has greater impact in Puerto Rico. It would be like if the mainland had a $19 an hour minimum wage. The high minimum wage raises the cost of employment and prices many employers out of the market, causing unemployment to rise and thus tax revenue to dry up.  The minimum wage is a partly why the island’s unemployment rate is almost three times that of the mainland.

Similarly, the 1920 Jones Act limits Puerto Rico’s ability to import and export goods efficiently:

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