Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Federalism’

Australia is one of my favorite nations, and not just because the people are friendly.

It has a modest-sized government, at least compared to other developed nations (see table 25 of this OECD data), and it has a very attractive private Social Security system that puts Australia in relatively good shape when looking at the long-run fiscal health of countries.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I picked Australia when asked which nation to choose if (when?) America suffers a Greek-style fiscal and economic collapse.

But this surely doesn’t mean that Australia has ideal public policy. It ranks #11 for economic freedom, which is better than America, but the Aussies trail first-place Hong Kong by more than one full point in the 1-10 scoring system.

That being said, Australia will probably move in the right direction if Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull succeeds in his plan to implement real federalism by shrinking the central government and returning tax and spending authority to the states.

Here’s how an Australian media report characterized the issue.

Returning income taxing power to the states would have resulted in a fierce interstate economic battle that would see Australians vote with their feet and move their lives across borders to get a better deal, economists warn.

The reporter obviously is talking to left-wing economists. If she talked to sensible economists, the above sentence would end with “hope” rather than “warn.”

Here are some of the specific details.

The Prime Minister met with state premiers and territory chief ministers yesterday to discuss his plan to lower the federal government’s income tax and have the states make up the rest by collecting their own tax, to do with which whatever they please. If his bold scheme had gone ahead, they would eventually have been able to set their own tax rates as well.

Unfortunately, state-level politicians apparently are not happy with the notion of having real responsibility.

…premiers and chief ministers weren’t keen and the idea is now off the table, for now, after Malcolm Turnbull conceded there was “nothing like a consensus”.

Actually, there was a consensus of the state politicians. If you’ll allow me to provide a negative interpretation, they want the empty-suit job of taking money from the nation’s central government and then playing Santa Claus by distributing that money to various interest groups.

But I hope Turnbull isn’t giving up because of resistance by these hacks.

Here are some more excerpts that help to explain why he has a very good idea.

What he had been attempting to do with the tax shift was to force more responsibility onto state governments, and encourage greater accountability to its voters. It’s a new way of funding school and hospitals and is also designed to encourage competition between the states and force them to operate more efficiently. It’s a model called competitive federalism, which allows states to battle it out over a range of issues to compete to provide their citizens with the best value goods and services at the best cost.

And the reporter did talk to at least one good economist, my buddy Sinclair Davidson.

RMIT economist Professor Sinclair Davidson explains…“At the moment, because the federal government has so much power over the revenue that goes into health and education, for example, there’s not much difference between the states…But once that changes, for people whose state’s bundles of goods and services don’t suit their needs, they can start looking around.” With a mobile population threatening to abandon its state government, effectively stripping it of a major revenue supply, the voting public would have a lot more control over state governments, Prof Davidson says. …With state governments made more eager to please, it sounds like this new tax plan would be a win for voters, if those downward pressures on tax rates the system’s meant to encourage do come off.

Here’s a different prespective.

Curtin University Associate Professor Helen Hodgson argues state tax competition could lead to a race to the bottom. “The biggest challenge that would emerge is if states chose to exercise the right to increase or decrease their income tax rates,” she writes… Prof Hodgson says boosting migration between the states would put pressure on state governments to reduce their own rates as they compete to retain their populations, while “a general lowering of tax rates would defeat the stated intention of allowing states to raise additional funding for health and education.”

Methinks Professor Hodgson’s “stated intention” is not the same as Prime Minister Turnbull’s “stated intention.”

Here’s some more analysis from a column in The Conversation.

Malcolm Turnbull has called for a dramatic shift in Australia’s model of federalism… Many economists regard this as sensible and much-overdue reform…the argument is for a shift from a federal income tax to a state income tax. In principle, this can be done in a completely revenue-neutral way. …that would, on the whole, benefit Australian taxpayers because a more efficient tax system is a less costly tax system.

But it wouldn’t benefit state politicians in Australia. With the exception of Western Australia’s Colin Barnett, they don’t like accountability and responsibility.

state premiers…hated the idea. It’s important to understand why. This is not because the idea is bad for the citizens of the states, with the premiers being outraged on their behalf. Rather it is because it is bad for the political classes themselves, and the premiers in particular.

Citing the groundbreaking work of economist Charles Tiebout, the article includes a description of why tax competition between sub-national governments is desirable.

The basic idea is that the states compete with each other by offering bundles of public goods at different prices (i.e. taxes). This is the significance of the state-level income tax. Victoria, for example, may offer very high levels of public services, but also at a high price through high state income taxes. NSW may offer more moderate public services, but also much lighter taxes. What happens next is that citizens sort themselves over the states according to their preferences. Those who value high levels of public services move to Victoria, where they pay that marginal valuation in high taxes. Citizens with preferences for lower levels of public services and also taxes move to NSW. This is a market, not a political, model of local public goods. Economists like it because it encourages competition between the states to provide an efficient bundle of public goods and services at a point that voters (as consumers) are willing to pay. This competition tends to produce an efficient outcome.

Here’s the bottom line. The current system creates a perverse incentive for state officials to endlessly whine for more money. Putting state governments in charge creates an appropriate balance of responsibility and accountability.

That is not the situation we have now. Premiers are incentivised to represent their citizens as all wanting the maximum amount of public goods and services, because someone else is paying for them. State income taxes (coupled with reduced federal income taxes) are a way of implementing this mechanism. The main winners from this will be the 7 million or so Australian taxpayers, because it will deliver a much more efficient supply of public goods and services. The main losers will be the state and territory premiers, because they will have to compete in the market for political goods and services.

Heaven forbid, politicians actually having to collect and spend their own money. Especially in a system where taxpayers can look across state borders to see which states are doing a bad job or good job (think Texas vs. California). How cruel that would be! They would be forced…gasp…to compete.

But let’s set aside sarcasm. It’s worth noting that the most decentralized major economy is Switzerland, and that system has worked quite well.

And the United States also compares favorably with other developed nations, even though we’ve allowed Washington to grab powers that more properly belong at the state level (or in the private sector).

Hopefully, Turnbull’s plan in Australia will move forward and create additional evidence that America should return to the more robust federalist system that our Founders envisioned.

Read Full Post »

Does Donald Trump have a consistent and coherent set of economic policies?

He sometimes says things indicating that he understands Washington is a cesspool of waste. But on other occasions, he seems to be singing off the same song sheet as Bernie Sanders.

Which is why, when I recently tried to dissect Trumponomics, I admitted to being clueless.

The honest answer is that I don’t know. He has put forth a giant tax cut that is reasonably well designed, so that implies more prosperity, but is he serious about the plan? And does he have a plan for the concomitant spending reforms needed to make his tax proposal viable? He also has lots of protectionist rhetoric, including a proposal for a 45 percent tax on Chinese products, which implies harmful dislocation to the American economy. Is he actually serious about risking a global trade war, or is his saber rattling just a negotiating tool, as some of his defenders claim?

For what it’s worth, I’m getting more skeptical that Trump would try to restrain and limit the federal government if he got elected.

And I have three recent news reports to underscore my concern.

Here’s a very disturbing example. Trump actually criticized Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin for not raising taxes. Here’s an excerpt from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

Donald Trump attacked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for failing to raise taxes in order to properly fund schools and roads on Tuesday, in a startling new break from rightwing orthodoxy… “There’s a $2.2bn deficit and the schools were going begging and everything was going begging because he didn’t want to raise taxes ’cause he was going to run for president,” said Trump. “So instead of raising taxes, he cut back on schools, he cut back on highways, he cut back on a lot of things.”

To dig deeper into the issue, Governor Walker had just endorsed Ted Cruz, so I can understand why Trump would try to take a few shots at someone who is supporting a rival for the GOP nomination.

But attacking the Wisconsin governor for successfully balancing his state’s budget without a tax hike? Sounds more like something Hillary would say. Maybe it’s time to induct Trump into the Charlie Brown Club.

Trump also doesn’t like federalism. Assuming he even knows what it is. In his column for the Washington Post, Professor Jonathan Adler shares some Q&A from a recent CNN interview with Trump.

QUESTION:  In your opinion, what are the top three functions of the United States government?

TRUMP:  Well, the greatest function of all by far is security for our nation.  I would also say health care, I would also say education.

This doesn’t sound like a candidate who wants to reduce the federal government’s footprint.

Here’s more of the interview.

COOPER:  So in terms of federal government role, you’re saying security, but you also say health care and education should be provided by the federal government?

TRUMP:  Well, those are two of the things.  Yes, sure.  I mean, there are obviously many things, housing, providing great neighborhoods…

Huh, providing “great neighborhoods” is now a legitimate function of the federal government?!? I guess if Washington gets to be involved with underwear, neighborhood policy is just fine.

And why is he talking about education when the goal should be to eliminate the Department of Education?

To be fair, Trump also said in the interview that he wants to get rid of Common Core.  So it’s unclear what he actually envisions.

His answer on healthcare is similarly hazy.

COOPER:  And federal health care run by the federal government?

TRUMP:  Health care – we need health care for our people.  We need a good – Obamacare is a disaster.  It’s proven to be…

COOPER:  But is that something the federal government should be doing?

TRUMP:  The government can lead it.

So he wants the federal government involved, but he also thinks Obamacare is a “disaster.” I certainly agree about the Obamacare part, but once again we’re left with no idea whether a President Trump would make good reforms of bad reforms (i.e., would he move the “health care freedom meter” in the right direction or wrong direction?).

One thing that is clear, however, is that Trump doesn’t seem to have any core principles about the size and scope of the federal government.

He may not even realize that federalism is a key issue for advocates of limited and constitutional government.

Last but not least, Trump criticized Senator Cruz for the partial government shutdown fight that occurred in 2013. Here are some passages from a report by Byron York in the Washington Examiner.

When Trump did get around to Cruz, his critique focused…on the 2013 partial government shutdown. …He goes and he stands on the floor of the Senate for a day and a half and he filibusters …. To stand there and to rant and rave for two days and to show people you can filibuster — and in the meantime, nothing was accomplished.

I guess this isn’t an issue of underlying principles, but it does give us some idea of whether a President Trump would be willing to fight the Washington establishment.

Moreover, his assessment of the shutdown fight is completely wrong. By reminding voters that Republicans were opposed to Obamacare, the GOP won a landslide victory in 2014.

But you don’t have to believe me. Even an ultra-establishment, anti-Cruz figure like Trent Lott (former senator and now lobbyist) grudgingly admits that the shutdown was a success.

Cruz views the shutdown as a victory because the Affordable Care Act remains unpopular and Republicans swept to victory in 2014. Lott said…“That was their strategy, and it worked, so maybe they’re right and I’m wrong.”

The bottom line is that America is heading in the wrong direction, with Washington projected to consume ever-larger amounts of the economy’s output. This is a recipe for continued economic weakness in the short run and economic crisis in the long run.

Turning policy in the right direction requires a principled President who is fully committed to overcoming resistance from the special interests that dominate Washington’s culture.

I still don’t pretend to know where Donald Trump is on the big issues, but I’m not holding my breath for good results if he somehow gets elected.

P.S. Though I do expect more examples of clever political humor the longer he’s in the public eye.

Read Full Post »

For a wide range of reasons, the federal government should get out of the redistribution racket.

Welfare programs are costly, but they’re also not among the enumerated powers granted to the federal government by the Constitution.

But for those who don’t care whether the nation abides by its legal rule book, there’s also a very compelling argument that better policy can be achieved by ceding responsibility for anti-poverty initiatives to state and local governments.

As shown by the 1996 welfare reform, you’re likely to get changes that are good for both taxpayers and poor people.

We even see some glimmers of progress now that states have more ability to police the fraud-riddled food stamp program.

The Heritage Foundation recently published a report on what happened in Maine when the state started to impose a modest work requirement on childless beneficiaries.

Food stamps is one of the government’s largest means-tested welfare programs, with roughly 46 million participants and costing $80 billion a year. Since 2009, the fastest growth in participation has occurred among able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). …Maine implemented a work requirement for ABAWDs. As a result, their ABAWD caseload dropped by 80 percent within a few months, declining from 13,332 recipients in December 2014 to 2,678 in March 2015.

And here’s a very powerful chart from the study.

Wow, more than 4 out of 5 recipients decided to drop off the rolls rather than get a job.

Which shows that they never needed the handouts in the first place, already had a job in the shadow economy, or got a new job.

Investor’s Business Daily summarizes the situation with characteristic clarity.

The number of childless, able-bodied adult food stamp recipients in a New England state fell by 80% over the course of a few months. This didn’t require magic, just common sense. …This is a remarkable change and needs to be repeated in government programs across the country. How Maine achieved this is no mystery. Gov. Paul LePage simply established work requirements for food stamp recipients who have no dependents and are able enough to be employed.

This type of reform should be replicated, with big savings for taxpayers and even bigger benefits for those who shake off the emotionally crippling burden of dependency and become self sufficient.

The Heritage report says that if the Maine policy were repeated nationally, and the caseload dropped “at the same rate it did in Maine (which is very likely), taxpayer savings would be over $8.4 billion per year.” “Further reforms could bring the savings to $9.7 billion per year: around $100 per year for every individual currently paying federal income tax.” On top of the savings, there would be the added benefit of increasing the number of productive members of the economy, and cutting the cycle of government dependence that is ruinous to a society. …putting the able-bodied in position to be self-sufficient is a service to them, helping them shake their soul-strangling dependency on the state.

By the way, Maine isn’t the only state that is trying to be responsible and proactive.

Wisconsin also is taking some modest steps to curtail dependency. Here are some blurbs from a story in the Wisconsin State Journal.

The 2013-15 state budget created a rule for some recipients of the state’s food stamp program known as FoodShare: If you’re an able-bodied adult without children living at home, you must work at least 80 hours a month or look for work to stay in the program. That rule went into effect in April, and between July and September, about 25 percent of the 60,000 recipients eligible to work were dropped from the program when the penalty took effect, according to DHS data.

That’s good news for taxpayers.

But there’s also even better news for some of the recipients.

…about 4,500 recipients found work.

Yup, sometimes a bit of tough love is what’s needed to save people from life-destroying dependency.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that these reforms in Maine and Wisconsin are just drops in the bucket. The federal government mostly has been a destructive force in recent years, working to expand the welfare state (in some cases using utterly dishonest means).

And even when Washington hasn’t been trying to make things worse, many state and local governments are perfectly content to watch federal money flow into the their state, even if the net result is to trap people in poverty.

Which bring us back to the main policy lesson. We need to get Washington out of the business of redistributing income. To the extent government involvement is necessary, state and local governments should be responsible for both raising and spending the money.

Read Full Post »

Remember the cluster-you-know-what in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina? Corrupt and incompetent politicians in both the city and at the state level acted passively, assuming that Uncle Sam somehow should be responsible for dealing with the storm.

And we’ve seen similar behavior from other state and local politicians before, during, and after other natural disasters.

The obvious lesson to be learned is that the federal government shouldn’t have any responsibility for dealing with natural disasters. All that does it create a wasteful layer of bureaucracy, while also inculcating a sense of learned helplessness on the part of state and local officials who should be responsible for dealing with storms and other local crises.

In other words, the answer is federalism. State and local governments should be solely responsible for state and local issues.

But not just because of some abstract principle. There’s a very strong practical argument that you get more sensible decisions when the public sector is limited (as Mark Steyn humorously explained) and there is clear responsibility and accountability at various levels of government.

And this is why the biggest lesson from the scandal of tainted water in Flint, Michigan, is that local politicians and bureaucrats should not be able to shift the blame either to the state or federal government. Which was my main point in this interview.

To be sure, it is outrageous that state and federal bureaucrats knew about the problem and didn’t make it public, so I surely don’t object to officials in Lansing and Washington getting fired.

But I do object to the political finger pointing, with Democrats trying to blame the Republican Governor and Republicans trying to blame the Democratic President.

Nope, the problem is an incompetent local government that failed to fulfill a core responsibility.

The Wall Street Journal has the same perspective, opining that the mess in Flint is a failure of government.

…the real Flint story is a cascade of government failure, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

More specifically (and as I noted in the interview), we have a local government that became a fiefdom for a self-serving bureaucracy that was more concerned with its privileged status than in providing core government services.

…after decades of misrule: More than 40% of residents live in poverty; the population has fallen by half since the 1960s to about 100,000. Bloated pensions and retiree health care gobble up about 33 cents of every dollar in the general fund.

And the WSJ editorial also castigated the state and federal bureaucrats that wrote memos rather than warning citizens.

MDEQ and the EPA were chatting about Flint’s system as early as February. MDEQ said it wanted to test the water more before deciding on corrosion controls, though it isn’t clear that federal law allows this. …the region’s top EPA official, political appointee Susan Hedman, responded… “When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the City and MDEQ and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the City.” She also noted over email that it’s “a preliminary draft” and it’d be “premature to draw any conclusions.” The EPA did not notify the public.

The lesson is that adding state and federal bureaucracy impedes effective and competent local government.

The broader lesson is that ladling on layers of bureaucracy doesn’t result in better oversight and safety. It sometimes lets agencies shirk responsibility for the basic public services like clean water that government is responsible for providing.

Here’s the bottom line.

Federalism is about getting better government by creating clear lines of responsibility and accountability in an environment that allows state and local governments to learn from each other on best practices.

The current system blurs responsibility and accountability, by contrast, while also imposing needless expense and bureaucracy. And we get Katrina and Flint with this dysfunctional approach.

So whether it’s Medicaid, education, transportation, welfare, or disasters, involvement from Washington makes things worse rather than better.

Read Full Post »

Federalism is great for many reasons. When you have dozens of states with the freedom to choose different policies, you get lots of innovation and diversity, which helps identify policies that work.

You also can minimize the cost of mistakes. When a policy error occurs in one state (for example, government-run healthcare in Vermont), it quickly becomes obvious and the damage can be contained and maybe even reversed. But when a mistake is made nationally (such as Obamacare), it’s not as easy to pinpoint why the economy is weakening and fixing the error thus becomes more difficult.

And it should go without saying that federalism is desirable because it facilitates and enables competition among jurisdictions. And that limits the power of governments to impose bad policy.

These are some of the reasons why I’m a huge fan of the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index. It’s a rigorous publication that calculates the good and bad features of every state’s tax system. It then add together all that data to generate a very helpful ranking of the nation’s best and worst state tax systems.

And since that’s what people care most about, let’s cut to the chase and look at the states at the top and the bottom of the Index.

There are a couple of things which should be obvious from these two lists.

First, it’s a very good idea to be part of the no-income-tax club. It’s no coincidence that 7 out of the top 10 states don’t have that pernicious levy.

Second, perhaps the biggest lesson from the states in the bottom 10 is that it’s basically impossible for a state with a big government to have a good tax system.

Third (and here’s where I’m going to be a contrarian), I’m not sure that Wyoming and Alaska really deserve their high rankings. Both states use energy severance taxes to finance relatively large public sectors. And while it’s true that energy severance taxes don’t do as much damage to a state’s competitiveness as other revenue sources, I nonetheless think there should be an asterisk next to those two states.

So I actually put South Dakota in first place (though I realize I’m implicitly incorporating government spending into the equation while the Tax Foundation is only measuring the tax environment for business).

Now that we’ve hit the main highlights, here’s some explanatory information from the Index.

…the Index is designed to show how well states structure their tax systems, and provides a roadmap for improvement. …The absence of a major tax is a common factor among many of the top ten states. …This does not mean, however, that a state cannot rank in the top ten while still levying all the major taxes. Indiana and Utah, for example, levy all of the major tax types, but do so with low rates on broad bases. The states in the bottom 10 tend to have a number of afflictions in common: complex, non-neutral taxes with comparatively high rates.

And here’s some details about the Index’s methodology.

The Index…comparing the states on over 100 different variables in the five major areas of taxation (corporate taxes, individual income taxes, sales taxes, unemployment insurance taxes, and property taxes)… Using the economic literature as our guide, we designed these five components to score each state’s business tax climate…The five components are not weighted equally… This improves the explanatory power of the State Business Tax Climate Index as a whole. …this edition is the 2016 Index and represents the tax climate of each state as of July 1, 2015, the first day of fiscal year 2016 for most states.

Here’s a map showing the ranking of every state.

Top-10 states are in blue and bottom-10 states are in orange. At the risk of repeating myself, notice how zero-income tax states rank highly.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page combed through the report for highlights. The biggest success story in recent years is North Carolina, which joined the flat tax club.

…North Carolina, which in 2013 slashed its top 7.75% income tax to a flat 5.75% and its corporate rate to 5% from 6.9%. The former 44th is now ranked 15th.

Given Martin O’Malley’s horrible record in Maryland, I’m surprised that he hasn’t picked up more support from crazy lefties in the Democratic Party.

As Governor of Maryland from 2007 to 2015, Democrat Martin O’Malley increased some 40 taxes including the corporate rate to 8.25% from 7% and the sales tax to 6% from 5%.

And here’s some good news from an unexpected place.

The trophy for most-improved this year goes to Illinois, which jumped to 23rd from 31st… The Tax Foundation notes that the leap occurred “due to the sunset of corporate and individual income tax increases”… First-year Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has let the income-tax rate lapse to 3.75% from 5% and the corporate rate to 7.75% from 9.5%, though Democrats are trying to push them back up.

Given how the tax hike backfired, let’s hope the Governor holds firm in this fight.

Now let’s return to some of the analysis in the Tax Foundation’s Index. Here’s some of the academic evidence on the importance of low tax burdens.

Helms concluded that a state’s ability to attract, retain, and encourage business activity is significantly affected by its pattern of taxation. Furthermore, tax increases significantly retard economic growth when the revenue is used to fund transfer payments. …Bartik (1989) provides strong evidence that taxes have a negative impact on business startups. He finds specifically that property taxes, because they are paid regardless of profit, have the strongest negative effect on business. Bartik’s econometric model also predicts tax elasticities of –0.1 to –0.5 that imply a 10 percent cut in tax rates will increase business activity by 1 to 5 percent. …Agostini and Tulayasathien (2001)…determined that for “foreign investors, the corporate tax rate is the most relevant tax in their investment decision.” …Mark, McGuire, and Papke (2000) found that taxes are a statistically significant factor in private-sector job growth. Specifically, they found that personal property taxes and sales taxes have economically large negative effects on the annual growth of private employment. …the consensus among recent literature is that state and local taxes negatively affect employment levels. Harden and Hoyt conclude that the corporate income tax has the most significant negative impact on the rate of growth in employment. Gupta and Hofmann (2003)…model covered 14 years of data and determined that firms tend to locate property in states where they are subject to lower income tax burdens.

The message is that all the major revenue sources – income, sales, and property – can have negative effects.

Which explains, of course, why it’s important to control state government spending.

And one final point to make is that we should do everything possible to shrink the size of the central government in Washington and transfer activities to the private sector or states. This isn’t because states don’t make mistakes, but rather because competition between states will produce far better results than a one-size-fits-all approach from Washington.

P.S. A study from German economists finds that decentralization limits economically harmful redistribution outlays.

P.P.S. And a study from the IMF reveals that decentralized government is more competent and efficient.

Read Full Post »

I’ve argued (repeatedly) that we should abolish the Department of Transportation and allow states to make decisions on how to fund and whether to fund transportation projects.

As an interim measure to control federal spending, involvement, and intervention, I’ve explained that Congress should do nothing to increase revenues into the highway trust fund.

Supporters of centralization disagree, arguing that there would be inadequate transportation funding if the federal government doesn’t have a large – and growing – role. Most of them want a higher gas tax to finance an expansion of federal transportation spending.

I’ve never thought this claim made sense. After all, how do you magically get more roads built by sending money in a leaky budget to Washington, only to then turn around and send those funds in a leaky budget back to the states? Seems to me like that’s nothing more than a unsavory recipe for an additional layer of bureaucracy and lobbying.

Well, we now have some very powerful evidence from a report in the Washington Post that states will act – at least once they conclude that “free” money from Uncle Sam won’t be as forthcoming.

While Congress remains stalled on a long-term plan for funding highways, state lawmakers and governors aren’t waiting around. Nearly one-third of the states have approved measures this year that could collectively raise billions of dollars through higher fuel taxes, vehicle fees and bonds to repair old bridges and roads and relieve traffic congestion, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. The surge of activity means at least half of the states — from coast to coast, in both Republican and Democratic areas — now have passed transportation funding measures since 2013. And the movement may not be done yet. …The widespread focus on transportation funding comes as state officials are becoming frustrated by federal inaction in helping to repair roads and bridges described as crumbling, aging and unsafe.

By the way, I have no idea if these states are making sensible decisions. Indeed, based on what was proposed (and rejected) in Michigan, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of these initiative contain wasteful pork-barrel projects (just like when funded from DC). And my colleague Chris Edwards has poked holes in the assertion that we’re facing an infrastructure crisis.

But who cares? The beauty of federalism is that states are free to make their own decisions so long as they’re playing with their own money.

If they waste the money and make bad choices, at least the damage will be contained. And voters presumably have some ability to change the direction of policy if repeated mistakes are made.

To get a sense of how things would work at the state level with real federalism, here are some excerpts from a column in the Tampa Tribune by Karen Jaroch, a member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency.

…what if you could pay less at the pump? With passage of H.R. 2716 — the Transportation Empowerment Act — this could be possible. H.R. 2716 would devolve the responsibility for our surface transportation programs (including transit) to the states by incrementally decreasing the federal gas tax over five years from 18.3 cents to 3.7 cents per gallon. That reduction would empower the states to fund and manage it — not politicians and Washington bureaucrats. The bill was filed by Florida’s U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, and cosponsored by Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, with Sen. Marco Rubio co-sponsoring the bill’s twin in the Senate.

I can understand why Florida lawmakers are especially interested in decentralization.

As you can see from this map and table, the Sunshine State is one of many that lose out because of the redistribution inherent in a centralized scheme.

The real question if why politicians in California, Texas, and Ohio aren’t also pushing for federalism.

Though it’s important to underscore that this issue shouldn’t be determined based on which states get more money or less money. It’s really about getting better decisions when states raise and spend their own money.

Particularly when compared to a very inefficient Washington-centric system, as Ms. Jaroch explains.

Well-heeled lobbyists and those in Congress who would see their power base decline are in opposition. …The feds fund roughly 30 percent of Florida’s transportation infrastructure; however, the costly regulations, red tape and strings they tack on permeate the process almost universally. As a board member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), I’ve witnessed the agency routinely shackled by federal handcuffs that are common when accepting federal funds. H.R. 2716 would wrest control from D.C. bureaucrats and politicians in 49 other states that have never commuted on our streets and roads and instead empower state and local agencies like HART that are better positioned to make these decisions. …A new state-led process would be controlled entirely by Floridians and would be absent the horse trading and infighting between 49 other states, two houses of Congress, a president of a different party and a myriad of federal agencies.

Last but not least, state and local governments will be far less likely to engage in boondoggle spending if they can’t shift some of the cost to Uncle Sam.

P.S. While decentralization is a good first step, the ideal end point is to have more private-sector involvement in transportation.

P.P.S. If you think the federal government’s involvement is bad now, you probably don’t even want to know about some of the ideas floating around Washington for further greedy and intrusive revenue grabs.

Read Full Post »

When giving speeches outside the beltway, I sometimes urge people to be patient with Washington. Yes, we need fundamental tax reform and genuine entitlement reform, but there’s no way Congress can make those changes with Obama in the White House.

But there are some areas whether progress is possible, and people should be angry with politicians if they deliberately choose to make bad decisions.

For instance, the corrupt Export-Import Bank has expired and there’s nothing that Obama can do to restore this odious example of corporate welfare. It will only climb from the grave if Republicans on Capitol Hill decide that campaign cash from big corporations is more important than free markets.

Another example of a guaranteed victory – assuming Republicans don’t fumble the ball at the goal line – is that there’s no longer enough gas-tax revenue coming into the Highway Trust Fund to finance big, bloated, and pork-filled transportation spending bills. So if the GOP-controlled Congress simply does nothing, the federal government’s improper and excessive involvement in this sector will shrink.

Unfortunately, Republicans have no desire to achieve victory on this issue. It’s not that there’s a risk of them fumbling the ball on the goal line. By looking for ways to generate more revenue for the Trust Fund, they’re moving the ball in the other direction and trying to help the other team score a touchdown!

The good news is that Republicans backed away from awful proposals to increase the federal gas tax.

But the bad news is that they’re coming up with other ideas to transfer more of our income to Washington. Here’s a look at some of the revenue-generating schemes in the Senate transportation bill.

Since the House and Senate haven’t agreed on how to proceed, it’s unclear which – if any – of these proposals will be implemented.

But one thing that is clear is that the greed for more federal transportation spending is tempting Republicans into giving more power to the IRS.

Republicans and Democrats alike are looking to the IRS as they try to pass a highway bill by the end of the month. Approving stricter tax compliance measure is one of the few areas of agreement between the House and the Senate when it comes to paying for an extension of transportation funding. …the Senate and House are considering policy changes for the IRS ahead of the July 31 transportation deadline. …With little exception, the Senate bill uses the same provisions that were in a five-month, $8 billion extension the House passed earlier this month. The House highway bill, which would fund programs through mid-December, gets about 60 percent of its funding from tax compliance measures. …it’s…something of a shift for Republicans to trust the IRS enough to back the new tax compliance measures. House Republicans opposed similar proposals during a 2014 debate over highway funding, both because they didn’t want to give the IRS extra authority and because they wanted to hold the line on using new revenues to pay for additional spending.

Gee, isn’t it swell that Republicans have “grown in office” since last year.

But this isn’t just an issue of GOPers deciding that the DC cesspool is actually a hot tub. Part of the problem is the way Congress operates.

Simply stated, the congressional committee system generally encourages bad decisions. If you want to understand why there’s no push to scale back the role of the federal government in transportation, just look at the role of the committees in the House and Senate that are involved with the issue.

Both the authorizing committees (the ones that set the policy) and the appropriating committees (the ones that spend the money) are among the biggest advocates of generating more revenue in order to enable continued federal government involvement in transportation.

Why? For the simple reason that allocating transportation dollars is how the members of these committees raise campaign cash and buy votes. As such, it’s safe to assume that politicians don’t get on those committees with the goal of scaling back federal subsidies for the transportation sector.

And this isn’t unique to the committees that deal with transportation.

It’s also a safe bet that politicians that gravitate to the agriculture committees have a strong interest in maintaining the unseemly system of handouts and subsidies that line the pockets of Big Ag. The same is true for politicians that seek out committee slots dealing with NASA. Or foreign aid. Or military bases.

The bottom line is that even politicians who generally have sound views are most likely to make bad decisions on issues that are related to their committee assignments.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a shift to random and/or rotating committee assignments, so the only real hope is to have some sort of overall cap on spending so that the various committees have to fight with each other over a (hopefully) shrinking pool of funds.

That’s why the Gramm-Rudman law in the 1980s was a step in the right direction. And it’s why the spending caps in today’s Budget Control Act also are a good idea.

Most important, it’s why we should have a limit on all spending, such as what’s imposed by the so-called Debt Brake in Switzerland.

Heck, even the crowd at the IMF has felt compelled to admit spending caps are the only effective fiscal tool.

Maybe, just maybe, a firm and enforceable spending cap will lead politicians in Washington to finally get the federal government out of areas such as transportation (and housing, agriculture, education, etc) where it doesn’t belong.

One can always hope.

In the meantime, since we’re on the topic of transportation decentralization, here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing how gas taxes vary by states.

This data is useful (for instance, it shows why drivers in New York and Pennsylvania should fill up their tanks in New Jersey), but doesn’t necessarily tell us which states have the best transportation policy.

Are the gas taxes used for roads, or is some of the money siphoned off for boondoggle mass transit projects? Do the states have Project Labor Agreements and other policies that line the pockets of unions and cause needlessly high costs? Is there innovation and flexibility for greater private sector involvement in construction, maintenance, and operation?

But this is what’s good about federalism and why decentralization is so important. The states should be the laboratories of democracy. And when they have genuine responsibility for an issue, it then becomes easier to see which ones are doing a good job.

So yet another reason to shut down the Department of Transportation.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,124 other followers

%d bloggers like this: