Medicaid is the beast

It’s not short-term federal budget issues and credit rating changes that should worry muniland; these issues will require adjustments and creative solutions, but they are transitory. The real issue for states is how their budgets will sustain the increasing load of Medicaid, the federal government’s healthcare program for the poor and those who require nursing home care. This is the real elephant in the room.

Today, multiple media outlets ran stories about the oncoming terror for states from a potential downgrade of the credit rating of the United States. For example, the New York Times ran an article with the headline “Debt Ceiling Uncertainty Puts States at Risk” on their homepage. The story details a litany of possible scenarios ranging from the minor, such as Maryland having to delay a scheduled bond sale for a few days, to the more substantial worries, such as the federal government stopping payments like Social Security and state and local tax revenues being reduced.

These are transitory problems, which, like the problems that happened when the state government of Minnesota shut down for three weeks, will cause inconveniences. Ultimately, the system will find work-arounds.

Regarding the larger problem, take a look at the chart above, which was compiled by the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO). Thankfully, the work of NASBO is free of the hyperbole we often hear from politicians. State budget officers and treasurers focus on making sure that there are enough funds to cover commitments and that they end the year with balanced books. These are tough jobs, especially in times of declining resources.

The NASBO chart shows how states have adjusted spending from fiscal year 2011 (just ended on June 30) to the current fiscal year (2012). It says it all. In addition the new federal healthcare care requires an expansion of Medicaid coverage in 2014. The elephant in the room is growing bigger.

The land of 10,000 lakes

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful name for a state than Minnesota, which comes from a Dakota Sioux word for “sky-tinted water.” Today the state is popularly known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” a nickname that conjures up images of primal forests, deep waterways and lots of summer mosquitoes.

The reasonable-looking man in the video above is Mark Dayton, the governor of Minnesota. Governor Dayton, a Democrat, has shut down the state government over an impasse with Republicans in the state legislature. Bloomberg reports:

The 12-day impasse is the longest of the nation’s six state government shutdowns since 2002 by four days, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It has idled about 23,000 state workers, closed agencies and stopped construction projects statewide.

The foolishness of Ann and Amanda

Television is my least favorite medium because pundits usually strike outlandish poses that are wholly disconnected from the facts. Case in point is the short video above from MSNBC with Chris Hayes of The Nation, author Amanda Foreman, pundit Ann Coulter and political commentator and comedian Bill Maher. What are these people talking about?

Amanda Foreman: “Government doesn’t create jobs. Ideas create jobs. Innovation creates jobs.”

Fact check: State and local governments employ approximately 19.6 million people.

The American Revolution was a beginning, not a consummation

“The American Revolution was a beginning, not a consummation.” ~Woodrow Wilson

Happy belated Independence Day to all! Step by step, the United States is transforming itself. It’s a good time to remember our founding principles:

Individual liberty
Personal responsibility
Constitutionally limited government
The rule of law

Real people are connected to every actuarial assumption

Pension reform sounds abstract and distant from everyday life. It is almost entirely confined to state- and local-government workers. Companies stopped giving pensions to their workers decades ago as they switched employees to 401(k)s and other voluntary-type retirement schemes. This removed enormous future liabilities from the balance sheets of companies and shifted the risk of adequate retirement means to individuals.

Public pensions plans are now  squarely in the sights of state legislatures. They are terribly underfunded and have grown unsustainable. Changes, though, must be made within the law. For example, states cannot categorically take away pensions because they are “contracted obligations.” But states can and are chipping around the edges and making changes to things like “cost of living adjustments” (COLA) and the required retirement age.

These legislative modifications are being challenged in courts. This is not surprising since people don’t generally give up their benefits or rights on a voluntary basis. In many cases these pensions are the only thing that retirees will have to fund their retirement. Workers are not winning their court cases, though. The WSJ reports that:

“To win the future, we must dream big and build big”

America’s Interstate Highway System celebrates 55 years

This is the best example of how public infrastructure can really anchor tremendous economic growth. We can learn from history and use this time of economic challenge to conceive of equally profound infrastructure goals. From Fastlane, the blog of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood:

As President Obama has said, to win the future, we must dream big and build big. One of the best examples of dreaming and building big in our nation’s history is America’s Interstate Highway System, which marks its 55th anniversary today.

On June 29, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which established a program for funding and building the new system. This legislation has been hailed by historians as one of the top ten bills in American history, surpassed only by the Civil Rights Act and Medicare, and the Interstate Highway System has been called the greatest public works project in history.

No allowance if you don’t do your homework

Photo: California State Controller John Chiang

No allowance if you don’t do your homework

California’s Legislature rushed through a budget last week that they thought was balanced. The State Comptroller has ruled otherwise, and now he is withholding lawmakers’ salaries, the New York Times reports today:

California lawmakers will lose at least a week’s pay and living expenses because the state budget they passed last week was not balanced, the state controller said Tuesday.

When the Legislature approved the budget, several lawmakers praised themselves for passing it on time for only the second time in two decades. And they assumed that meeting the deadline would allow them to collect their full paychecks.

Muni sweeps: Increasing the muni investor pool

It’s a glorious spring day in America and everything continues to bounce along. A little progress here and some fall back there. Oh and that unpleasant negative ratings watch on United States debt from Standard & Poor’s. Yeah that is not good. Welcome to a new week in muniland. The sun sets over a pond in Rogers, Arkansas, November 8, 2009. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The sun sets over a pond in Rogers, Arkansas, November 8, 2009. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Increasing the muni investor pool:

Marketwatch has an article which frames the proposed Wyden and Coates federal legislation for muni tax-exemption as having the effect of shrinking the investor pool.

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