Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Virginia’s transportation plan under the microscope

Last week Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell shared his plan to address the state’s transportation needs. The big news is that the Governor wants to eliminate Virginia’s gas tax of 17.5 cents/gallon. This revenue would be replaced with an increase in the state’s sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent. This along with a transfer of $812 million from the general fund, a $15 increase in the car registration fee, a $100 fee on alternative fuel vehicles and the promise of federal revenues should Congress pass legislation to tax online sales brings the total amount of revenue projected to fund Virginia’s transportation to $3.1 billion.

As the Tax Foundation points out, more than half of this relies on a transfer from the state’s general fund, and on Congressional legislation that has not yet passed.

Virginia plans to spend $4.9 billion on transportation. As currently structured, the gas tax only brings in $961 million. There are a few reasons why. First, Virginia hasn’t indexed the gas tax to inflation since 1986. It’s currently worth 40 cents on the dollar. In today’s dollars 17.5 cents is worth about 8 cents. Secondly, while there are more drivers in Virginia, cars are also more fuel efficient and more of those cars (91,000) are alternative fuel. In 2013, the gas tax isn’t bringing in the same amount of revenue as it once did.

But that doesn’t mean that switching from a user-based tax to a general tax isn’t problematic. Two concerns are transparency and fairness. Switching from (an imperfect) user-based fee to a broader tax breaks the link between those who use the roads and those who pay, shorting an important feedback mechanism. Another issue is fairness. Moving from a gas tax to a sales tax leads to cross-subsidization. Those who don’t drive pay for others’ road usage.

The proposal has received a fair amount of criticism with other approaches suggested. Randal O’Toole at Cato likes the idea of Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) which would track the number of miles driven via an EZ-Pass type technology billing the user directly for road usage. It would probably take at least a decade to fully implement. And, some have strong libertarian objections. Joseph Henchman at the Tax Foundation proposes a mix of indexing the gas tax to inflation, increased tolls, and levying a local transportation sales tax on NOVA drivers.

The plan opens up Virginia’s 2013 legislative session and is sure to receive a fair amount of discussion among legislators.

January 14, 2013

Strategy and politics in the of phrasing of bond referendum

How detailed should bond referendum be? The Arlington County Board heard comments from the public on the FY 2013 capital spending plan a few weeks ago. At issue was $153 million in local GO bond referendum that will be on the ballot on November 6th. The Arlington Sun Gazette reports there are four major “bundles.”

  • $31.946 million for Metro, neighborhood traffic calming, paving and other transportation projects
  • $50.533 million for parks, including the Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center and parkland acquisition
  • $28.306 million for Neighborhood Conservation and other “community infrastructure” projects
  • $42.62 million for design and construction of various school projects.

At issue was the language accompanying the bond packages. The Arlington County Civic Federation contends the $45 million dedicated to the acquatics center be listed as a separate item rather than bundled under the general category of park improvements.

Scott McCaffrey writes that the County Board has been bundling bonds under thematic groupings for many years as a strategy to lessen voter opposition, an interesting claim.

How explicit does language have to be in municipal General Obligation bond offerings? States typically require GO bond debt be subject to voter approval before issuance, but how does ballot language matter to the outcome?

While not addressing the matter specifically a few related questions have been pursued in the literature. Damore, Bowler and Nicholson in their paper, “Agenda Setting by Direct Democracy: Comparing the Initiative and the Referendum” (State Politics and Policy Quaterly, forthcoming) considers if agenda setters use the referendum process to extract greater spending than the median voter desires. Some of this research indicates that voters are less likely to support state referendum for tax increases but that between 1990 and 2008, 80 percent of bond referendum received voter approval.

As to the need for particular language, there are strategies. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) lists six steps governments can take to improve their chances of getting a bond approved. This includes, “measure design” or “developing ballot language that appeals to voters and clearly explains how this measure addresses the particular issue targeted by the bonds meets the needs of the community.”

I did find anecdotal evidence that politicians struggle with language on ballot questions, in an effort to strike a balance between clarity and increased likelihood of passage. The Rockford Illinois School Board appears to be hemmed-in by how it phrases bond questions. The more detailed the questions the more legally-bound the board is to spend the money as specifically approved by voters.

Speaking of language, in writing this post I was unsure if I should be using”referenda” as the plural of “referendum”. “Referenda” sounds more natural to me but “referendum” appears to be used more often.

Given the difficulty of the original Latin grammar (referendum is a “gerund” and has no plural), it turns out there is an unsettled debate over this. Either is correct according to the Irish paper The Daily Edge. I felt better knowing that even The British Parliament debated over which plural form to use back in 1998. It turns out whether one uses the Latin “referenda” or the Anglicized “referendum” is purely a matter of taste.

August 14, 2012

Point Pleasant Beach to Mayor: “No New Taxes, or Police Furloughs.”

Residents in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey have resorted to a seldom-used method to protest their mayor’s proposal to raise taxes: they want him recalled from office. The recall petition containing 1,250 signatures was approved this week, giving Mayor Vincent Barella until July 22 to mount a challenge to the motion being placed on the ballot in November.

point-pleasant-beachThe movement to recall Mayor Barella began in the fall, after he asked the state government permission to levy local special options taxes on beach badges, paid parking lots, and alcohol — and more controversially, proposed parking fees on all neighborhood streets — to meet the $11.5 $1.5 million gap in the borough’s budget.

Republican state representatives don’t  like the idea. “We don’t support raising taxes, and [Barrella] doesn’t accept that response,” said state Sen. Andrew R. Ciesla (R-Ocean), referring to the all-Republican northern Ocean County delegation to the legislature. “He believes that it is appropriate to raise taxes in order to cure the financial ills of the borough on the backs of nonresidents and residents alike.”

And the Mayor’s Democratic rivals who initiated the petition also disapprove, claiming he has other options. Said one petitioner, “We have eight too many cops…. Manasquan has 6,500 people with 18 cops. We have 26 cops for 5,300 people.”

Residents’ motives seem clear — “No New Taxes!” — but the solutions aren’t as easy.

The Mayor argues that Point Pleasant Beach needs extra police and sanitation during the tourist season. Property tax hikes are off the table. And while hotels charge customers a 15 percent tax, the state takes 12 cents and the borough keeps three cents.

Therein lies one root cause: the dysfunctional fiscal relationship between the state of New Jersey and its 566 municipalities.

In New Jersey, localities can only levy property taxes. The state levies all other taxes (including taxes that used to be levied by local governments), and redistributes a good portion of those revenues back to the municipal governments. The result is not property tax relief for localities, but years of fiscal illusion. State aid to local government is treated like money from above, and many lead local governments to systematically spend more than they would if the locality had to raise those revenues directly.

And then there’s the state’s incentives to consider.

In the case of Point Pleasant Beach, the town doesn’t get back much of what it puts into the state’s common revenue pool. The mayor argues, “The state derives a lot of benefit in sales and income taxes, but how much does the state put into it? We pay all the costs and they get all the revenues.” Taxes levied on Point Pleasant Beach’s motels don’t go to the town’s boardwalk repairs, they go to Trenton.

The Mayor’s other options including reducing the police force (he proposed laying off one officer), went down in flames this fall. And without budget cuts, the mayor won’t meet the state-imposed tax cap on local property tax rates.

Point Pleasant Beach could ask the state for more aid, but this plays right into the claims of Trenton. Small towns (Point Pleasant has under 5,300 residents) have long been targeted by the state government for municipal consolidation on the theory they are, by definition, inefficient.  This claim is hard to prove, considering the inefficiencies and bad incentives built into the state’s revenue/aid system.

An excellent solution comes from Stanley Fischer, one of the petition’s authors. The beaches and boardwalks belong to the bars, amusement parks and pavilions. To deal with the summer partygoer crowd,  let the boardwalk businesses hire additional police. Good idea, and it can be taken further. Point Pleasant need only look to neighboring Seaside Heights’ Business Improvement District. There are already about 80 Special Improvement Districts in the state.

The concept is simple: businesses establish a geographical boundary, a board of directors, and agree to a municipal tax. In exchange, the revenues are funneled back to the district to provide needed services: sanitation, street cleaning, boardwalk repairs, security, and marketing.

For more, read this paper by Robert Nelson, Kyle McKenzie and myself.

July 18, 2009