MuniLand

The soft side of federal spending

It’s not clear that Congress is capable of doing its job of managing the nation’s purse strings. Capitol Hill failed at identifying a combination of tax increases and reductions in spending that would have lowered our growing debt burden. Now every constituency that draws funds from the U.S. Treasury is angling to push others away from the trough. A perfect example is the internecine warfare to come over defense cuts. Here is a slick ad against funding for the military’s nuclear arsernal obviously coming from the traditional munitions and equipment makers:

The military players are well versed at battling over the spoils. But it’s the soft side of federal spending, where social support and services are funded, that is less equipped to fight over its share of decreased funding.

The automatic cuts that kick in due to the failure of the supercommittee are aimed at defense, Medicare and Social Security, and other discretionary social programs. The legislation spares cuts for Medicaid payments to states. It’s interesting that this area was protected when other major areas of the budget will have reductions. Medicaid cuts were the reductions that governors and county officials feared most because they consume an increasing amount of state and local budgets. Maybe governors were the real winners of the lobbying game when the Budget Control Act of 2011 was being written.

Politicians seem to be stuck in the blame game and hyperbole about who would or wouldn’t raise taxes on millionaires. We do need tax increases and we must cut everywhere as precisely and wisely as we can. Enough with the soundbites. It’s time to start talking hard numbers.

State taxes on fire

State tax collections are hot, hot, hot. The taxman rustled up 16 percent more in state income taxes for the second quarter of 2011 compared to the same period in 2010. Where is this phenomenal growth coming from?

Based on the most recent data collected by the Rockefeller Institute, states are raking in about $900 billion a year from their three major tax categories: the sales tax, personal income tax and corporate income taxes. Revenues from these three taxes total about 6.25% of U.S. GDP.

But it’s the personal income tax (PIT) that’s really driving the show. In the state of New York the PIT makes up about 60 percent of total tax revenues. In Oregon the PIT is an astonishing 72 percent of the state’s tax haul. Although the national employment level improved slowly the PIT was up on average 11.4 percent across the country year over year, according to Rockefeller. This contrasts sharply with the 4.6 percent national increase in state sales tax collections, especially given that 21 states cut their PIT tax rate while only 12 states cut their sales tax rates.

What do muniland insiders think?

When the mainstream press pays attention to muniland, often it’s the most colorful and misinformed voices — think Meredith Whitney – that dominate coverage. So it was great to get some interesting data today on how municipal insiders view the market from the muni team at RBC Capital Markets. They did a survey of 116 municipal market professionals at the recent Bond Buyer’s California Public Finance Conference. Respondents included officials from federal, local and state governments; bankers; and other municipal finance professionals in attendance.

The key findings, shown in the chart above, are that industry participants worry most about the low level of bond issuance, headline risk and federal budget issues. Headline risk and federal budget problems are out of the control of everyone in the municipal space. But low issuance is a puzzler. Certainly these professionals have had their trade reduced as fewer bond issues come to market and as municipalities face harsher credit constraints than they are used to.

Another terrifying data point reported by RBC is the length of time respondents thought that it would take for state and local government revenues to return to pre-crisis levels.

Who are the “job creators?”

As the congressional supercommittee begins its budget-cutting efforts, state and local governments are worried about looming cuts to their federal grants. From Bloomberg:

In statehouses across the U.S., a budget-cutting congressional supercommittee and the sputtering economy threaten a fledgling recovery from the worst fiscal crisis in more than 70 years.

To create a more balanced approach that includes revenue increases as well as spending cuts, President Obama has proposed to raise taxes on the highest earners by reducing their tax exclusions and deductions (of which the municipal bond tax exclusion is a relatively small part).

Obama proposes direct aid to local governments

Obama proposes direct aid to local governments

Among the proposals made by President Obama in his jobs speech last night was his call for the federal government to fund the costs of public school teachers, firemen, policemen and first responders fully. This appears to be the only direct cash subsidy for jobs in his plan.

The American Jobs Act, if enacted by Congress, would specifically allocate $30 billion in funds for teachers and $5 billion would support the hiring and retention of public safety and first responder personnel. Using 2010 Census data this would provide a subsidy of approximately 12% to local governments for their elementary and secondary educator’s expenses and 8% for police and firefighters. The 2009 Recovery Act allocated $47 billion to local governments for teacher salaries so this proposal is about 40% less.

President Obama’s plan also includes “$25 billion investment in school infrastructure that will modernize at least 35,000 public schools.” While sounding good it’s important to point out this would give each school about $715,000 in funds for renovations. It’s helpful but not really a substantial amount.

The great milk cow in the sky dropped dead

The new paradigm for state and local governments is austerity.

Hard economic conditions and efforts at the federal level to achieve a balanced budget mean that funding for municipal governments will continue to contract. How will the reductions at the federal level spill over? Blunt-talking former Senator Alan Simpson, who co-chaired the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, was quoted recently as saying:

“(State officials) need to know the great milk cow in the sky dropped dead and that it’s over,” Simpson said in an interview for the March/April Capitol Ideas. “If they’re waiting for the next injection of some kind of funding from the feds to get the states propped up, … they probably saw the last one go by with the last compromise, which added almost $1 trillion bucks to the deficit without any reduction in spending.”

I’m sure that former Senator Simpson echoes the beliefs of many conservatives in Congress. Money is tight at the federal level, and much of the funding to states is targeted at very low income areas. It’s hard to predict how broad-based the defense of programs such as tenet-based rental assistance and child-nutrition programs will be. But the word is that the big federal program to states, Medicaid, has escaped cuts. So this potentially leaves the other programs very vulnerable. Let’s take a look at where federal dollars flow through to the states:

The federal government’s largess

The states rely on the federal government for 1 out of every 3 dollars they spend. States are rightly worried that the new “super committee” established by the debt ceiling deal in Congress will be looking at these monies to reduce spending. I thought it would be useful to look at the federal budget and get a sense of the size and composition of these expenditures.

I got a large table of data from the Government Printing Office (GPO) that shows the Congressionally authorized grants to the states. About half these monies are administered by states and flow through their budgets (see especially Medicaid and education funding) and the balance are distributed as federal programs. Here are the main programs administered by the states in this pie chart. Federal unemployment assistance is not included in this area of the budget.

Medicaid has always been the biggest cash transfer program to the states. It requires matching funds from state and county governments. Although it escaped mandatory reductions in the first phase of deficit reduction it’s the area that has governors and legislators most concerned. Medicaid is the poor cousin to other health insurance programs and it generally pays the lowest reimbursement rates. Some creative thinking is needed for this widely used health insurance program.

Supporting less prosperous brethren

There are many financial linkages between various levels of government in muniland but everyone eventually has to stand on their own. It’s like the cousin you grew up with but don’t see much now other than holidays. When your cousin loses their job and their mortgage is being foreclosed you want to help but in a limited way. You want the cousin to get a job and cut a deal on their mortgage or do a short sale. You don’t want them moving into your home or having access to your bank account. It’s the same between the federal, state and local governments. They are cousins. But not that close.

My fellow Reuters blogger, Felix Salmon, said yesterday that states are considered too-big-to-fail by the financial markets:

There’s certainly a general understanding, in the markets, that California is too big to fail: if push came to shove, the federal government would bail it out rather than let it default.

The middle sadness

The middle sadness

Paul Mason, the economics editor of the BBC’s Newsnight program, recently retraced John Steinbeck’s footsteps during America’s Great Depression.  What he found was a broad swath of sadness as he observed many citizens who have lost jobs and homes. It’s the invisible America. From the BBC:

I drop down into Albuquerque, into Joy Junction, which in the red dusk looks like a scene from Steinbeck. There are 300 homeless people staying here, all families.

Jeremy Reynalds, an expat Brit who runs the place, tells me frankly that the mainstay of the place are people with drug, alcohol and domestic violence issues. But as the years of crisis have dragged on, there is a new phenomenon – the homeless middle-class.

What would a debt-limit crisis cost the states?

Thanks to Jordan Eizenga at the Center for American Progress, you can see some scenarios of the impact of the halt in payments to states if the debt ceiling is not raised. Jordan says:

The key thing to remember is that these are cuts that would occur even if we protected Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and UI. Failing to raise the debt limit causes unavoidable pain to states.

Roll your mouse over to see the effect on each state. More analysis here.

It’s on in Alabama

The crisis in Jefferson County, Alabama is quickly coming to a head. The County Commissioners’ willingness to file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is putting a lot of pressure on bondholders, led by JP Morgan, to agree to a settlement. It appears that the entire Alabama political structure is aligned to do the best for their citizens. Right now the epicenter of the struggle between the people and Wall Street is Birmingham, Alabama.

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