Colorado Supreme Court Strikes Down School Vouchers

Earlier today, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Douglas County’s school voucher program violates the state constitution. 

The Douglas County Board of Education unanimously voted to enact the Choice Scholarship Pilot (CSP) Program in 2011, making it the first district-level school voucher program in the nation. The program granted 500 school vouchers worth up to 75 percent of the district schools’ per-pupil revenue, which was approximately $6,100 in the last academic year. Students could use the $4,575 vouchers at the private school of their choice and the district retained the remaining 25 percent of the funding ($1,525 per voucher student).

However, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and several local organizations that wanted to protect district schools from competition filed a legal challenge almost immediately. Although they won an injunction from a trial court, it was later overturned on appeal in 2013. Plaintiffs then appealed to the state supreme court.

In a narrow 4-3 decision*, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the voucher law ran afoul of the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which says:

Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever…

The court held that “aiding religious schools is exactly what the CSP does.” Even though “CSP does not explicitly funnel money directly religious schools, instead providing financial aid to student,” the court ruled that the Blaine Amendment’s prohibitions “are not limited to direct funding.”

Kennedy the Swing, Roberts Back on Reservation, Scalia Is Scalia

This morning I was on the steps of the Supreme Court, as I have been each of the decision days starting last Monday. It’s a real spectacle, with protestors and counter-protestors, interns running from the Court’s press office to give their media principals slip opinions, and phalanxes of TV cameras, bright lights, screens, and assorted technical accoutrements. For someone whose job includes digesting and commenting on legal opinions, this last week of the high court’s term is pretty much the Super Bowl.

Except today didn’t feel that way. After Obamacare on Thursday and same-sex marriage on Friday, today was the most anticlimactic “last day of school” since I’ve begun doing this.

That’s not to say that the three cases decided today were unimportant, either legally or politically. Indeed, until the Court took up King v. Burwell and Obergefell v. Hodges, each of them would’ve been considered among the “big ones” for what was, to that point, a low-key term. After all, we’re talking about the death penalty, redistricting, and major environmental regulations. (And also the Court announced that it will again take up Fisher v. UT-Austin, the racial-preferences case that is set to become one of next term’s blockbusters.)

Let’s take the cases in the order they came:

Does EPA’s Supreme Court Loss Doom Obama’s Climate Agenda?

In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court struck down the Obama Administration EPA’s signature “Mercury and Air Toxic Rule,” which regulates emissions by fossil-fuel-fired power plants. Before regulating, EPA was obligated to decide whether regulation under one the Act’s most burdensome programs was “appropriate and necessary.” EPA interpreted that language to preclude it from considering the costs of regulation—some $10 billion per year, in exchange for $4 million or so in direct benefits. That interpretation, the Court decided, was ludicrous.

The decision may well leave the Obama climate agenda in tatters. Why that is requires a bit of explanation. In the usual case when the Court finds a rule to be unlawful, it vacates the offending action—in other words, deprives it of legal force. But that’s not what the Court did here. Instead, it sent the case back down to the D.C. Circuit for further proceedings, knowing full well that that court will follow its usual practice of “remand without vacatur”—in other words, let the agency fix any flaws in its rule while leaving the rule in place.

This is a very big deal. The centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s climate agenda is EPA’s so-called “Clean Power Plan,” which aims to cut power plants’ carbon-dioxide emissions by around 30 percent and force the phase-out of coal-fired generation. But the statutory authority that EPA claims supports this effort explicitly carves out any regulation of facilities that are already subject to regulations like the Mercury Rule. So if the rule remains in place—as seems likely—then the Clean Power Plan should be dead in the water.

But there’s a more subtle, and perhaps more important, reason to expect trouble ahead for the Clean Power Plan. The Supreme Court’s failure to vacate the Mercury Rule reflects its recognition that the bulk of the rule’s costs—and it was one of the most expensive government regulations ever—has already been borne by industry. So there’s no urgency, at this point, to putting the rule on hold; to the contrary, doing so would be disruptive. But the flip side is that this means utilities and their customers spent tens of billions of dollars complying with a regulation that was always unlawful. One can imagine that the Court won’t be eager for that to happen again. And one can also imagine that the Court’s decision today is a shot across the bow of the D.C. Circuit: when the next billion-dollar rule comes up, and there’s any legal question about EPA’s authority, put the rule on hold so the courts have a chance to do their business. More reading-between-the-lines: if you don’t, we will.

The Clean Power Plan is expected to be finalized in late August, and challengers will ask the D.C. Circuit for a stay just as soon as they can. If that happens, the rule most likely won’t go into effect during the Obama Administration and, depending on the results of the next election, may never go forward.

And that’s why today may be the beginning of the end of the Obama Administration’s climate agenda.

Victory in State of Michigan v. EPA

The Cato Institute submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the State of Michigan in their case State of Michigan v. EPA, which was decided today. In the amicus I noted the wanton nature of the EPA’s science. In a brief statement I’ve sent out to press today, I said:

Today’s Supreme Court decision on EPA’s regulation of mercury emissions from power plants is a clear victory for common sense. While the EPA claimed that it did not have to take into account the costs of regulation versus the benefits, they admitted the direct benefits of their regulations were impossibly small to measure, being a “savings” of 0.00209 I.Q. points (the margin for error is ~5000x this value) in a theoretical population of 240,000 people—no doubt this factored into the EPA’s decision to simply say that they didn’t have to consider the costs. The Court held that the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 clearly requires EPA to do this, and that any claim that they did not was a totally inappropriate reading of the statute.

We’re very pleased the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of liberty and sound science.

This Is the Housing Market You Wanted, Hillary Clinton Staffers

The New York Times reports:

For decades, idealistic twenty-somethings have shunned higher-paying and more permanent jobs for the altruism and adrenaline rush of working to get a candidate to the White House. But the staffers who have signed up for the Clinton campaign face a daunting obstacle: the New York City real estate market….

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign prides itself on living on the cheap and keeping salaries low, which is good for its own bottom line, but difficult for those who need to pay New York City rents….

When the campaign’s finance director, Dennis Cheng, reached out to New York donors [to put up staffers in their apartments], some of them seemed concerned with the prospective maze of campaign finance laws and with how providing upscale housing in New York City might be interpreted.

Here are some words that don’t appear in the article: rent control, regulation, zoning. But those are among the reasons that housing is expensive in New York. As a Manhattan Institute report noted in 2002:

  • New York City and State have instituted policies that severely distort the dynamics of housing supply and demand. Only 30 percent of the city’s rental units, for instance, are subject to market prices. These distortions—coupled with Rube-Goldbergian environmental and zoning regulations—have denied New York the kind of healthy housing market enjoyed by most other major cities.

And a report by Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko for the Federal Reserve Board of New York Economic Policy Review suggests that “homes are expensive in high-cost areas primarily because of government regulation” that imposes “artificial limits on construction.”

As I’ve said in other contexts: This is the business you have chosen. If you want the government to control rents and impose regulatory costs on the building of housing, then you can expect to see less housing and thus more expensive housing. Welcome to your world, Hillary Clinton staffers.

Puerto Rico Edges to Default

Greece is expected to default on its government debts tomorrow as its bailout package from the European Union (EU) expires. The country will also hold a referendum on Friday on whether to accept the latest round of terms from its EU funders. Greece continues to grab all the headlines, but there is another government closer to home that is in a similar situation: Puerto Rico. Over the weekend, the governor of the island announced that Puerto Rico is unable to repay its $70 billion in debt.

The Washington Post describes the situation:

A U.S. commonwealth with a population of 3.6 million, Puerto Rico carries more debt per capita than any state in the country. The island has been staggering under the increasing weight of those obligations for years as its economy has tanked, triggering an exodus of island residents to the mainland not seen since the 1950s.

Meanwhile, the government has raised taxes, cut government employment and slashed pensions in a futile effort to get its debt burden under control. Those actions have only slowed the acceleration of debt creation, while harming efforts to reignite the economy.

The island has several sources of debt comprising the $70 billion. Its debt-to-GDP ratio is 70 percent. The average U.S. state is closer to 15 percent. Rhode Island, the state with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio, is just under 20 percent. This infographic from the Wall Street Journal shows the magnitude of Puerto Rico’s outstanding debt.

The Washington Post reports that its debt is compromised of several large types:

The island’s web of debt includes general-obligation bonds, which Puerto Rico’s constitution says must be repaid even before government workers receive their pay.

But billions of dollars more in bonds were floated by public corporations that provide critical services on the island, including providing electric power, building roads and running water and sewer authorities. Beyond the bond debt, the island owes some $37 billion in pension obligations to workers and former workers.

The island’s electricity company is expected to miss a payment this week, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A larger challenge for Puerto Rico is that federal bankruptcy code prevents the island (and states) from filing bankruptcy. That gives Puerto Rico two choices. It can continue to work out a deal with creditors to refinance its outstanding debts, or it could push Congress to provide some sort of bailout.

The idea of state bailouts was discussed some in Congress in 2010 and 2011 as state budgets struggled to handle the effects of the Great Recession. The idea is just as bad now as it was then. Providing a bailout would reward Puerto Rican policymakers for their years of irresponsible choices and should be a non-starter in Congress.

Instead, Puerto Rico should continue to limit its spending to help lower its outstanding debt obligations. It will be an incredibly tough road to manage, but that is the cost of years of mismanagement and failing to acknowledge the realities of the island’s fiscal situation.

Greece: A Financial Zombie State

Banks in Greece will not open their doors Monday morning. Greece has been moving towards this dramatic final act ever since it was allowed to enter the Eurozone with cooked fiscal accounts in January 2001 – two years after the euro was launched. One Greek government after another embraced the idea that it did not have to rein in fiscal expenditures to match revenues because Brussels would cover any shortfalls. That idea appeared to have worked, until other members of the Eurozone realized that the entire European project would fall apart if it became a transfer union.

This realization was brought into sharp focus by the bailout demands of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his left-wing coalition government. Brussels finally realized that if the demands of the Tsipras government (read: Europeans must pay for Athens’ largesse) were met, the Eurozone would morph into a giant moral hazard zone. So, Brussels was forced to throw down the gauntlet: enough is enough.

Where does Athens go from here? Well, to quote former President George W. Bush, as he observed the unfolding financial crisis in 2008: “If money doesn’t loosen up, this sucker could go down.” Well, “W” had a point. Changes in the money supply, broadly determined, cause changes in nominal national income and the price level.

Since October 2008, until the Syriza party took power, the broad measure of the Greek money supply (M3) contracted at an annual rate of just over 6%. And as night follows day, the economy collapsed, shrinking by over 25% since the crisis of 2008.

Since the Tsipras government took the helm, the monetary contraction in Greece has accelerated. This means that a Greek depression of even greater magnitude is already baked in the cake.

And that’s not all. It is going to get worse. The total money supply (M3) can be broken down into its state money and bank money components. State money is the high-powered money (the so-called monetary base) that is produced by central banks. Bank money is produced by commercial banks through deposit creation. Contrary to what most people think, bank money is much more important than state money. In Greece, for example, bank money makes up just over 84% of the total money (M3) supply.

With banks so wounded, Greece is destined to become a financial zombie state.