Archive for the ‘Spending’ category

Funding Roads and Bridges to Perdition

March 25, 2013

Gasoline taxes, road tolls and highway infrastructure spending are issues at the forefront of a lot of heated debates in state legislatures across the country.  I am going to write about the issue a couple of times this week.   Some lawmakers want to raise sales or other taxes to pay for infrastructure and others want to increase gasoline taxes and other “user fees” to pay for it.   The highway infrastructure spending and revenue issue can illustrate classic principles of sound fiscal and economic policy so it is too bad that the debates have generally taken the “low road” by framing the issue almost entirely as either one of “who wants to raise taxes and who doesn’t,” or “who wants to makes roads and bridges safe and who doesn’t”.

User fees are a good thing and it is sound fiscal policy to have the users of roads pay for them via gasoline taxes, road tolls, and other fees that reflect an individual’s usage of roads and bridges.  When general revenues are used to pay for roads and bridges people who don’t necessarily use them wind-up paying for a portion of highways and subsidize the usage of roads of those who travel them a lot.  When you subsidize something you can bet you are going to get more of it than you would have gotten without the subsidy and in this case that means more travel on roads which, of course, means there will be more need for roads and spending on roads and that means more subsidy and that approach is surely a road to perdition.

It was nice to see New Hampshire rank high in a recent report (issue brief) by the Tax Foundation on the percentage of  highway spending that is funded by user fees like gasoline taxes, tolls and other fees.  Unfortunately, in making good points about user fees, the Foundation draws the wrong conclusion about the data it uses to make them.  That happens a lot when you use bivariate analysis to draw conclusions in a multivariate world.  Instead, using multivariate (regression) analysis on the data, it becomes clear that it is less the use of good principles of fiscal policy that results in states paying for a higher percentage of the costs of highways with user fees, than it is a function of the volume of federal government grants they receive.  So a cursory look at the Tax Foundation’s report can give NH a sense of superiority in fiscal policy over many states (while I generally think that is true about NH it is not so much in this case),  and especially over Vermont because that state funds just under 20% of its highway spending with user fees compared to NH’s 42%.  The real reason those percentages are what they are is that Vermont receives about 64% more federal highway funds per capita than does NH ($220 to $134 in 2010). The chart below shows the simple relationship between the percentage of highway spending in a state that is funded by gas taxes and user fees and the amount of federal highway funding per capita in each state.

User fees and Fed funds

States like NH that fund a higher percentage of highway expenditures with user fees do generally receives lower amounts of highway funds from the feds (the data point slope downward to the right).  There are even more intervening variables, like the amount of federal highways (by mile) and as a percentage of all highways that are in a state but still, by far, the amount of federal highway funding per capita is the best predictor of the volume of highway spending per capita in each state. The amount of motor vehicle-related user fees per capita were a distant second but still significantly related to highway spending.

Fed Highway per capita

Almost everyone agrees that NH’s (and every other state’s) roads and bridges are in need but I don’t think the debate is ever going to be about the wisdom of user fees versus general revenues in paying for highway infrastructure.  It is too bad because if it were we just might reduce the need for more spending in the future.

If We Can Beat the Mayan Apocalypse Why Not the Fiscal Cliff?

December 21, 2012

If the Mayan apocalypse can be postponed (I am not sure exactly at which time it is supposed to occur so I may be speaking too soon here) then surely the U.S. Congress can agree to actions to avoid the fiscal cliff.  Lawmakers are poised to give us over $500 billion in tax increases and over $100 billion in spending cuts to begin the new year.  The fiscal cliff is a  pretty big lump of coal as a gift to begin 2013.

What is extraordinary about the cliff’s self-inflicted harm is that it appears  almost all sentient beings realize what needs to happen. More importantly, there also appears to be substantial agreement on most of the actions necessary to avoid the economic harm resulting from the fiscal cliff.   Spending clearly has to be cut  just as surely as revenues have to be raised.

deficit trends

With so much apparent agreement on actions needed to avoid the damage, it is hard to understand the calculus of lawmakers as the lack of an agreement begins to  demonstrably affect business and consumer confidence as well as financial  markets.  Congress always comes up with a temporary fix for the alternative minimum tax and can easily do so again.  Almost everyone wants the payroll tax cut to expire (for different reasons – Republicans because they don’t like the temporary nature and believe it has no incentive for work and saving and Democrats because of its impact on the Social Security trust fund).  There is little support for extending unemployment benefits.  It seems like neither party really wants the spending cuts (Republicans opposed to defense cuts and Democrats to non-defense cuts).   There is disagreement over the tax increase for high income individuals included in the Affordable Care Act and Medicare reimbursements for doctors but those are a miniscule portion of the cliff’s effects.   Beyond all the posturing,  the fight in congress is really  about whether to extend tax cut provisions to 98% or 100% of U.S. households.

cliff effects on growth

I know I am simplifying here.  Even with many agreed upon temporary  fixes,  longer-term solutions must be found.  But lawmakers could still salvage strong economic benefits by avoiding the worst of the cliff’s impacts in the short-term while resolving longer-term issues in the first-half of 2013.  Such a “grand bargain”  would both increase business and consumer confidence and set the nation on a more sustainable budgetary and debt path that would quickly overcome any of the short-term negative impacts  resulting from necessary spending cuts and revenue increases.

Its the Dependency Ratio That Matters Most

November 8, 2012

There is a good deal of fretting (warranted) about the impact on national and state-level government spending of a population that is growing older.  It is relatively easy to project a path for age-affected expenditures both nationally and in NH and to model how changes in spending programs and policies could alter the projected path of those expenditures.   Getting agreement on which policies to alter to influence the spending path is a much more difficult task.  What is missing from most discussions is an understanding that aging isn’t the only important demographic trend.  The dynamics of an increasing number of older individuals and median age of the population are largely misunderstood, but that is a subject for another post.  From a fiscal perspective, the most important indicator of spending pressures resulting  from the age structure  of the population is the “dependency ratio.”   The dependency ratio measures the ratio of working-age individuals in a population to those who are generally more ‘dependent” in a population (that is are likely to draw greater resources from governments then they give to governments).  Generally dependency is defined as age groups least likely to be in the labor force (children and those age 65+ – which may be unrealistic as individuals are healthier and for a variety of reasons stay longer in the labor force).  The dependency ratio affects both spending and revenues (revenue impacts are mostly missing from the demographic discussion and are the subject of tomorrow’s post).  A lot of government spending is directed at these groups – young people via schools and older citizens via things like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security etc.  The chart below shows the rise in the projected dependent population in NH.  The chart shows that the past decade has been a “sweet spot” for the dependency ratio in NH, with an overall decline in the percentage of the population in “dependent” years (albeit with an increase in older dependency).  I produced a similar chart in the early 2000’s and suggested state government make good use of the state’s time in the “sweet spot” by adopting policies to minimize the impacts of future increase in the dependency ratio in the state (it wasn’t the first nor will it be the last time my thoughts were ignored by lawmakers – in fairness, it’s not always unreasonable for them to do so).  Certainly some policies have looked to reduce the impacts of an increasing older population.  But with limited, and in some years declines in the youth dependency, less attention has been given to innovative ways to slow the growth in spending (largely education expenditures) in a way that is proportional to growth in the youth population.   Effectively managing changes in spending pressures without producing unacceptably large overall increases in spending or unacceptable reductions in services requires that resources not be locked in specific spending categories or programs, but rather be allowed to rise and fall and flow to and from programs programs and services most influenced by demographic and economic pressures.  Tomorrow: The other side of the ledger – demographic influences on revenues.


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