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.
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.