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Posts Tagged ‘States’

Perhaps because there’s no hope for genuine Obamacare repeal and limited hope for sweeping tax reform, I’m having to look outside of Washington for good news.

I wrote the other day about the very successful tax reforms in North Carolina. So now let’s travel to the Midwest.

The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page has a very upbeat assessment of Michigan’s turnaround, though it starts by noting that many states teach us lessons on what shouldn’t happen.

…states can provide instructive policy lessons for better and sometimes worse—see the fiscal crack-ups in Connecticut and Illinois.

I definitely agree about the fiscal disasters of Connecticut and Illinois. And Michigan used to be in that group.

Former Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm was a progressive specialist in using the tax code to politically allocate capital, which depressed and distorted business investment. Between 2002 and 2007, Michigan was the only state to experience zero economic growth. …misguided policies were arguably bigger contributors to Michigan’s slump. Between 2002 and 2007, Michigan’s manufacturing grew at a third of the rate of the Great Lakes region. …In 2007 Democrats increased the state income tax to 4.35% from 3.9%. They also enacted a new business tax with a 4.95% tax on income, a 0.8% gross-receipts tax, plus a 21.99% surcharge on business tax liability. …Michigan’s economy plunged amid the national recession with unemployment hitting 14.9% in June 2009.

But Michigan has experienced a remarkable turnaround in recent years.

Michigan…offers a case study in the pro-growth potential of business tax reform. …Mr. Snyder’s first major undertaking with his Republican legislature was to replace the cumbersome state business tax with a 6% corporate tax and trim the individual rate to 4.25%. Michigan’s corporate-tax ranking jumped to seventh from 49th in the Tax Foundation’s business tax climate rankings. …They also reformed state-worker pensions. After the 2012 midterm elections, Republicans passed right-to-work legislation that lets workers choose whether to join unions. In 2014 state voters approved a ballot measure backed by the governor to repeal the personal-property tax for small businesses and manufacturers.

These reforms already are paying dividends.

In 2011 Michigan added jobs for the first time in six years, and it has since led the Great Lakes region in manufacturing growth. Unemployment has fallen below the national average to 3.9% even as the labor-force participation rate has ticked up. …Unemployment in the Detroit metro area has fallen to 3.2% from 11.4% six years ago. Businesses in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids say they can’t find enough workers. Perhaps they should try recruiting in Chicago or New Haven.

As a fiscal wonk, I’m delighted by tax cuts and tax reform. That being said, I want to specifically focus on the reform of bureaucrat pensions in the Wolverine State.

It was mentioned as an aside in the WSJ editorial, but it may be even more important than tax changes in the long run. We’ll start with a short video the Mackinac Center produced to helped stimulate debate.

Here’s some of what Investor’s Business Daily wrote about the recent reforms.

We’ll start with a description of the problem that existed.

For years, Michigan had been racking up pension liabilities for public school teachers that it had no money to pay for. By 2016, the state’s unfunded liability had reached $29 billion — which meant state was funding only 60% of its pension obligations. …Michigan is hardly the only state to have made this mistake. Pressured by public sector unions, state lawmakers boosted retirement benefits, using wildly unrealistic forecasts for investment returns and wage growth to justify them.

And here are the admirable reforms that were enacted.

So what did Michigan do to avoid Illinois’ fate? It embraced bold pension reforms that will protect taxpayers and provide a solid retirement benefit to teachers. …it’s shifting its public school teachers toward defined contribution plans. All new hires will be automatically enrolled in a 401(k)-type plan with a default 10% contribution rate. Teachers will still be able to opt for a traditional defined benefit pension, but one that splits costs 50-50 between workers and the state, and includes safeguards that will prevent the funding ratio from dropping below 85%.

The experts at Reason also weighed in on the topic.

Pension analysts from the Reason Foundation (which publishes this blog and advocated for passage of SB 401) say no other state in the country has embraced reforms that go as far as Michigan’s. …new hires will be enrolled in a 401(k)-style pension plan, giving those workers the chance to control their own retirement planning while removing the threat of future unfunded liabilities. …What makes the Michigan proposal unique is it allows future hires to choose a so-called “hybrid” pension system retaining some elements of the old system with a provision requiring pension system to be shuttered if the gap between the fund’s liabilities and assets falls below 85 percent for two consecutive years. The mixed approach, allowing teachers to choose between a traditional pension and a 401(k)-style retirement plan, could be a model for other states to follow as they grapple with similar pension troubles.

Though the bill isn’t a panacea.

Paying down those obligations will take time—all current teachers and public school employees will remain enrolled in the current pension system and retirees will continue to collect benefits from it—but [it]…would make a big difference in the state’s long-term fiscal outlook.

Here’s a chart from the Mackinac Center showing how pensions became a growing problem. Unwinding this mess understandably won’t happen overnight.

But at least Michigan lawmakers took a real step in the right direction.

The same principle applies in Washington. Reforms to Medicare and Social Security wouldn’t change payments to existing retirees. And older workers generally would stick with the status quo.

But proposed entitlement reforms would lead to substantial long-run savings as younger workers are given the freedom to participate in new systems.

 

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Back at the end of April, President Trump got rolled in his first big budget negotiation with Congress. The deal, which provided funding for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year, was correctly perceived as a victory for Democrats.

How could this happen, given that Democrats are the minority party in both the House and the Senate? Simply stated, Republicans were afraid that they would get blamed for a “government shutdown” if no deal was struck. So they basically unfurled the white flag and acquiesced to most of the other side’s demands.

I subsequently explained how Trump should learn from that debacle. To be succinct, he should tell Congress that he will veto any spending bills for FY2018 (which begins October 1) that exceed his budget request, even if that means a shutdown.

For what it’s worth, I don’t really expect Trump or folks in the White House to care about my advice. But I am hoping that they paid attention to what just happened in Maine. That state’s Republican Governor, Paul LePage, just prevailed in a shutdown fight with the Maine legislature.

Here are some details on what happened, as reported by CNN.

The three-day government shutdown in Maine ended early Tuesday morning after Gov. Paul LePage signed a new budget, according to a statement from his office.The shutdown had closed all non-emergency government functions, prompting protests from state employees in Augusta. …The key contention for the governor was over taxes. LePage met Monday afternoon with House Republicans and pledged to sign a budget that eliminated an increase in the lodging tax from 9 to 10.5 percent, according to the statement from the governor’s office. Once the lodging tax hike was off the table, negotiations sped up as the state House voted 147-2 and the Senate 35-0 for the new budget. “I thank legislators for doing the right thing by passing a budget that does not increase taxes on the Maine people,” said LePage in a statement.

And here are some excerpts from a local news report.

Partisan disagreements over a new two-year spending plan were finally resolved late Monday. The final budget eliminated a proposed 1.5 percent increase to Maine’s lodging tax – a hike that represented less than three-tenths of one percent of the entire $7.1 billion package but held up the process for days. …Gideon and other Democrats complained about the constantly-changing proposals being presented by House Republicans, who were acting as a proxy for LePage. Representative Ken Fredette, the House Minority Leader, insisted that his members were simply fighting back against tax hikes and making sure the governor was involved in the process. …Republicans in the Senate who, over the past several months, were able to negotiate away a three-percent income tax surcharge on high-income earners that was approved by voters last fall.

What’s particularly amazing is that Democrats in the state legislature even agreed to repeal a class-warfare tax hike (the 3-percentage point increase in the top income tax rate) that was narrowly adopted in a referendum last November.

This is a remarkable development. I had listed this referendum as one of the worst ballot initiatives of 2016 and was very disappointed when voters made the wrong choice.

So why did the state’s leftists not fight harder to preserve this awful tax?

One of the reasons they surrendered on that issue is that there was a big Laffer-Curve effect. Taxpayers with large incomes predictably decided to earn and report less income in Maine.

The moral of the story is that Maine’s Democrats were willing to give up on the surtax because they realized it wasn’t going to give them any revenue to redistribute. And unlike some DC-based leftists, they didn’t want a tax hike that resulted in less revenue.

Here are some passages from a report by the state’s Revenue Forecasting Committee.

The RFC has reduced its forecast of individual income tax receipts by $15.9 million in FY17, $40.3 million in the 2018-2019 biennium, and $43.9 million in the 2020-2021 biennium. While there was no so-called “April Surprise” to report for 2016 final payments in April, the first estimated payment for tax year 2017 was $9.3 million under budget; flat compared to a year ago. The committee had expected an increase of 25% or more in the April and June estimated payments because of the 3 percent surtax passed by the voters last November. … there is concern that high-income taxpayers impacted by the surtax may be taking some action to reduce their exposure to the surtax. The forecast accepted by the committee today assumes a reduction of approximately $250 million in taxable income by the top 1% of Maine resident tax returns and similarly situated non-resident returns. This reduction in taxable income translates into a total decrease in annual individual income tax liability of approximately $30 million; $10 million from the 3% surtax and $20 million from the regular income tax liability.

And here’s the relevant table from the appendix showing how the state had to reduce estimated income tax receipts.

But I’m getting sidetracked.

Let’s return to the lessons that Trump should learn from Governor LePage about how to win a shutdown fight.

One of the lessons is to stake out the high ground. Have the fight over something important. LePage wanted to kill the lodging tax and the referendum surtax. Since those taxes were so damaging, it was very easy for the Governor to justify his position.

Another lesson is to go on offense. Republicans in Maine explained that higher taxes would make the state less competitive. Here’s a chart they disseminated comparing the tax burden in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

And here’s another very powerful chart that was circulated to policy makers, showing the migration of taxpayers from high-tax states to zero-income-tax states.

Trump should do something similar. The fight later this year in DC (assuming the President is willing to fight) will be about spending levels. And leftists will be complaining about “savage” and “draconian” cuts.

So the Trump Administration should respond with charts showing that the other side is being hysterical and inaccurate since he’s merely trying to slow down the growth of government.

But the most important lesson of all is that Trump holds a veto pen. And that means he (just like Gov. LePage in Maine) controls the situation. He can veto bad budget legislation. And when the interest groups start to squeal that the spending faucet is no longer dispensing goodies because of a shutdown, he should understand that those interest groups feeling the pinch generally will be on the left. And when they complain, it is the big spenders in Congress who will feel the most pressure to capitulate in order to reopen the faucet. Moreover, the longer the government is shut down, the greater the pinch on the pro-spending lobbies.

In other words, Trump has the leverage, if he is willing to use it.

This assumes, of course, that Trump has the brains and fortitude to hold firm when the press tries to create a fake narrative about the world coming to an end, (just like they did with the sequester in 2013 and the shutdown fight that same year).

P.S. The only way Trump could lose a shutdown fight is if enough big-spending Republicans sided with Democrats to override a veto. That’s what happened in Kansas. And it may happen in Illinois. At this point, though, there’s no way that happens in Washington.

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I don’t know if Dr. Seuss would appreciate my title, which borrows from his children’s classic.

But given how I enjoy comparative rankings, I couldn’t help myself after perusing a new study from WalletHub that ranks states on their independence (or lack thereof).

Being a policy wonk, what really caught my attention was the section on government dependency, which is based on four criteria.

As you can see, the four factors are not weighted equally. The “federally dependent states” variable is considered four times as important as any of the other variables.

That’s important, to be sure, but is it really more important (or that much more important) than the other categories?

Moreover, I’m not sure the “tax freedom day” variable is a measure of dependency. What’s really captured by this variable, given the way the tax code doesn’t tax low-income people and over-taxes high-income people, is the degree to which state have lots of rich people or poor people. But that’s not a measure of dependence (particularly if the rich people stole money instead of earning it).

But I’m quibbling. I might put together a different formula with some different variables, but WalletHub has done something very interesting.

And if we look at their 25 least-dependent states, you see a very interesting pattern. Of the 10-most independent states, only three of them are Trump-voting red states (Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah).

The other seven are blue states. And some of them – such as Illinois, New Jersey, and California – are dark blue states.

And the #11 and #12 states also were Hillary states as well.

Which raises an interesting question. Why are voters in those states in favor of big government when they don’t disproportionately benefit from handouts?

Are they culturally left-wing, putting social issues above economic issues?

Or are they motivated by some issue involving foreign policy and/or defense?

Or maybe masochistic?

Beats me.

By the way, the WalletHub email announcing the report included a very interesting factoid that may explain why Hillary lost Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has the lowest percentage of government workers (local, state and federal), at 10.8 percent. Alaska has the nation’s highest percentage, at 25.1 percent.

Though I can’t see those details in the actual report, which is disappointing. I’d like to see a ranking of the states based solely on the number-of-bureaucrats criteria (we have data comparing countries, for those interested).

Now let’s shift to the states that have the highest levels of dependency.

If you look at the bottom of the final image, you’ll notice that it’s a reverse of the top-10. Seven of the most-dependent states are red states that voted for Trump.

Only New Mexico, Oregon, and Maine supported Hillary (and Trump actually won one-fourth of Maine’s electoral votes).

So this raises a separate question. Are red state people voting against their interests? Should they be voting for politicians who will further expand the size and scope of government so they can get even more goodies from Uncle Sam?

For what it’s worth, a leftist actually wrote a book entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas, which examined why the people of the Sunflower State weren’t voting for statism.

Well, part of the answer may be that Kansas is one of the most independent states, so perhaps the author should have picked another example.

But even if he had selected Mississippi (#49), I suspected the answer is that low-income people don’t necessarily think that it’s morally right to steal money from other states, even if the loot is laundered through Washington.

In other words, people is those states still have social capital or cultural capital.

It’s also possible, of course, that voters in red states with lots of dependency (at least as measured by WalletHub) are instead motivated by cultural issues or foreign policy issues.

There’s even a very interesting study from Professor Alesina at Harvard, which finds that ethnically diverse jurisdictions can be more hostile to redistribution (and homogeneous societies like the Nordic nations are more supportive of a large welfare state).

And since many of the red states at the bottom of the rankings also happen to be states with large minority populations, perhaps that’s a partial explanation.

Though California has a very large minority population as well, yet it routinely votes for more redistribution.

The bottom line is that we probably can’t draw any sweeping conclusions from this data.

Though it leaves me even more convinced that the best approach is to eliminate all DC-based redistribution and let states decide how much to tax and how much to spend. In other words, federalism.

P.S. I put together my own ranking of state dependency, based on a formula involving welfare usage and poverty. Vermont was the worst state and Nevada was the best state.

P.P.S. I also shared calculations based solely on the share of eligible people who signed up for food stamps. Interestingly, Californians rank as the most self-reliant. Maybe my predictions of long-run doom for that state are a bit exaggerated.

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Whenever I debate my left-wing friends on tax policy, they routinely assert that taxes don’t matter.

It’s unclear, though, whether they really believe their own rhetoric.

After all, if taxes don’t affect economic behavior, then why are folks on the left so terrified of tax havens? Why are they so opposed to tax competition?

And why are they so anxious to defend loopholes such as the deduction for state and local taxes.

Perhaps most revealing, why do leftists sometimes cut taxes when they hold power? A story in the Wall Street Journal notes that there’s been a little-noticed wave of state tax cuts. Specifically reductions and/or eliminations of state death taxes. And many of these supply-side reforms are happening in left-wing states!

In the past three years, nine states have eliminated or lowered their estate taxes, mostly by raising exemptions. And more reductions are coming. Minnesota lawmakers recently raised the state’s estate-tax exemption to $2.1 million retroactive to January, and the exemption will rise to $2.4 million next year. Maryland will raise its $3 million exemption to $4 million next year. New Jersey’s exemption, which used to rank last at $675,000 a person, rose to $2 million a person this year. Next year, New Jersey is scheduled to eliminate its estate tax altogether, joining about a half-dozen others that have ended their estate taxes over the past decade.

This is good news for affected taxpayers, but it’s also good news for the economy.

Death taxes are not only a punitive tax on capital, but they also discourage investors, entrepreneurs, and other high-income people from earning income once they have accumulated a certain level of savings.

But let’s focus on politics rather than economics. Why are governors and state legislators finally doing something sensible? Why are they lowering tax burdens on “rich” taxpayers instead of playing their usual game of class warfare?

I’d like to claim that they’re reading Cato Institute research, or perhaps studies from other market-oriented organizations and scholars.

But it appears that tax competition deserves most of the credit.

This tax-cutting trend has been fueled by competition between the states for affluent and wealthy taxpayers. Such residents owe income taxes every year, but some are willing to move out of state to avoid death duties that come only once. Since the federal estate-and-gift tax exemption jumped to $5 million in 2011, adjusted for inflation, state death duties have stood out.

I don’t fully agree with the above excerpt because there’s plenty of evidence that income taxes cause migration from high-tax states to zero-income-tax states.

But I agree that a state death tax can have a very large impact, particularly once a successful person has retired and has more flexibility.

Courtesy of the Tax Foundation, here are the states that still impose this destructive levy.

Though this map may soon have one less yellow state. As reported by the WSJ, politicians in the Bay State may be waking up.

In Massachusetts, some lawmakers are worried about losing residents to other states because of its estate tax, which brought in $400 million last year. They hope to raise the exemption to half the federal level and perhaps exclude the value of a residence as well. These measures stand a good chance of passage even as lawmakers are considering raising income taxes on millionaires, says Kenneth Brier, an estate lawyer with Brier & Ganz LLP in Needham, Mass., who tracks the issue for the Massachusetts Bar Association. State officials “are worried about a silent leak of people down to Florida, or even New Hampshire,” he adds.

I’m not sure the leak has been silent. There’s lots of data on the migration of productive people to lower-tax states.

But what matters is that tax competition is forcing the state legislature (which is overwhelmingly Democrat) to do the right thing, even though their normal instincts would be to squeeze upper-income taxpayers for more money.

As I’ve repeatedly written, tax competition also has a liberalizing impact on national tax policy.

Following the Reagan tax cuts and Thatcher tax cuts, politicians all over the world felt pressure to lower their tax rates on personal income. The same thing has happened with corporate tax rates, though Ireland deserves most of the credit for getting that process started.

I’ll close by recycling my video on tax competition. It focuses primarily on fiscal rivalry between nations, but the lessons equally apply to states.

P.S. For what it’s worth, South Dakota arguably is the state with the best tax policy. It’s more difficult to identify the state with the worst policy, though New Jersey, Illinois, New York, California, and Connecticut can all make a strong claim to be at the bottom.

P.P.S. Notwithstanding my snarky title, I don’t particularly care whether there are tax cuts for rich people. But I care a lot about not having tax policies that penalize the behaviors (work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship) that produce income, jobs, and opportunity for poor and middle-income people. And if that means reforms that allow upper-income people to keep more of their money, I’m okay with that since I’m not an envious person.

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If I had to pick my least-favorite tax loophole, the economist part of my brain would select the healthcare exclusion. After all, that special preference creates a destructive incentive for over-insurance and contributes (along with Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, etc) to the third-party payer crisis that is crippling America’s healthcare system.

But if I based my answer on the more visceral, instinctive portion of my brain, I would select the deduction for state and local taxes. As I’ve previously noted, that odious tax break enables higher taxes at the state and local level. Simply stated, greedy politicians in a state like California can boost tax rates and soothe anxious state taxpayers by telling them that they can use their higher payments to Sacramento as a deduction to reduce their payments to Washington.

What’s ironic about this loophole is that it’s basically a write-off for the rich. Only 30 percent of all taxpayers utilize the deduction for state and local taxes. But they’re not evenly distributed by income. Here’s a sobering table from a report by the Tax Foundation.

The beneficiaries also aren’t evenly distributed by geography.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing in dark blue that only a tiny part of the country benefits from this unfair loophole for high-income taxpayers.

As you can see from the map, the vast majority of the nation deducts less than $2,000 in state and local taxes.

But if you really want to see who benefits, don’t simply look at the dark blue sections. After all, most of those people would happily give up the state and local tax deduction in exchange for some of the other policies that are part of tax reform – particularly lower tax rates and less double taxation.

And I suspect that’s even true for the people who hugely benefit from the deduction. The biggest beneficiaries of this loophole are concentrated in a tiny handful of wealthy counties in New York, California, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

As you can see, they reap enormous advantages from the state and local tax deduction, though I suspect these same people also would benefit if tax rates were lowered and double taxation was reduced.

Regardless of who benefits and loses, there’s a more fundamental question. Should federal tax law be distorted to subsidize high tax burdens at the state and local level?

Kevin Williamson of National Review says no.

…the deduction of state taxes against federal tax liabilities creates a subsidy and an incentive for higher state taxes. California in essence is able to capture money that would be federal revenue and use it for its own ends, an option that is not practically available to low-tax (and no-income-tax) states such as Nevada and Florida. It makes sense to allow the states to compete on taxes and services, but the federal tax code biases that competition in favor of high-tax jurisdictions.

The Governor of New York, by contrast, argues that the tax code should subsidize his profligacy.

It would be “devastating on the state of New York, California, et cetera, if you didn’t allow the people of this state to deduct their state and local taxes,” Cuomo told reporters… State and local governments have been working to preserve the deduction, and they argue that doing away with the preference would hurt states and localities’ flexibility to make tax changes.

By the way, I noticed how the reporter displays bias. Instead of being honest and writing that that the loophole enables higher taxes, she writes that the loss of the preference “would hurt states and localities’ flexibility to make tax changes.”

Gee, anyone want to guess how that “flexibility” is displayed?

Though at least the reporter acknowledged that the deduction is primarily for rich people in blue states.

…the deduction…is viewed as disproportionately benefiting wealthy people. It also tends to be used in areas that lean Democratic.

And that’s confirmed by a 2016 news report from the Wall Street Journal.

Repealing the federal deduction for state and local taxes would make 23.6% of U.S. households pay an average of $2,348 more to the Internal Revenue Service for 2016. But those costs—almost $1.3 trillion over a decade—aren’t evenly spread… Ranked by the average potential tax increase, the top 13 states (including Washington, D.C.), as well as 16 of the top 17, voted twice for President Barack Obama. …And nearly one-third of the cost would be paid by residents of California and New York, two solidly Democratic states. …President Ronald Reagan tried repealing the deduction as part of the tax-code overhaul in 1986, but he was rebuffed by congressional Democrats and state officials. …Republicans argue that the break subsidizes high state taxes, because governors and legislators know they can raise income taxes on their citizens and have the federal government pick up part of the tab. …half the cost of repealing the deduction would be borne by households making $100,000 to $500,000, using a broad definition of income. Another 30% would be borne by households making more than $1 million. Under the GOP plans, residents of high-tax states wouldn’t necessarily pay more in federal taxes than they do now. They would benefit from tax-rate cuts.

Here’s one final image that underscores the unfairness of the deduction.

The Tax Policy Center has a report on the loophole for state and local taxes and they put together this chart showing that rich people are far more likely to take advantage of the deduction. And it’s worth much more for them than it is for lower-income Americans.

How much more? Well, more than 90 percent of taxpayers earning more than $1 million use the deduction and their average tax break is more than $260,000. By contrast, only a small fraction of taxpayers earning less than $50 thousand annually benefit from the deduction and they only get a tax break of about $3,800.

Yet leftists who complain about rich people manipulating the tax system usually defend this tax break.

It’s enough to make you think their real goal is bigger government.

I’ll close by calling attention to the mid-part of this interview. I shared it a couple of days ago as part of a big-picture discussion of Trump’s tax plan. But I specifically address the state and local tax deduction around 3:00 and 4:30 of the discussion.

P.S. In addition to the loophole that encourages higher taxes at the state and local level, there’s also a special tax preference that encourages higher spending at the state and local level. Sigh.

P.P.S. Now, perhaps, people will understand why I want to rip up the current system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

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When I write about poorly designed entitlement programs, I will warn about America’s Greek future. Simply stated, we will suffer the same chaos and disarray now plaguing Greece if we don’t engage in serious reform.

Ideally sooner rather than later.

But when I write about state governments, perhaps it would be more appropriate to warn about a Brazilian future. That’s because many American states have made unaffordable and unfunded promises to give lavish benefits to retired bureaucrats, a topic that I’ve addressed on numerous occasions.

And why does that mean a Brazilian future? Because as Greece is already suffering the inevitable consequences of a bloated welfare state, Brazil is already suffering the inevitable consequences of a pension system that treats bureaucrats as a protected and cossetted class. Here are some excerpts from a sobering report in the Wall Street Journal.

Twenty years before Michel Temer became president of Brazil, he did something millions of his compatriots do, at great cost to the country’s coffers: He retired at age 55 and started collecting a generous pension. Delaying that moment until age 65 is at the center of Mr. Temer’s proposed economic overhaul. …making that happen is seen as a make-or-break test of whether the government can get its arms around mounting economic problems like rising debt, low investment and a stubborn recession now entering its third year. New pension rules are considered central to fixing an insolvent system.

It’s easy to understand why the system is bankrupt when you read the details.

…some retirees receive pensions before age 50 and surviving spouses can receive full pensions of the deceased while still drawing their own. The generosity of Brazil’s pension system is legendary—and, economists say, troubling as the country’s fertility rate plummets and life expectancy climbs. João Mansur, a long-time state legislator in Paraná state, served as interim governor there for 39 days in 1973, a stint that qualified him to retire with a $8,000 monthly pension. …Other former public workers who retire not only reap nearly the same income they got while on the job, but also see their checks get bumped up whenever those still working in the same job category get raises. …Retirement outlays will eat up 43% of the $422-billion national budget this year. …Demographics are playing against a generous system created in great part to bridge Brazil’s infamous social gap. Official statistics say there are 11 retirees for every 100 working-age Brazilians; that will rise to 44 per 100 by 2060.

Fixing this mess won’t be easy.

Brazil’s constitution must be amended to allow its pension system to be restructured… Mr. Temer has already been forced to make a series of major compromises, including exempting state and local government employees from the overhaul. …legislators have sought to further water down Mr. Temer’s proposals, by for instance maintaining the lower retirement ages for women and dragging out the transition from the old social-security regime to the new one.

In other words, Brazilian politicians are in the same position Greek politicians were in back in 2003. There’s a catastrophically bad fiscal forecast and the only issue is whether reforms will happen before a crisis actually begins. If you really want to be pessimistic, it’s even possible that Brazil has passed the tipping point of too much government dependency.

In any event, it appears that legislators prefer to kick the pension can down the road – even though that will make the problem harder to solve. Assuming they ever want to solve it.

Which is exactly what’s happening at the state level in America.

Consider these passages from a recent Bloomberg column.

Unfunded pension obligations have risen to $1.9 trillion from $292 billion since 2007. Credit rating firms have begun downgrading states and municipalities whose pensions risk overwhelming their budgets. New Jersey and the cities of Chicago, Houston and Dallas are some of the issuers in the crosshairs. …unlike their private peers, public pensions discount their liabilities using the rate of returns they assume their overall portfolio will generate. …Put differently, companies have been forced to set aside something closer to what it will really cost to service their obligations as opposed to the fantasy figures allowed among public pensions. …many cities and potentially states would buckle under the weight of more realistic assumed rates of return. By some estimates, unfunded liabilities would triple to upwards of $6 trillion if the prevailing yields on Treasuries were used.

But this looming disaster will not hit all states equally.

Here’s a map from the Tax Foundation which shows a tiny handful of states actually have funded their pensions (in other words, they may provide extravagant benefits, but at least they’ve set aside enough money to finance them). Most states, though, have big shortfalls.

The lighter the color, the bigger the financing gap.

To get a sense of the states that have a very good economic outlook, look for a combination of zero income taxes and small unfunded liabilities.

South Dakota (best tax system and negative pension liability!) gets the top marks, followed by Tennessee and Florida. Honorable mention for the state of Washington.

And is anyone surprised that Illinois is tied for last place? Or that Connecticut and New Jersey are near the bottom? Kentucky’s awful position, by contrast, is somewhat unexpected.

P.S. Brazil’s government may kick the can down the road on pension reform, but at least they added a spending cap to their constitution.

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To pick the state with the best tax policy, the first step is to identify the ones with no income tax and then look at other variables to determine which one deserves the top ranking.

For what it’s worth, I put South Dakota at the top.

Picking the state with the worst tax policy is more difficult. There are lots of reasons to pick California, in part because it has the highest income tax rate of any state. But there are also strong arguments that New York, Illinois, and New Jersey deserve the worst rating.

And let’s not forget my home state of Connecticut, which invariably ranks near the bottom based on research from the Tax Foundation, the Mercatus Center, the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and WalletHub.

The Wall Street Journal opined yesterday about Connecticut’s metamorphosis from a zero-income-tax state to a high-tax swamp.

Hard to believe, but a mere 25 years ago—a lifetime for millennials—Connecticut was a low-tax haven for Northeasterners. The state enacted an income tax in 1991 that was initially a flat 4.5% but was later made steeply progressive. In 2009 former Republican Governor Jodi Rell raised the top rate on individuals earning $500,000 or more to 6.5%, which Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy has lifted to 6.99% (as if paying 0.01% less than 7% is a government discount). Connecticut’s top tax rate is now higher than the 5.1% flat rate in the state formerly known as Taxachusetts.

This big shift in the tax burden has led to predictably bad results.

…the tax hikes have been a disaster. A net 30,000 residents moved to other states last year. Since 2010 seven of Connecticut’s eight counties have lost population, and the hedge-fund haven of Fairfield County shrank for the first time last year. In the last five years, 27,400 Connecticut residents have moved to Florida. …More than 3,000 Connecticut residents have moved to zero income-tax New Hampshire in the last two years. While liberals wax apocalyptic about Kansas’s tax cuts, the Prairie State has welcomed 1,430 Connecticut refugees since 2011 and reversed the outflow between 2005 and 2009. Yet liberals deny that tax policies influence personal or business decisions.

The good news is that the state’s leftist politicians recognize that there’s a problem. The bad news is that they don’t want to undo the high tax rates that are causing the problems. Instead, they want to use some favoritism, cronyism, and social engineering.

Connecticut’s progressive tax experiment has hit a wall. Tens of thousands of residents are fleeing for lower tax climes, which has prompted Democrats to propose—get this—paying new college grads a thousand bucks to stick around. …proposing a tax credit averaging $1,200 for grads of Connecticut colleges who live in the state as well as those of out-of-state schools who move to the state within two years of earning their degree.

As the WSJ points out, special tax credits won’t be very effective if the job market stinks.

Yet the main reason young people are escaping is the lack of job opportunities. Since 2010 employment in Connecticut has grown at half the rate of Massachusetts and more slowly than in Rhode Island, New Jersey or Kansas.

By the way, this isn’t the first time that Connecticut’s politicians have resorted to special-interest kickbacks.

The Wall Street Journal also editorialized last year about the state’s one-off bribe to keep a hedge fund from fleeing to a state with better policy.

Last week the Governor presented Bridgewater with $5 million in grants and $17 million in low-interest, forgivable loans to renovate its headquarters in Westport along the state’s Gold Coast.

But the bit of cronyism won’t help ordinary people.

Connecticut has lost 105,000 residents to other states over the last five years while experiencing zero real economic growth. …So here is the new-old progressive governing model: Raise taxes relentlessly in the name of soaking the 1% to pay off government unions. When that drives people out of the state, subsidize the 0.1% to salvage at least some jobs and revenue. Ray Dalio gets at least some of his money back. The middle class gets you know what.

What’s particularly frustrating is that the state’s leftist governor understands the consequences of bad tax policy, even though he’s unwilling to enact the right solution.

Mr. Malloy said that other states including New York were trying to lure Bridgewater, and Connecticut couldn’t afford to lose the $150 billion fund or its 1,400 high-income employees. …The Governor’s office says Nutmeg State tax revenues could shrink by $4.9 billion over the next decade if all of Bridgewater’s employees departed. …“We see what happens in places like New Jersey when some of the wealthiest people move out of the state,” Mr. Malloy warned. This is the same Governor who has long echoed the progressive left’s claim that tax rates don’t matter. Maybe he was knocked off his horse by a vision on the road to Hartford.

This is remarkable.

Governor Malloy recognizes that tax-motivated migration is a powerful force.

He even admits that it causes big Laffer Curve effects, meaning governments actually lose revenue over time when tax rates are punitive.

Yet he won’t fix the underlying problem.

Maybe there’s some unwritten rule that Connecticut has to have bad governors?

Mr. Malloy’s Republican predecessor Jodi Rell raised the top marginal tax rate to 6.5% from 5% on individuals earning more than $500,000, and Mr. Malloy raised it again to 6.99%. Hilariously, Ms. Rell said last month that she’s also moving her residence to Florida because of the “downward spiral” in Connecticut that she helped to propel.

And lots of other people are moving as well.

The death tax plays a role, as explained in a column for the Hartford Courant.

Connecticut spends beyond its means and, therefore, taxes more than it should. …they’re driving the largest taxpayers away. We’ve passed the tipping point beyond which higher taxes beget lower revenues… The wealthy, in particular, have decided in swelling numbers they won’t be caught dead — literally — in our state. Evidence strongly suggests that estate and gift taxes are the final straw. To avoid Connecticut’s estate tax, wealthy families are moving to one of the 36 states without one.

And the loss of productive people means the loss of associated economic activity.

Including tax revenue.

Where wealthy families choose to establish residency has important ramifications for Connecticut’s economy and fiscal health. The earlier these golden geese flee, the greater the cumulative loss of golden eggs in the form of income taxes, sales taxes, jobs created by their companies, philanthropic support and future generations of precious taxpayers.

The data on tax-motivated migration is staggering.

Between 2010 and 2013, the number of federal tax returns with adjusted gross incomes of $1 million or more grew only 9.5 percent here vs. 22 percent in Massachusetts, 16 percent in New York and Rhode Island, and 30 percent in Florida. Slow economic growth and ever higher taxes are both cause and effect of out-migration. …In 2008, the state Department of Revenue Services asked accountants and tax lawyers whether clients moved out of state due to the estate tax, and 53 percent of respondents said it was the principal reason. …The outflow accelerated following 2011’s historic $2.5 billion tax increase. In the following two years, Connecticut suffered a net out-migration of more than 27,000 residents who took nearly $4 billion in annual adjusted gross income elsewhere, a stunning $500,000 per household. According to the Yankee Institute, the average adjusted gross income of each person leaving tripled in the past 10 years. At an average tax rate of 6.5 percent, this represents more than $250 million in lost income tax revenue annually, which is 50 percent more than the state collected in estate and gift taxes in 2014.

By the way, just in case some of you are skeptical and think that Connecticut’s deterioration is somehow unconnected to tax policy, I’ll close with this excerpt from some academic research that calculated the nationwide impact of state tax policy differences.

We consider the complete sample of all U.S. establishments from 1977-2011 belonging to firms with at least 100 employees and having operations in at least two states. On the extensive margin, we find that a one percentage point increase (decrease) in the state corporate tax rate leads to the closing (opening) of 0.03 establishments belonging to firms organized as C corporations in the state. This corresponds to an average change in the number of establishments per C corporation of 0.4%. A similar analysis shows that a one percentage point change in the state personal tax rate a§ects the number of establishments in the state per pass-through entity by 0.2-0.3%. These effects are robust to controls for local economic conditions and heterogeneous time trends. …This lends strong support to the view that tax competition across states is economically relevant.

To be sure, the numbers cited above may not sound large.

But keep in mind that small changes, if sustained over time, grow into very big results.

In the case of Connecticut, we have a state that has suffered dramatic negative consequences ever since the income tax was imposed back in 1991.

P.S. While my former state obviously has veered sharply in the wrong direction on fiscal policy, I must say that I’m proud that residents are engaging in civil disobedience against the state’s anti-gun policies.

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