Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Analyzing the Governor's Proposed FY 2019 Budget: Part 1 (an overview)

Right click to enlarge. Also available from the OMB website (p. 16).

Over the past week we have taken the time to work through the Governor’s proposed FY 2019 budget. Following up on that, over the next couple of weeks we intend to write a series of columns taking a deeper dive into various aspects we think are important.

Today, however, we start with a simple overview, using as the baseline a spreadsheet from among the various materials published on the OMB website in support of the budget. The spreadsheet we are using (above) -- and will continue to use throughout -- is the Administration's 10-year fiscal forecast. The reason we are using that is because Alaska’s current fiscal situation isn’t a one-year phenomenon. Instead, as with the federal budget, there are various structural issues that, if not addressed in the near term, will cause the problems we currently are experiencing to continue to occur year after year. 

Using OMB's 10-year forecast as a baseline enables us to put those in perspective.

But using OMB’s 10-year forecast comes with its own issues. For the first time OMB’s materials include what they refer to as a “transparent budget” which attempts to eliminate the accounting tricks used in the past to understate UGF spending. We commend them for the effort, but unfortunately they have not used that approach in crafting the 10-year forecast. As a result, we will need to make some adjustments to the 10-year forecast as we walk through it in this and subsequent columns in order to remove the effects of the various accounting tricks.

The spending level we will focus on throughout this effort is referred to on the spreadsheet as the “Budget (before Dividend).” We have hi-lited that in yellow on the above sheet. We are using that both because it best aligns with the so-called UGF numbers used in the past, and avoids the various distorting effects created by including all or a portion of the statutory PFD in the state spending numbers.

Focusing on that, the Governor’s 10-year forecast proposes to set FY 2019 spending at $4.58B, which rises to $5.10B by FY 2023 (5-year) and $5.60B by FY 2028 (10 year).

But as mentioned above, those numbers need to be adjusted for accounting tricks.

The footnote to the spreadsheet indicates that after adjusting for those, FY 2019 spending rises to about $4.7B. But that number still largely excludes oil tax credits (which the Governor assumes are covered by a yet-to-be-approved bond issuance, and as a result, are essentially removed from his proposed FY 2019 spending levels). Including those adds an additional $180 million to FY 2019, bringing adjusted FY 2019 spending to around $4.9B.

There also is a question about how to treat the additional spending included in the Governor’s proposed “Alaska Economic Recovery Act.”

The Governor proposes to fund that with a so-called “temporary” payroll tax, which would make the expenditures DGF (designated general fund) spending. But we have heard some talk about agreeing to all or part of the spending (as “needed” capital spending), but without the tax. If so, that would raise adjusted FY 2019 UGF spending by another $280 million, to roughly $5.2B, or approximately $600 million (13%) more than the initial level shown on the spreadsheet.

While not all of those adjustments carry through to future years, some do, which likely means projected adjusted FY 2023 (5 year) spending exceeds $5.25B and projected adjusted FY 2028 (10 year) spending exceeds $5.75B.

That compares with adjusted FY 2018 spending (i.e., excluding accounting tricks) of roughly $4.9B. That means the Governor's proposed adjusted FY 2019 spending is roughly $100 million to $300 million (2 - 6%) above adjusted FY 2018 levels, and adjusted FY 2023 (5 year) and FY 2028 (10 year) spending is roughly 7% and 17%, respectively, above FY 2019 levels.

That’s enough to digest for now. We will follow up next by focusing on where we are -- and where we are headed -- under various of the current formula programs.

Questions along the way are encouraged. Feel free to post them either in the comments section of this page, or on any of the Facebook or Twitter pages where we will be posting links to this and future columns.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Some argue accelerating the payment of oil credits is more valuable to Alaskans than coming current on the PFD. They are wrong.

Earlier this year we wrote a couple of columns comparing the legislature's treatment of the PFD and oil credits.

The first focused on whether in a then-upcoming vote the legislature would treat both according to the current Alaska statutes. Today's vote will demonstrate whether Alaska legislators believe in the rule of law (July 2017).

The second was written after the vote was taken, in which the legislature upheld the rule of law as applied to oil credits, but  effectively voted to default on the state's statutory obligations to Alaska's citizens with respect to the PFD.  The Alaska Legislature tosses out the Rule of Law (July 2017).

A recent post now appears to argue for granting a priority for an even greater level of payments to oil companies over PFD payments based on some unsupported claims about the jobs impact.

The post is circled in the following string:

The string started with a tweet from the Alaska Journal of Commerce claiming that so-called "unpaid" tax credits had played a role in "thwarting" efforts by a couple of Cook Inlet oil companies this coming drilling season. 

As with other, previous hyperinflated claims by the Journal on the subject, that's an overstatement. Webster's defines "thwart" as follows:

a :to oppose successfully :defeat the hopes or aspirations of

b :to run counter to so as to effectively oppose or baffle :contravene
Neither applies in this case.  It is inaccurate to claim that the state "opposes" the efforts of the companies.

As those who have read the applicable statutes will know, all that the state has done with respect to the two companies is to decline accelerating payments of certain "tax credits" on a faster schedule than agreed between it and the companies. 
Finally, a balanced piece on cashable oil tax credits (Aug 2017).

To claim the state's failure to accelerate future payments into the present as now sought by the companies "thwarts" the companies' efforts is the same as claiming that homeowners "thwart" a mortgage company from making additional profits when the homeowners fail to pay their full 20-year mortgage obligation all at one time.

Both are obligations due over time. The failure to pay early doesn't "thwart" anything. It simply observes the parties' original agreement.

The PFD became involved in the latest exchange when we responded that, compared to the Journal's hyperinflated oil credit claims, cutting the PFD below statutory levels -- something the Walker Administration and the legislature actually did do earlier this year -- had "the largest adverse impact" on the overall economy of any of the so-called new revenue options and was, "by far," the worst alternative for Alaska families. 

Those statements are based on analyses published last year and earlier this by the University of Alaska - Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER). Short-run Economic Impacts Of Alaska Fiscal Options (March 2016)Effect of Alaska Fiscal Options on Children and Families (February 2017).

The reply to our comment attempts to dismiss the ISER analyses, but without offering any competing, professional analysis in return.

That strikes us as sort of the Alaska version of "alternative facts." On the one hand we have detailed analyses by a preeminent, non-partisan set of professional economists who follow the Alaska economy closely, and on the other we have ... rank speculation by some with a vested interest in undermining the conclusions.

Just as it is hard to give any weight to most other claims of "alternative facts," so it is with these unsubstantiated claims.

Applying the factors contained in the ISER analysis, the annual PFD cuts of the last two years have resulted in a reduction of somewhere between 3,900 and 6,250 full time equivalent (FTE) Alaska jobs. Using a consistent evaluation approach (the same one used also to measure the impact of other new revenue options), ISER has concluded that level of job loss is more than would have occurred had the resulting "new revenues" (to government) been raised any other way.

Those who claim otherwise offer no -- none, nada, zip -- in the way of professional economic analysis to support their claim.

In the post one of those advocating for accelerated payments to the oil companies tries a new tack, comparing the effect on jobs between the failure to accelerate the payments and those generated by the PFD.

Certainly, any job loss is a problem in a recessionary economy. But i
t's hard to get exorcised about the effects when the state is following its own law.

Moreover, the post overstates the potential effect of accelerating the payments.

Of the 2100 jobs lost in the oil & gas sector cited in the post, likely few -- and perhaps very few -- are tied to the state's decision not to accelerate the statutory payment schedule. Most are likely tied to other reasons, such as the wind down of the Pt Thomson project and workforce efficiencies implemented as a result of the drop in oil prices.

But even if you assume that 15% of the overall job loss could have been avoided by accelerating the payments and even if you assume the full 10:1 instate multiplier on that level implied by a recent McDowell Group study, that still produces only 3000 or so total jobs, well short of the 3,900 to 6,250 arising from the PFD cut.

There are other reasons why maintaining the current PFD is important -- the positive effect on overall Alaska income, Alaska families and poverty levels to name three. 
It's still the economy, stupid (Sept. 2017).

But even when focused only on jobs the numbers remain compelling.

We certainly agree that the state should meet its financial obligations made during the oil credit program. But those obligations have been tied explicitly since the outset of the program to the level of funds the state receives during the same period from production taxes. The oil companies and their bankers knew and accepted those limitations on the state's payment obligations going in.

There is no justification for bailing those companies out of the effects of those limitations now, especially when at the same time the state is undeniably delinquent on its statutory obligations to its own citizens. 

As the jobs numbers alone show, putting contingent oil company claims ahead of fully matured statutory obligations to Alaska's citizens is a recipe for disaster, especially in a recession. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A blast from the past explains some of the present ...

Recently for another purpose, we were paging back through our primary blog to identify when it was we started voicing concerns about the state's fiscal situation. (The answer is May 2011.)

Along the way, however, we ran across a piece from July 2012 that answered in one fell swoop something that has puzzled us for the last couple of years as the Alaska Senate R's increasingly have gone off the deep end by first, two sessions ago, passing a bill permanently to tax statutory income from the PFD (what some euphemistically refer to as "cut" the PFD) at more than 50% and then, last session, not only doing that again but essentially giving up on cutting government spending further and cutting the PFD instead.

The piece discusses what then was a new (in 2012) -- and apparently still available -- website sponsored by the so-called "House Special Committee on Fiscal Policy." According to the Chair of the Special Committee, the website was designed to help Alaskans prepare "to handle the challenges [of declining oil revenues] before we reach a crisis.”

What has puzzled us is why the Alaska Senate R's this last session seemed to run out of steam in their efforts further to cut the budget down to long term sustainable levels. We also have puzzled over the statement we have heard some make occasionally that deeper cuts in government spending would worsen the state's recession.

Then we ran across the following quote from the House website contained in the article. When reading this keep in mind that this was written while the R's controlled the House.  Keep in mind also that the Chair of the Special Committee was then-Rep. Anna Fairclough (now, MacKinnon).  MacKinnon is now
Senator MacKinnon and Co-Chair of the Finance Committee.

The quote is from a tab entitled "Why not just cut the budget" as a response to the, even then, painfully apparent coming fiscal crisis (we have added emphasis to parts that we think provide significant insight into the actions of the current Senate R's):
Why not just cut the budget? 
Alaska’s operating budget has been increasing at about 9% per year for the last decade and is expected to continue on this path. Even with tighter budget control, the budget will need to increase as population increases and to adjust for inflation just to maintain current levels of service. Increases in future obligations due to an aging population are a part of fiscal gap calculations and one reason why Alaska is not alone in facing future budget woes. 
While deep cuts to state services could help the plug the fiscal gap, they would hurt the economy and Alaska families. State government not only provides needed services and infrastructure, it also plays a significant role in the state’s economy, directly employing around 7% of working Alaskans (24,000 people in 2011) and generating even more jobs by providing grants and contracts to the non-profit and private sectors and by being a major purchaser of goods and services from Alaska businesses. Without state funding some of those jobs will disappear.

Often when people talk about cutting government spending they mean cutting out excess bureaucracy and paring back non-essential services. It will be important to find efficiencies and look for ways to trim waste, but there is a limit to what can be cut without cutting into basic services that many Alaskans rely on. Administration only accounts for 4% of the state operating budget. While there may be efficiencies that can be found, administration cannot be gutted since it includes core services like IT and telecommunications services, accounting and payroll that state agencies need to operate. 
In past years, the state has cut the capital budget when short-term deficits have occurred in years of low oil prices. Cutting the capital budget provides immediate savings but is a short-term fix that has its own negative impacts, such as higher future costs due to deferred maintenance on public buildings. Cuts to the capital budget also impact general contractors, engineers, and people working in the trades throughout Alaska who contract with the state to plan and build infrastructure projects. Maintaining public infrastructure, including roads, bridges, ferries and public health clinics is a core function of government that no one else is going to pay for if the state doesn’t do it. 
Budget cuts impact people differently. Cuts to education impact children and families, while cuts to the capital budget impact the Alaskans in the construction industry, and cuts to health and human services impact people with fewer resources. In one way or another, state spending improves the quality of life for all Alaskan. We are used to receiving high levels of service from our government. In a recent statewide telephone survey, Alaskans from all political parties chose maintaining state services over balancing the budget for nearly all state services.
As we went on in our 2012 post to discuss at length, the emphasis on maintaining jobs and a government role in the economy was troublesome.  As we said then in our commentary,
... the focus on the role of “government” as a source of jobs ... is something that one would ordinarily expect to hear from the far-left wing of the Democrat party, not a committee composed primarily of Alaska Republican House members. What happened to the usual — and economically sound — principle that government should leave the role of job creation — and more importantly, picking economic winners and losers — to the private sector, and limit taxes in order to permit the private sector to create those jobs and make those choices? This rhetoric sounds much more like that which justified the federal government’s recent economic stimulus packages than anything normally associated with “fiscal conservatives.”
 As we have entered an era where the Senate R's have now voted to cut the PFD rather than spending further, that philosophy is even more troublesome.

While solving one puzzle, however, finding the Senate R's past rationalization for their current actions creates another. 

If the "Special Committee" then -- and the Senate R's now -- are so concerned about the effect of their actions on "the economy and Alaska families," why is it they have chosen to tax (what some euphemistically refer to as "cut") the PFD as their primary means of keeping elevated government spending levels in place.

As ISER's undisputed economic analysis has made clear, taxing/cutting the PFD:
  • “Has the largest adverse impact on the economy [of all the new revenue options] per dollar of revenues raised,” https://goo.gl/ZxR1Hw at A-15;
  • “[W]ill likely increase the number of Alaskans below the poverty line by 12–15,000 (2% of Alaskans),” https://goo.gl/iuTjv2 at 14.
In short, in order to avoid making "deep cuts to state services" because they "would hurt the economy and Alaska families," the Senate R's have chosen to implement the very option that ... hurts the economy ("has the largest adverse impact") and Alaska families ("by far the costliest measure for Alaska families") the most.

What the heck?

The portion of the website we covered in our 2012 commentary doesn't provide an insight into solving that puzzle. But when we have the time we will keep digging in the remainder to see if it provides any clues.

We doubt, as we have suggested elsewhere is the likely case, that we will find any smoking guns that say, "we have chosen to cut the PFD in order to protect the Top  20% from paying any significant share of the cost," but you never can tell.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Notes from the Alaska Fiscal Cliff: Our Proposed Fiscal Solution

Yesterday we posted a comment on a presentation made Thursday of this week by David Teal, the head of the Alaska Legislature's Legislative Finance Division (LFD). 

The presentation discussed the projected status of the state's fiscal situation over the next eight years (FY 2019 - 2026) based on the most recent revenue and spending projections.  Teal's presentation is available here: https://goo.gl/jw5pmE.

We expressed both surprise and disappointment at certain aspects of the numbers and analysis. Our comment is here:   https://goo.gl/sanZ1k.

The baseline

Nonetheless, in this piece we use Teal's presentation as a springboard to discuss our proposed solution to the state's fiscal situation. Using the same revenue and spending numbers, and format, as Teal used during LFD's presentation, our solution is summed up in the chart below.

Right click to enlarge
The numbers for the first two lines -- "Traditional Revenue" and "Expenses" -- are taken directly from LFD's presentation.  

The "Traditional Revenue" number is the projection of unrestricted general fund revenues by the relevant fiscal year taken from the Department of Revenue's Preliminary Fall 2017 Revenue Forecast, https://goo.gl/kEFWzN

The "Expenses" are LFD's representation of the projection of unrestricted general fund spending by the same year taken from the Office of Management and Budget's Ten Year Budget Forecast Relative to Preliminary Fall 2017 Revenue Projections,   https://goo.gl/GTaLtM

For some reason the numbers used in LFD's presentation consistently are about $50 million higher per year than those in the OMB presentation. To make our analysis match up with LFD's, we nonetheless have used their numbers.

The "Initial Deficit" number is the simple difference between the "Traditional Revenue" and "Expenses" numbers for each year.  Adjusted for the $50 million added to the "Expenses" line in LFD's presentation, the deficit numbers used here correlate to the deficit numbers also shown for each year in the OMB Forecast.

The Initial Deficit forms the baseline of the state's fiscal situation.

The first part of the proposed solution:  Hammond 50/50

Starting with the baseline, we propose two steps in our effort to develop a balanced budget.

The first is to implement what we have referred to previously as the "Hammond 50/50 plan," an equal split of the earnings from the Permanent Fund between the PFD and government. See "Implementing Governor Hammond’s “50/50” Plan for the use of Permanent Fund earnings," https://goo.gl/5kZg2x.

With one adjustment, the "50/50 Government Revenue" number in the above spreadsheet is the "other half" of the annual Permanent Fund earnings stream calculated in the manner required for the Permanent Fund Dividend (AS 37.13.140), based on the levels of Statutory Net Income most recently projected by the Permanent Fund Corporation.  Alaska Permanent Fund Financial History & Projections as of September 30, 2017, https://goo.gl/awaekb.

For purposes of this proposed solution we reduce the earnings stream by the amount of the current statutory inflation adjustment factor before dividing the remaining earnings stream equally (50/50) between the PFD and government.  We believe that the current statutory adjustment factor overcompensates for actual inflation, but recognize that some inflation adjustment is appropriate and so, utilize the current adjustment factor until a more accurate approach is developed.

The effect of making the adjustment before calculating the 50/50 split is to charge the inflation adjustment equally to the PFD and government shares of the Permanent Fund earnings stream, rather than take it entirely out of the government's share as historically has been the approach. We include that as part of our proposed solution because both future PFD and government revenue levels benefit from inflation proofing the Permanent Fund principal.

For those interested in that level of detail, our approach to calculating the "other half" used in the analysis is summed up below:

Right click to enlarge
The "Remaining Deficit" in the previous chart is the deficit remaining after applying the "other half" of the Permanent Fund earnings stream as government revenue.  

The second part of the proposed solution, if we need to go there:  A Flat Tax

At the projected spending levels used in LFD's analysis, while the adoption of the Hammond 50/50 approach reduces the deficit to lower, more manageable levels it does not eliminate the deficit entirely.

As a result, in order to balance the budget we calculate the "Flat Tax" required to raise the additional revenue needed to close the remaining deficit. The Flat Tax is equal to the amount of the deficit divided by $27 billion, roughly the amount of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) currently received by Alaskans, adjusted to reflect the additional amount of AGI estimated to be received from Alaska sources by non-residents.  
See "ICYMI: Designing a Flat Tax," https://goo.gl/o8f4jt.

Under a flat tax, all Alaska families -- upper, middle and lower income -- would bear the costs of government proportionately.  No Alaskans would be required to bear a higher cost in order to subsidize the proportionate share of others.  As we have explained previously, there also are other significant benefits of the approach. See "Why a flat tax," https://goo.gl/trVzaQ.

Further adjustments

The level of flat tax required to close the remaining deficit is influenced significantly by two factors.  The first is the level of government spending ("Expenses"); the second is the level of the inflation adjustment used in the calculation of the "Hammond 50/50" revenue contribution.

The lower the level of government spending, the lower the deficit and as a result, the lower the level of flat tax required to offset the remaining deficit.

Similarly, the lower the level of the inflation adjustment, the higher the level of the "Hammond 50/50" revenue contribution, the lower the remaining deficit and, as a result, the lower the required level of flat tax.

Substantial effort has gone into -- and we assume, will continue to go into -- efforts to reduce the level of government spending.  Despite those efforts, however, both legislative bodies and the Governor essentially have concluded that there are limits to making further reductions in spending levels and that some source of "new revenues" is required.

To avoid becoming bogged down in that issue we have used the LFD's projection of future government spending levels in the above analysis.  Suffice it to say that the required flat tax levels will be lower if government spending levels are reduced further.

Some effort also has gone into -- and we assume, will continue to go into -- efforts to more accurately calculate the adjustment mechanism necessary to keep the Permanent Fund whole against inflation. 

To date, most efforts have centered around converting the basis for the calculation of the Permanent Fund earnings stream from Statutory Net Income to a Percent of Market Value (POMV) approach.  We are not necessarily opposed to that change if the POMV approach is proven to be more accurate than other inflation proofing approaches, but we have not been convinced yet that it is.

As a result, again to avoid becoming bogged down in that issue in this piece we have simply continued to use the inflation adjustment factor incorporated in the current statute at the future levels projected by the Permanent Fund Corporation.  
Suffice it to say that the required flat tax levels will be lower if the inflation adjustment is reduced.

One final adjustment also is appropriate.  

In the above analysis we have calculated the level of the flat tax, required to close the deficit remaining after the implementation of Hammond 50/50, on an annual basis.  In practice, we believe the level of tax should be averaged over an extended period based on periodic projections.  

Using the projections contained in the LFD analysis, the appropriate level of flat tax averaged over the eight year period, rounded to the nearest quarter percent, is 4.75%.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Notes from the Alaska Fiscal Cliff: The Alaska Republican Establishment shows its true colors

A piece yesterday from often-times Alaska Republican Party mouthpiece Must Read Alaska may say more about the priorities of establishment Alaska R's than anything else. See "Sheldon Fisher: ‘We owe the credits’ to oil companies,"   https://goo.gl/tc79BP.

In an extended effort to paint the current Administration as an unreliable trading partner Must Read attempts to use Alaska's oil tax credit program as an example of where the current Administration has "stiffed" those to whom it has obligations.  The oil tax credit program contemplates that the state will reimburse certain producers for certain types of expenditures.

But Must Read's attack entirely misses the mark. Alaska is in full compliance with its statutory payment obligations to recipients of the oil tax credit program. It has made and continues to make payments on the timeframe and at the levels required by the statutory provisions in place since the program began. While the Administration (and legislature) haven't accelerated payments as some recipients (and Outside bankers) would like, it hasn't "stiffed" (or another Must Read claim, become "delinquent" to) anyone under the program.

The irony? 

In its effort to overdramatize the false claims of some oil companies and their bankers Must Read appears intentionally to overlook a massive group that the Governor (and legislature) actually have "stiffed." The state's citizens. 

This past session the legislature passed and the Governor signed an appropriations bill that intentionally underfunds the state's annual Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) -- a direct statutory obligation to the state's citizens -- by more than 50%.  The state's statutory default -- which economically speaking is a tax on Alaskans -- has been diverted to state government.

In overreaching to claim that the Administration has "stiffed" those that haven't been, and ignoring Alaska's citizens who actually have been stiffed, Must Read shows its true colors.

Those it favors to the point of making up false arguments?  Certain oil companies, their suppliers and bankers.  

Those it ignores? Average Alaskans.

By overplaying the first and ignoring the second Must Read shows which side of the divide they are on -- and it's not the side of average Alaskans.

That is consistent with the side taken also these past two years by the establishment R's in the Alaska Senate.  

As we have explained elsewhere, in passing proposals the past two years permanently to cut the PFD and voting this year with the Governor and House to do so through the appropriations process, the Alaska Senate R's repeatedly have sided with those in the state's Top 20% income bracket (and some of the state's large businesses tied to elevated government spending levels) against the Remaining 80%.  See, e.g., "The Alaska Senate's REAL deal," https://goo.gl/8C7JZF.

And it's not just middle and lower income Alaskans that are being caught in the Alaska Senate R's -- and now, Must Read's -- class war.

According to unrefuted economic studies from last year by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research, taxing the PFD at the level pursued by the Alaska Senate R's:
  • “Has the largest adverse impact on the economy [of all the new revenue options] per dollar of revenues raised,” https://goo.gl/ZxR1Hw at A-15;
  • “[W]ill likely increase the number of Alaskans below the poverty line by 12–15,000 (2% of Alaskans),”https://goo.gl/iuTjv2 at 14.It doesn't have to be this way. 
Let that sink in for a moment.

The headline analysis of the Alaska Senate's proposal: "Largest adverse impact on the economy." "By far the costliest measure." "Will likely increase the number of Alaskans below the poverty line" by 2% of the state's total population.

Must Read closes its piece by urging that accelerated oil tax payments should be included in this year's budget:

[Revenue Commissioner Sheldon] Fisher and the Office of Management and Budget are in the final stages of budget preparation. Gov. Walker must present to the Legislature his FY19 budget by Dec. 15, a budget that will be debated and signed during his re-election cycle. ... While he travels back to Alaska from China, his budget people may want to hammer out a plan for paying those [so-called] delinquent tax credits ....
Our hope is the opposite.

Especially given the state's fiscal situation, we hope that Governor Walker -- and the legislature -- continue to maintain spending across the board to no more than statutorily required levels. 

Despite Must Read's special pleading, that means continuing to pay oil tax credits at no more than the statutorily required level -- not the accelerated levels being sought by some oil companies, their suppliers and Outside bankers.

And that also means paying Alaskans what is due them under the state's existing statutes -- 50% of the earnings from the Permanent Fund.

That is the simple test that we believe should be used to measure the Governor's and legislature's actions this coming session -- whether they live up to the state's statutory obligations.

We certainly will oppose -- and frankly, be aghast at -- any effort by the Governor and legislature to pay certain special interests more than required by the statutes, while continuing to default on those same statutory obligations to all Alaskans.

We are somewhat surprised the Alaska Republican establishment is so blatant about wanting something else -- but it appears that it is.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Notes from the Alaska Fiscal Cliff: It makes a difference how we 'act' on fiscal policy

In a weekend editorial, the Juneau Empire  editorial board says it's time to act on Alaska's fiscal situation. "The fiscal cliff is here: It’s time to act," http://bit.ly/2y5AfEh

Our initial reaction to the column is that it has been "time to act" since the government started spending well in excess of sustainable levels in 2011. See "It’s time to cut state spending: The numbers show future has arrived,"   https://goo.gl/MmzGFm (October 2012).

Where was the Empire back then? Our memory was still urging increased spending. But we agree nonetheless that it's still time.

It's not time for just any action, however.

Continuing to cut government spending deeply from current levels is one action in response to the state's fiscal situation and many argue a responsible one. But in voting this past session for bills that would permanently raise new revenues the majority of both legislative bodies decided against that approach because of the harm they perceive it would do.

In that same vein, not just any "new revenue" measure is the right one.  Some approaches do much more harm than good to the overall Alaska economy and Alaska families.

In evaluating the effect of their tax reform proposal Congressional R's recently have focused on the effect on a family of four earning an income of $59,000. The Tax Cuts & Jobs Act: Policy Highlights,  https://goo.gl/QZu8uH

Under the Congressional R's proposal that family keeps $1,182 more in take home income.

Applying that same benchmark, under both the Alaska Senate R's and House Majority Coalition fiscal proposals (which rely heavily on a PFD tax), that same family in Alaska suffers a reduction in income in the range of $4,000.

Not only is that reduction bad for the affected families, it is bad for the overall economy and other Alaska families as well.

Alaska is in a recession. According to last year's unrefuted economic analysis by the University of Alaska-Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research, raising new revenue through a PFD tax as the Alaska Senate R's and House Majority Coalition have proposed:
  • “Has the largest adverse impact on the economy [of all the new revenue options] per dollar of revenues raised,” https://goo.gl/ZxR1Hw at A-15;
  • “[W]ill likely increase the number of Alaskans below the poverty line by 12–15,000 (2% of Alaskans),”   https://goo.gl/iuTjv2 at 14.
In short, at a time when Congressional R's are trying to make the average family's financial situation better, going down the road of a PFD tax, as some have urged, will just make Alaskans' situation worse.  It is as bad -- if not a worse -- remedy for the overall economy and Alaska families as some believe are further cuts in spending. 

Fortunately, there are other, better options.

If we have to go there, under a flat tax (designed to raise the same amount of new revenue as the Alaska Senate R's PFD tax) the drop in the income of the benchmark family of four would be reduced to $1,622. 

In short, under a flat tax the benchmark Alaska family of four would keep roughly $2,400 more in take home pay than they do under the Alaska Senate R's and House Majority Coalition proposals. That family, as well as the overall economy and Alaska families would be far better off.

A flat tax also is more equitable.

It treats all Alaska families proportionately. Unlike under the highly regressive PFD tax at one extreme and a progressive income tax at the other, under a flat tax no Alaska family would be required proportionately to bear more of the costs of government than any other.

Under a flat tax all Alaska families would pay the same proportionate share of the cost of government.

In short, if we have to go there a flat tax is much better for the overall Alaska economy and Alaska families -- and much more equitable -- than a PFD tax, progressive income tax or other approaches.

Yes, it's time to act, but the action we take needs to be one that avoids making Alaska's overall economic situation worse.

Call your representative and tell them if we have to go there to support a flat tax instead of a PFD cut or any other new revenue measures.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Notes from the Alaska Fiscal Cliff: The Alaska Senate's REAL deal

In a guest commentary in this week's Alaska Journal of Commerce, Senate President Pete Kelly says he is telling Alaskans "the deal" about the positions being taken by the Alaska Senate R's. The sky isn't falling, https://goo.gl/rf7Z3s.

He isn't. 

Here's the real deal. Right now in DC, Congressional Republicans are working to increase the income of the average American family of four by $1,100 by reducing federal income taxes.

This past session Senator Kelly's Alaska Senate Republicans voted to decrease the income of that exact same family of four in Alaska by more than $4,000 by taxing (what some refer to euphemistically as "cutting") the PFD by over 50%.

Its that simple. R's in DC are working to increase the income of the average family of four. In Alaska, the Alaska Senate R's are working to decrease the income of the same family by roughly four times more.

The Senate's approach also has negative effects beyond the family of four. According to unrefuted economic studies from last year by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research, taxing the PFD at such a level: 

  • “Has the largest adverse impact on the economy [of all the new revenue options] per dollar of revenues raised,”   https://goo.gl/ZxR1Hw at A-15;

  • “[W]ill likely increase the number of Alaskans below the poverty line by 12–15,000 (2% of Alaskans),”https://goo.gl/iuTjv2 at 14.It doesn't have to be this way. 

Let that sink in for a moment.

The headline analysis of the Alaska Senate's proposal: "Largest adverse impact on the economy." "By far the costliest measure." "Will likely increase the number of Alaskans below the poverty line" by 2% of the population.

That is the real "deal" about the Alaska Senate's proposal.

It doesn't have to be this way. As we have explained elsewhere, we believe that with some additional cuts in government spending Alaskans could avoid the need for any so-called new revenues by implementing Governor Hammond's original vision for use of earnings from the PFD, the so-called "Hammond 50/50 plan." See "The Special Session version of “Implementing Governor Hammond’s 50/50 Plan,” https://goo.gl/nE15Eo.

But even if government can't cut spending enough to avoid raising some new revenues there are other alternatives that spread the burden much more broadly -- and much more fairly -- than the Senate's approach of dumping the resulting revenue burden almost entirely onto the backs of middle and lower income families, with the consequential adverse effect on the overall Alaska economy and Alaska families. 

The alternative we support and believe is the best option for both the overall economy and Alaska families is a flat tax, the same that already has been adopted in eight other states that have analyzed the issue.

Raising the same amount as the Senate proposes through PFD cuts would only require a 2.75% tax on Alaskans rather than, as under the Senate's proposal, a less than 2% tax on those in the upper 20% income level, but a greater than 30% cut on a family of four in the lowest income class.  
See "If we have to go there," https://goo.gl/58t16s.

In his piece Senator Kelly argues that the Senate's approach solves the state's fiscal situation "without taxing Alaska’s wage earners."

That's simply wrong.  The Congressional R's are reducing taxes precisely so that, nationally, average "wage earners" can keep more of their income in their pocket.

In Alaska, the Alaska Senate R's are taking the exact opposite approach. 

For an Alaska family of four that takes home roughly $50,000 before federal tax reform, instead of the $51,100 in take home that the Congressional R's approach would achieve, the Alaska Senate R's proposal will cut the family's income to below $47,100.  There are no two ways about it, that is taxing Alaska wage earners.

By giving up on cutting government spending further the Alaska Senate R's have put new revenue measures -- taxes -- on the table. The question is do we need to go there and, if so, what is the best way.

If we do need new revenues there is a much, much, much better way for both the overall Alaska economy and Alaska families than the Senate's approach.

And that is the real deal.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Notes from the Alaska Fiscal Cliff: A conversation about the role of economic analysis in Alaska fiscal policy

Often, all too often it seems, conversations on social media about fiscal policy descend into personal attacks.  While one we had the other day about the role of economic analysis in the development of Alaska fiscal policy bordered at times on going down that path, for the most part it stayed on point.

This particular conversation was notable because it was largely with Daniel McDonald, who, in his day job, serves as Press Secretary to the Alaska (largely Republican) Senate Majority.  The Senate Majority has passed legislation the last two years that would permanently cut the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) in half, and this past session voted to reduce (i.e., tax) statutory income from the PFD otherwise due Alaskans at a 50% rate rather than cut government spending further.

Throughout the debate over taxing the PFD some of the strongest arguments against doing so have been the results of some economic analyses done last year by the University of Alaska-Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research ("ISER"), at least in our view the state's best economic think tank.

In various studies ISER economists have concluded that cutting the PFD:

  • “Has the largest adverse impact on the economy [of all the new revenue options] per dollar of revenues raised,” https://goo.gl/ZxR1Hw at A-15;
  • “[W]ill likely increase the number of Alaskans below the poverty line by 12–15,000 (2% of Alaskans),”https://goo.gl/iuTjv2 at 14.
Other parts of the studies have been cited often during the state's fiscal policy debates for other findings related to the impact that cuts in government spending would have on jobs.

But when it comes to the PFD, those advocating reductions have responded to the studies largely with radio silence, at least publicly going out of their way to ignore the analysis and conclusions.

We have often wondered why that is. While McDonald made clear that he was speaking for himself and on his own time in the discussion, his reaction offers at least some insight into how at least some in Juneau are justifying that approach behind the scenes.

The irony is that the same arguments he makes below also undercut the portions of the ISER studies that some others, including some members of the Senate Majority, have used to justify maintaining current government spending levels.

But consistency among those seeking to impose a targeted income tax on PFD income generally has been rare in any event.  The discussion with McDonald, for example, started as a branch off of a claim by a former staffer to the House Republican Minority Leader that members of the House Republican Minority consistently had voted earlier this year against "income taxes," overlooking the fact that at least ten of the members did that very thing by voting for substantial reductions (i.e., taxes) on income derived from the PFD when a proposal to do so came over from the Senate.

For those interested in context, the overall discussion of which the following is a branch starts here, https://goo.gl/sqRw5j.

Hans Rodvik Okay let me be very specific here. All House Republican members of the House Republican caucus who were present that day voted against the income tax bill introduced by the Governor. The PFD is a completely separate vote and issue. The 3 Rs who voted for the income tax are not part of the House Republican caucus

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October 27 at 7:11pm
Brad Keithley Hans .. The PFD is a separate issue only to those in the Top 20% that want to wish it so. To those who focus on economic reality, it's precisely the same. Indeed, it's worse. That form of taxation has the largest adverse impact on the overall economy (both jobs and income) of any of the so-called new revenue options, and is "by far" the worst for Alaska families. https://goo.gl/BVQ94d

In an effort to trivialize the PFD cuts of the last two years and normalize continued cuts going…

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October 28 at 8:49amEdited
Donn Liston You are exactly correct, Mr. Keithley!

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ReplyOctober 27 at 7:22pm
Brad Keithley Daniel ... It would appear you are misreading ITEP. $92,000 is the average income for the second 20%. The Top 20% range starts at $115,000. https://goo.gl/N1sUUb

Alaska is facing a significant budget gap…

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October 28 at 8:35am
Daniel McDonald It’s not as difficult as you’d think it would be to join the dreaded top 20% of earners in Alaska. A married couple, each individually earning $58k per year, would qualify. The average elementary school teacher is currently making about $70k.

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ReplyOctober 28 at 8:40amEdited
Daniel McDonald Basically, if you’re married, and both you and your spouse earn a typical wage in Alaska, then you’re in the top 20%.

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ReplyOctober 28 at 8:43am
Brad Keithley Daniel ... OK, now that we have corrected for that we can move on to the substance. What that tells you is that the households covering 80% of Alaska income are below that level. 

That should be a significant concern in developing fiscal policy, espec
ially with respect to those parts of the economy driven by consumer spending. As ISER makes clear, "Lower-income Alaskans typically spend a higher share of their income than higher-income Alaskans do, so more regressive measures will have a larger adverse effect on expenditures." That is why cutting the PFD has the "largest adverse impact on the economy" of all the so-called new revenue options.

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October 28 at 8:57amEdited
Daniel McDonald Short-term consumer spending shouldn’t be the highest priority for a state’s tax policy. Other taxes, like an income tax, have a detrimental effect on saving and investing, things you need if you want economic life in this state. And taxes on earned wages also have the additional problem of acting as a disincentive to work.

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ReplyOctober 28 at 8:58am
Brad Keithley Hmmm .. most of our large-scale investment comes from out of state sources in the oil industry. So, while I agree that taxes on oil and corporate taxes could significantly affect investment levels, I am highly skeptical of the argument that individual income taxes would have the same effect. Further to that point, it would be interesting to see a study that identifies how much of the savings and investment done by Alaskans actually stays in Alaska. I have some reason to think its relatively small, which would further detract from an already weakened argument.

And most studies I have looked at show that the 'taxes serve as a disincentive to work' argument is significantly, to the point of being hugely overblown at low tax levels. It had some validity in the days of 90% marginal tax rates (which is why they were changed), but have a very low, approaching trivial effect at low tax rates (such as a 2.5% flat tax, where 97.5% of the next dollar stays in the pocket of the earner).

We have a study on the short term effects. We don't on the long term effects. If we did it might help the analysis; but grounding policy on speculation about what it might show is pretty darned foolish, especially when we do have a concrete study that shows significant adverse effects in the short term.

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October 28 at 9:20amEdited
Daniel McDonald All things being equal, income taxes are a disincentive to work. That’s a simple logical principle accepted in the field of economics. You may be correct in your observation that it doesn’t amount to much at low rates, but it stands nonetheless.

The e
conomy is extremely complex, which is why your faith in economic studies is misguided. Economic studies take what we think we know about economic history and try to use that information as a guide for the future. Of course, we might be wrong about the past (economists still vigorously disagree about events 100 years ago) and it’s impossible to account for all the variables that affect economic measurements. In other words, there’s nothing “concrete” about economic studies.

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October 28 at 9:46amEdited
Donn Liston The commercial fishing fleet, fair weather tourism, and most mineral mining are all based Outside. Some are saying our best shot for sustainability is agriculture, but many who say that are high on pot...

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ReplyOctober 28 at 9:47am
Daniel McDonald Policy makers have more in their decision making toolbox than economic studies, however. They have philosophy and common sense. It doesn’t intuitively make sense — in terms of fairness and common sense — to many wage earning Alaskans to first go for someone’s hard-earned cash before you reduce the annual dividend payout when times are tough.

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ReplyOctober 28 at 9:51am
Brad Keithley Daniel ... Ahh yes, the classic 'we are comfortable flying blind based on highly generalized concepts that may or may not apply to Alaska, even if we are in the middle of a recession and the analysis we do have shows that we are making it worse" defense. I have heard it from some of your members before and have been similarly unimpressed.

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ReplyOctober 28 at 10:00am
Daniel McDonald I would imagine your straw men are unimpressive.

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ReplyOctober 28 at 10:06am
Brad Keithley Daniel .. Hmmm, I have heard it directly from your Majority Leader's mouth while sitting in his office being lectured. Is he ... made of straw??

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October 28 at 10:08amEdited
Daniel McDonald You didn’t hear what you just put in quotation marks.

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October 28 at 10:38am
Daniel McDonald Yours is not the dispassionate, technocratic perspective you style it to be. You too are very much guilty of what you accuse policy makers of. That is, your analysis is colored by certain general political principles, specifically, your commitment to state-directed income equality. You believe the state ought to take from higher income earners and redistribute their resources to those at the bottom, as a matter of good policy. 

By the way, all the economic studies used in Alaska are based on historical data taken from outside Alaska with certain speculative assumptions about human behavior plugged in. And so your criticism about generalized concepts that “may or may not apply to Alaska” is built into the models you take as gospel truth.

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October 28 at 11:15amEdited
Daniel McDonald For example, the 2016 ISER study relied on the IMPLAN input-output modeling system. The model itself maintains certain speculative assumptions about human behavior and the multiplier effect. If those assumptions are wrong, then so are the conclusions. And those assumptions are based on data compiled largely outside of Alaska.

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ReplyOctober 28 at 11:19am
Daniel McDonald Oh and, of course, there’s no way to verify the accuracy of the IMPLAN model after the fact, because its advocates can always say, “the variables changed.”

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ReplyOctober 28 at 11:22amEdited
Brad Keithley Sigh. One of your members must have thought you hadn't gone far enough. I am glad you have the spare time on a Saturday to satisfy them. As for me, I am headed off to other things after I finish this.

For whatever it's worth to whoever is bothering t
o read down this far my analysis is colored by two things. First, a significant amount of respect for the thought process of those who came before (e.g., Governor Hammond, Former Senate Presidents Clem Tillion & Rick Halford, Nobel Economic Laureates Vernon Smith & Milton Friedman) and the solutions they put -- and which still remain -- in place. They thought deeply about the issues we are confronting today, had a great deal of foresight about how to deal with them in the Alaska context and, fortunately for us, wrote about them extensively. Their solutions are well thought out and persuasive. My posts are to explain why.

Second, a desire to AVOID government action making income disparity -- and the substantial economic consequences that flow from it, such as an overall loss in jobs and incomes -- worse (in other words, the exact opposite of your claim). Unlike the PFD cut on the one hand, and a progressive income tax on the other, my suggestion of a flat tax to raise any needed "new revenue" beyond Hammond's 50/50 plan treats all Alaskans equally and, by using the broadest possible tax base, as minimally as possible. In my view, using government power to benefit one income class over another, as the PFD cut or progressive income tax would do, just leads to greater and greater distortions in the overall economy. It also leads to pushback in other areas (e.g., oil taxes) as those adversely affected look for other ways to balance out the effect. In my view government, particularly local and regional governments, should not be involved in picking economic winners and losers. Those favoring PFD cuts to raise new revenues are as guilty of that to one extreme as those advocating a progressive income tax are to the other. My posts are to explain why that is wrong.

As for your analysis of the flaws in the ISER studies, I have a short answer. Produce something else. If the Senate R's really believe the ISER analyses are misleading, sponsor another. It's not like you haven't had the time and resources to do it. Criticizing it while not producing anything other than unanalyzed generalities in response reminds me often of the mantra of the old "Know Nothing" movement. I use the analyses because they enable us to look at these issues with some rigor. If your members believe they are inaccurate, produce something that they believe is and then we can compare and analyze the results. Until then, at least to me, data driven analysis trumps "know nothing-ism".

In the meantime, have a great day. It's a Saturday; use it.

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October 28 at 12:19pm
Daniel McDonald These opinions are my own, which is why I don’t comment during work hours. I have a personal interest in public policy. 

On economic studies, the fact that your response to my skepticism of the efficacy of speculative economic studies is that we ought
 to produce more speculative economic studies shows that you didn’t bother to read or don’t understand my critique, which is rooted in the ‘fatal conceit’ idea developed by economist Friedrich Hayek about the distribution of knowledge and the complexity of the economy. 

You’re drawing upon speculative models dressed up as science — which they are not — and mischaracterizing anyone who finds that method inherently flawed as peddling “know nothing-ism.” It’s circular reasoning in defense of a technocratic philosophy, hermetically sealed off from any outside criticism. 


Person A: “How can we know if that method of knowing is reliable if it’s based on assumptions that may not be true, with results we can’t even verify?” 

Person B: “Well if you don’t like it then produce your own study based on assumptions that may not be true with unverifiable results!”

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October 28 at 1:16pmEdited