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Posts Tagged ‘Alaska’

As explained in this short video, a spending cap limits how fast a government’s budget can grow each year.

That’s a very sensible approach, sort of like having a speed limit in a school zone, and even left-leaning international bureaucracies have concluded it’s the best fiscal rule.

That being said, not all spending caps are created equal. A fiscal rule that allows continuous increases in the burden of government spending is akin to an excessive speed limit on the road in front of an elementary school.

At a minimum, a spending cap should keep the spending burden constant (relative to the economy’s productive sector). Even better, a spending cap should fulfill the Golden Rule of fiscal policy by slowly but surely reducing the size of government.

Let’s learn from a real-world example.

Ben Wilterdink, a Visiting Fellow with the Alaska Policy Forum, explains for readers of the Peninsula Clarion that the state has a spending cap, but one that is set too high.

Alaska is in the midst of a perfect fiscal storm. …Even before the present crisis, our state faced large budget deficits and tough decisions about how to make ends meet. …That’s why adopting a functional limit on the growth in state spending is essential for long-term economic success. …a functional limit in the growth of state spending decreases the temptation to dramatically increase spending when economic times are good, creating new budget expectations that are difficult to maintain during inevitable economic downturns… Technically, Alaska already has a constitutional spending cap in place, but the formula used renders it basically meaningless. …While Alaskans can’t retroactively adopt a meaningful spending limit, we can ensure that those economic benefits are captured going forward.

So why is a spending cap now an important issue?

Because the state relies overwhelmingly on energy taxes, which are very cyclical, and the drop in oil prices is putting pressure on state finances.

This isn’t an overnight phenomenon. Here’s some of what Henry Olsen wrote last year for the Washington Post.

Alaskans have long financed their state government without paying for it themselves. Alaska has no personal income tax and no statewide sales or property tax. Instead, the state uses taxes and royalties on oil and gas producers to fund the overwhelming share of its government. …Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) told his constituents that the gravy train is over. Oil prices and production have been down for many years… Dunleavy showed the leadership that many conservatives contend is lacking in Washington and proposed slashing state spending by nearly 25 percent. Those cuts are real, not some phony accounting scheme against “projected” spending. …Dunleavy’s budget is forcing Alaskans to decide how much government they want and how much they are willing to pay for it.

The bad news is that Alaskans may decide they want more government. Indeed, Olsen suggests in his column that this may be the outcome.

That might even lead politicians in the state to do something really unfortunate, such as adopting a state income tax.

The key thing to understand, however, is that the state would not be in this position if it had the kind of meaningful spending cap that Ben Wilterdink discussed in his column.

I wrote about Alaska’s fiscal policy back in 2015 and shared a very depressing chart showing that the burden of state spending tripled in the eight-year period between 2005 and 2013.

Just imagine, though, if spending during that period only grew at the rate of population plus inflation. The state would be in a very strong fiscal position today instead of dealing with a big mess (that’s also the case for the federal government, which also deals with revenue fluctuations).

So what’s the bottom line? Here’s another excerpt from Wilterdink’s column, noting that Colorado’s spending cap is a good role model.

…the most effective is Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), which constitutionally limits spending growth to the rate of inflation plus estimated population growth. The stable budget and tax climate created by TABOR has served Coloradans remarkably well. Over the past decade, Colorado’s gross state product (GSP) has grown by 45.5%, personal income has grown by 59.5%, and non-farm payroll employment has grown by 15.8%.

Amen. Colorado’s TABOR policy is a common-sense policy with a strong track record. And Colorado voters, most recently last November, routinely reject proposals to bust the state’s spending cap. So it’s an economic success and a political success.

P.S. If Alaska (or any other jurisdiction) wants global examples of successful spending caps, Switzerland and Hong Kong are good role models.

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If you look at oil-rich jurisdictions around the world, it’s easy to see why experts sometimes write about the “resource curse.” Simply stated, governments don’t have much incentive to be responsible when they can use oil as a seemingly endless source of tax revenue.

From the perspective of voters, this seems like a good deal. They can get lots of goodies from government without themselves paying much tax.

This is definitely a good description of how fiscal policy operates in Alaska, a state I just visited to give a speech to the Alaska Alliance.

But everything I said during my remarks will be familiar to regular readers, so instead I want to share some state-specific information from a presentation earlier this year by Professor Gunnar Knapp of the University of Alaska Anchorage. As you can see from one of his charts, the tax burden on households is very low.

But the fact that households don’t pay much tax doesn’t mean the Alaska government is starved of money.

That’s because the state, on average, collects 90 percent of its revenue from severance taxes on natural resources.

And since there’s a lot of oil, that adds up to a lot of revenue. A lot.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation, looking at per-capita state tax collections.

It turns out that Alaska is actually a very high-tax state, collecting more money than 48 other states. It’s just that one sector of the economy pays the overwhelming majority of that tax burden.

By the way, notice that oil-rich North Dakota has the highest tax burden and resource-rich Wyoming has the third-highest tax amount of tax revenue.

I suppose there’s some lesson to learn by comparing Alaska and Wyoming, which have lots of energy-related revenue and no state income taxes, with North Dakota, which has both.

But for purposes of today’s column, I want to emphasize a point about the boom-bust cycle and the value of spending caps.

Let’s return to Professor Knapp’s presentation and peruse a chart showing spending, revenue, and fiscal balance from 2005-present. Knapp’s slide puts the focus on surpluses and deficits, but I want to draw your attention to the fact that spending (the blue line) basically tripled from 2005 to 2013.

In other words, politicians in Alaska were not following Mitchell’s Golden Rule, which would have required them to limit spending so that it grew slower than the private sector.

Instead, they responded to the influx of oil revenue during the boom years the same way alcoholics respond to an open bar. They had a spending orgy.

It’s no surprise that more revenue enabled more spending.

That’s why it’s a mistake to “feed the beast.”

But let’s focus on the fact that Alaska is now in the midst of fiscal turmoil and make the very simple point that some sort of spending cap, starting back in 2005, would have prevented the current crisis.

If spending was limited so that it grew by 2 percent annually, outlays today would only be about $500 million higher than they were in 2005. Given the plunge in oil-related revenue, even that might not have been enough to balance the budget for 2015 or 2016, but the state would have had plenty of money in the state’s rainy day funds (technically known as the “statutory budget reserve fund” and the “constitutional budget reserve fund”) to fill in the fiscal gap.

And this is why spending caps are so important. Governments get in trouble because politicians have a hard time resisting the urge to spend money during growth years, when plenty of tax revenue is being generated.

I’ve made this point when looking at data from California. It also applies when looking at the fiscal mess in Puerto Rico. And Greece.

But perhaps most relevant for Alaska, it’s exactly when happened in oil-rich Alberta. Politicians from a supposedly conservative party in that Canadian province also went on a spending binge when energy prices were high. But then oil prices dropped, energy-related tax collections fell, the ruling party was defeated at the polls, and a new leftist government has used the over-spending mess as an excuse to impose additional taxes.

Yet none of that would have happened if Alberta had a spending cap.

Just as the crisis in Alaska wouldn’t exist if there had been some mechanism to stop politicians in Juneau from over-spending.

Needless to say, there’s also a lesson here for Washington (one that actually was heeded between 2009-2014, but the real key is permanent, structural spending restraint).

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I thought it was shocking when Senator Bennett of Utah was denied renomination, but I’m even more stunned that Senator Murkowski of Alaska is trailing her opponent in preliminary results from Tuesday’s primary. As the Wall Street Journal explained in an editorial this morning, this is a big sign that voters are not merely interested in electing big-government Republicans instead of big-government Democrats. They actually want leaders who will fight to limit government and expand freedom. After nearly 10 years of Bush-Obama statism, I’m very happy to see the American people still value liberty.
GOP Members of Congress who think they can return to business as usual if they regain the majority should pay attention. The biggest shock came in Alaska, with incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski trailing unheralded challenger Joe Miller by roughly 1,700 votes with as many as 16,000 absentee ballots still to be counted. …Though heavily outspent, Mr. Miller was helped by former Governor Sarah Palin’s endorsement and especially by Ms. Murkowski’s failure to understand the anti-Washington mood. When he asked Senator Murkowski in a debate which part of the Constitution permitted Roe v. Wade and bank bailouts, she responded that the nation might suffer if the government only funded things explicitly authorized by the Constitution. Bad answer. Ms. Murkowski opposed ObamaCare but Alaskans punished her for her 2009 refusal to rule out a government-run health-care plan. She is learning the lesson that ousted Utah Senator Bob Bennett did: GOP voters don’t want their representatives to negotiate with President Obama. They’re looking for people who can defeat his agenda.

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