Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Results from the Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Post-Debate Survey

The Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation recently co-hosted a debate in which interns from both organizations debated whether conservatism or libertarianism is the better philosophy. At the conclusion of the debate, the Cato Institute conducted a survey of debate attendees finding important similarities and striking differences between millennial conservative and libertarian attendees.

Full LvCDebate Attendee Survey results found here

The survey finds that libertarian and conservative millennial attendees were similar in skepticism of government economic intervention and regulation but were dramatically different in their stances toward immigration, LGBT inclusion, national security, privacy, foreign policy and perceptions of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

While the survey is not a representative sample, this survey offers a snapshot of engaged conservative and libertarian millennial “elites” who have higher levels of education and political information, and who chose to come to this event. To date, little information exists on young conservative and libertarian elites. Since these attendees are politically engaged millennials, their responses may provide some indication of the direction they may take both movements in the future.

Eighty-percent of millennial respondents self-identified as either conservative (41%) or libertarian (39%): This post will focus on these conservative and libertarian millennial attendees.

Revisiting Kasich’s Record on Spending

Yesterday, Ohio Governor and presidential candidate John Kasich appeared on Fox News. During his interview with host Chris Wallace, Kasich was asked about his “D” in our 2014 Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors.

Here is a transcript of the exchange:

WALLACE: Unemployment down from 9.1 percent to 5.2 percent. And the top income tax rate has been lowered from 6.2 percent to 4.9 percent.

But the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, gave you a “D” on its government’s [sic] report card just last year, noting the budget grew 13.6 percent in 2014 and that over your time as governor, government jobs have increased 3 percent. A “D”, sir?

KASICH: Well, I don’t know who these folks are, Chris, another Washington group. But, look, we have the lowest number of state employees in 30 years and in addition to that, our budget overall is growing by about 2 percent or 3 percent, and our Medicaid growth has gone from 9 percent when I came in to less than 4 percent and no one has been left behind. We haven’t had to cut benefits or throw anybody off the rolls. So, we pay attention to the mentally ill and the drug addicted and the working poor.

But, you know, it’s Washington. And, Chris, here’s the thing – remember they said, “He won’t get in the race.” Then I did.

Then, they said, “OK, well, if he gets in, he won’t be able to raise the money.” Then I did.

Then, they said, “Well, he’s getting in too late.” Now they say, “What a brilliant move.”

So, I pay no attention to folks in Washington. I want to move a lot of the power and money and influence out of that town back to where we live like normal Americans, you know?

We seem to have two conflicting views here. In 2014 we gave Governor Kasich the worst score of any governor in the country on spending. We noted the rapid increase, above national averages, in state spending in Ohio. At the same time, Kasich is saying that spending is only growing by “2 percent or 3 percent” in Ohio.

Federal Subsidies Miss Target

The Wall Street Journal today discusses how the growth in federal subsidies for college has contributed to the growth in college costs for students. Cato scholars have been arguing for years that rising grants and loans are not so much helping students, but causing bloat in college administration costs, including wages, benefits, and excess building construction.

It is a similar story in other policy areas. Federal subsidies cause unintended effects that undermine the stated purpose of interventions, and often end up lining the pockets of people not targeted. Farm subsidy advocates want you to believe that struggling farmers are aided by billions of dollars in annual subsidies, but the real beneficiaries are mainly wealthy landowners. Housing subsidies are supposed to reduce housing costs for people with low incomes, but–to an extent—programs such as Section 8 and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit fatten the wallets of landlords and developers.

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.