It’s no surprise to anyone at this point that local governments are struggling to find workers. But finance departments are especially hard-hit when it comes to brain drain. A National Association of State Treasurers study found that 60% of public finance workers are over 45 while less than 20% are younger than 35.
The private sector is facing similar issues. According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), the accounting profession has an acute shortage of workers as the population of graduates with accounting degrees has declined over the years.
ACFRs, unlike quarterly or other interim reports, are the official account of a government’s finances for the previous year and show how those numbers compare with previous years. It takes some time for finance departments to gather the year-end data, but getting those numbers audited is the last and generally the most time-consuming step before publishing the annual financial report. In some cases, like in Indiana and Ohio, the audit is conducted or signed off by the state auditor’s office. In other instances, localities hire a firm to audit their financial statements.
According to new data published by the University of Illinois Chicago and Merritt Research Services, the last decade has seen a 13% increase in the median amount of time for local government audits to be completed. That means most governments are posting their ACFRs at least three weeks later in the year compared with a decade ago. Nearly half of the increase has occurred over the last two years. The research focuses on the median—rather than the average—because some governments are extreme outliers and take a year and a half or even more than two years to file their annual report.
A number of states have programs in which they actively monitor municipal finances and roughly 20 have emergency manager laws allowing for direct intervention. People have long debated how effective these oversight programs are at generating a real recovery and what the right level of intervention even is. Duly elected city officials don’t like being told what to do by state overseers. States on the other hand, typically want troubled cities to just buckle down and take their advice—even if it’s tough medicine.
So while the whole point of these programs is to avoid or mitigate extreme distress, they can also create or exacerbate tension between cities and states along the way.
By all accounts, Chester’s approach to being placed in Pennsylvania’s municipal distress program in 1995 was to just ignore the state’s advice. Fred Reddig, a retired state official who has coordinated recovery plans for a number of distressed municipalities, worked on Chester’s case from 1995 to the early 2000s. He recalls that during that time, it was difficult to compel local officials to follow any of the state’s recommendations and that relations were tense.
Rob DiAdamo, a lecturer at Boston University’s law school who teaches a class on state and local governance, noted many communities that end up under some form of state oversight had structural economic problems long before the state intervened.
“It may be more effective for the state to be looking at how to bring opportunities back to these communities than wait for the crisis and have people argue about the best way to address it,” he said. “It’s like waiting for the patient to have a heart attack and discussing treatment options when the crisis could have potentially been avoided by first encouraging healthier eating habits and exercise.”
A key driver of the conflict is around fiscal management and disclosure. Amid its budget troubles, the city has racked up $750,000 in Internal Revenue Service penalties related to unpaid payroll taxes, fell victim to a $400,000 phishing scam that wasn’t publicly disclosed for months, cycled through two chief financial officers in as many years and has failed to produce an audited financial report since 2018. But perhaps the most striking example of the problems surrounding the city’s bankruptcy is the discord—and conflicting information—around Chester’s underfunded police pension.
Like other distressed cities, Chester has an outsized pension liability and annual pension bills that would take up a substantial portion of its budget if paid in full. But also like other cities, Chester hadn’t been paying its entire bill—called the Minimum Municipal Obligation (MMO) in Pennsylvania. In 2021, the city paid its full MMO for the first time since 2013 and it was a significant lift. The total it spent on pension and retiree health care costs that year—$14.6 million—took up 28% of its entire general fund.
But there’s a bigger problem: Due to accounting practices that inflated the plan’s assets and a dispute over what the city’s police pension formula actually is, no one really knows what Chester’s true unfunded liabilities are.
As economic sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine spread, state and local public pension plans are looking at selling off their Russian-related assets and some are already doing so.
Lawmakers in at least a dozen states are pressuring their pension funds to divest from Russian-related investments. Divestment isn’t likely to have much impact on the funds themselves as Russian-domiciled investments make up less than 1% of most (if not all) state portfolios. But collectively, it sends a message. For example, California’s CalPERS is the largest pension fund in the world and it alone holds nearly $1 billion in Russian assets.
However, it’s likely that at least some (if not all of) these funds will be selling at a loss. Here is a snapshot of what’s happening across the U.S.
The big takeaway from the GFOA’s Rethinking Revenue project is that the modern economy is shifting the tax burden toward those who can least afford it. Now, the association and its partners are launching pilot programs to test some of the ideas the project has explored.
One will target the inequities built into relying on fees and fines and the GFOA is inviting governments to apply for a pilot project testing segmented pricing as a potential solution. Instead of a one-size-fits-all fine, segmented pricing is designed around a user’s ability or willingness to pay. For example, a $100 speeding ticket for someone who earns just $500 a week is a much larger financial burden than it is for someone who earns $2,000 a week. So for the lower-income transgressor, the fine is lowered to $50. It still stings, but it’s much more likely to get paid.
Shane Kavanagh, GFOA’s senior manager of research, said they’re looking for around five places to test this idea and that the tested revenue source would have to be large enough (such as traffic fines) and also be one that the government has had difficulty collecting.
If inflation pushes up interest rates and accelerates wage growth, that could take some of the pressure off of public pension plan performance. Since the Great Recession, pension plans have been steadily lowering their assumed annual rate of return to better match the low-interest rate environment. Pension plan actuaries factor that rate when in calculating a government’s annual pension bill. Lowering that rate results in a higher bill because governments have to make up the difference.
More stable returns. Rising inflation can result in higher returns from a pension plan’s fixed-income assets. Unlike the volatile equities market, the nice steady investment return from fixed-income securities is much nicer to rely on from a planning perspective. In fact, bonds used to be pensions’ bread and butter until interest rates began falling in the 1990s.
That could result in lower pension bills for governments with healthy plans. Or in the case of struggling plans like Chicago or Kentucky, it could at least slow the pace of their rising pension bills.
Higher worker contributions. What’s more, noted Brainard, accelerated wage growth also means those workers paying into pension plans will be contributing slightly more. “What wages will do when inflation is 2% is a lot different than when it’s 6%,” he said.
The pandemic created a lot of uncertainty around state and local government revenues for much of 2020. That was a big reason for the dramatic boost in the rate of bonds issued with insurance that year: In total, $34.45 billion in new bonds carried insurance — the highest since the Great Recession ended in 2009. Even with the economic stabilization this year, insurance is still going strong. Through October 2021, wrapped municipal bond issuance totaled $31.5 billion, according to RBC Capital Markets.
Looking ahead, the chatter about municipal climate risk has been increasing in recent years. Extreme weather events linked to climate change have called into question the preparedness and resiliency of utilities and other government issuers, while studies point to the potential long-term economic effect. One BlackRock Investment Institute report estimated that some vulnerable cities could see economic losses of up to 10% of GDP without decisive action.
The bottom line: Insurance provided safety for muni market investors during the pandemic and its continued use indicates that investors and issuers are both finding it attractive in situations where there might be a little more long-term uncertainty. Climate risk plays right into this notion. While no one expects bond insurance to dominate the market as it once did, it’s likely that the pandemic spike in usage is here to stay.
However, these numbers are highly influenced by unusual economic times. For starters, states delayed their tax filing deadline by several months when the pandemic began. For most, this pushed their 2020 income tax revenue into the next fiscal year. This artificially deflated 2020’s numbers while inflating 2021 collections.
The federal stimulus has also played a role. Since March 2020, the feds have doled out $867 billion in cash to households via three Economic Impact Payments. While those payments weren’t taxable, they could indirectly increase state tax liability for some. (The New York TimesNYT+1% has a good explainer on that.) Plus, unemployment insurance — which most states do tax — received a massive boost for about 15 months.
Green bonds. Issuance is expected to hit a record high this year and so are municipal green bond offerings. My friend and colleague Mark Funkhouser explains why local leaders should take advantage of this alignment of financial interests and moral ones.
More spending flexibility in the American Rescue Plan. Legislation now making its way through Congress would allow governments to use some of their ARP funds for highway and transit projects and to address natural disasters.
Rising income tax revenue. The K-shaped recovery and federal stimulus has resulted in the largest median state personal income jump in 14 years. According to Fitch Ratings, state income tax revenues increased by 6.3% last year and this year is expected to produce similar growth. This has implications for public pensions, tax cuts and — of course — the 2022 midterms.
Advanced refunding bonds allowed governments to refinance debt earlier, thus letting them take advantage of lower interest rates years sooner and save taxpayer money. The 2017 tax reform eliminated their tax-exempt status which effectively nixed their cost-saving value for governments. But the move increased federal government revenues by billions of dollars each year. Reinstating the bonds, according to a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), would cost $11 billion over the next five years.
A federally subsidized taxable bond — what market watchers are calling BABs 2.0 — works differently. Unlike tax-exempt municipal bonds, BABs are taxable, and, as a result, open up the municipal market to new investors, such as pension funds or those living abroad. More buyers is a good thing, but BABs are also more expensive for governments. So to defray the added cost, the federal government in 2009 offered a direct subsidy of 35% of state and local governments’ interest payments on BABs.
BABs 2.0 would work similarly, but also lock in the federal subsidy — a much better deal for governments. They’re expected to cost the federal government more than $22.5 billion between 2022 and 2031, according to estimates from the JCT.
After state pension debt grew to more than $1.4 trillion last year, two new reports estimate that gap between the total amount states have promised to retirees and what they’ve actually set aside in their pension investment funds will shrink dramatically. A recent analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts says the gap could dip below $1 trillion this year. And a report released today by the Equable Institute estimates that 2021 returns will shrink state pension debt to $1.08 trillion.
The gains in the stock market played a big role. Equable’s report calculates that preliminary 2021 investment returns averaged an astounding 20.7% return. That’s nearly triple the average assumed rate of return in any given year. Those gains will boost the average pension plan to about 80% funded, the highest funding ratio since 2008.
Federal unemployment benefits ended this month for millions of Americans and data show that workers in Virginia might feel it the most.
The federal government’s enhanced unemployment benefit added $300 to weekly unemployment checks issued by states and also expanded coverage to the self-employed and freelancers, such as rideshare drivers and musicians. That expansion, called pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) was a lifeline for these gig workers who previously weren’t eligible for any unemployment help.
An analysis I did for the Rockefeller Institute of Government on unemployment benefits given to non-traditional workers shows that the PUA program had the biggest financial impact in Virginia, where those payments accounted for nearly 26% of all unemployment benefits paid in 2020.