Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Michigan's Budget - The Numbers

There seems to be some confusion lately about the state's general fund budget. Have there been cuts? Has revenue gone down? Are $440 million in cuts necessary to balance 2007-2008's budget? What is the impact of the new $1.5 billion in taxes just passed by the legislature?

The Budget

We'd like to go through the numbers and explain a bit how government budgeting works. Michigan, like most units of government, has several funds. The General Fund, the one that the legislature can spend on pretty much whatever it wants, is the budget that everyone refers to when there is talk of a deficit or the need for tax increases. The General Fund is about $9 billion of the state's total $40 billion budget. We discussed the total growth of the budget, as well as how government does accounting, in a previous post. Please follow that link and come back after you have read the explanation of the politicians' definition of a budget cut.

We've heard the Governor and many politicians talk about cutting the budget. However, when the numbers are examined, the state's General Fund has seen an increase in revenue every year of the Governor's term. However, there has been a reduction in spending, but only to match the government's revenue. You see, the state government has been good at spending more than it brings in, whether under Democrat or Republican control.

But wait! Governor Granholm boasts about having to cut billions from the state budget. From the Governor's office: "Since taking office in 2003, Governor Granholm has cut nearly $3 billion in state spending to resolve more than $4 billion in budget shortfalls - more than any other governor in the state's history." Really? Here's a list of the total annual General Fund spending during Governor Ganholm's tenure:
Fiscal Year - Spending (millions)
02-03 -       $8,830
03-04 -       $8,770
04-05 -       $8,702
05-06 -       $9,106
06-07 -       $8,966

In other words, in absolute numbers, a grand total of $268 million has been cut during the Governor's tenure. Just for fun, let's factor in inflation, so that 2002-2003 is our baseline. If that were the case, and spending had gone up just at the rate of inflation, then 2006-2007 spending would have been about $9.938 billion. Subtract actual spending, and the total possible cut the Governor could take credit for is $1.108 billion. You see, the Governor is using politician math where possible spending is taken into account when declaring a deficit or cut, not actual spending.

The New Taxes

According to the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency, the entity that estimates for the State House how much money the state will bring in, 2007-2008 revenue will be about $8.186 billion. Governor Granholm proposes to spend $9.941 billion in 2007-2008. So this is the deficit that she's referring to when she has said that $1.8 billion in "cuts" have needed to be made to balance the budget. You see, it's not actual spending that is being cut, it is proposed spending. The new, higher income tax rate, along with the new 6% tax on services, will raise, according to estimates, somewhere between $1.4 and $1.5 billion this fiscal year. That brings our total General Fund Revenue to about $9.6 billion. That's an increase in spending, from 2006-2007, of 9%. That's an increase in revenue, if the tax hadn't passed, of over 17%. In one year! When's the last time you got a raise of 9% or even 17%?

But there's more! Governor Granholm, even after the passage of the new taxes, is declaring that $400 million of cuts still need to occur! But, as hopefully you have figured out, the cut is not in spending, but a cut in what she wants to spend!

What do the new taxes mean to the average Michigander? A $1.5 billion increase, divided by approximately 10 million residents of Michigan, equals a $150 tax increase per person. That includes every single man, woman, and child. According to the Census Bureau, there are about 3.7 million households in Michigan, which means that the tax increase is over $400 per household. That's in addition to the $7,183 annual cost of state government on a per household basis.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Minimal Reforms for Massive Tax Hike

The taxpayers of Michigan traded minimal reforms for a massive tax hike this past weekend. A new 6% service tax will apply to the following services:

Astrology services
Carpet cleaning
Consulting services
Investigation, guard and armored car services
Commercial landscaping services
Baby-shoe bronzing
Bail bonding
Coin-operated blood pressure testing
Check room services (coat checks)
Concierge services
Dating services
Social escort services
Fortune telling
House sitting
Coin-operated locker rental
Palm reading
Party planning
Porter services
Psychic services
Rest room operation services
Shoe shines
Singing telegrams
Wedding planning
Wedding chapel services (not churches)
Scenic transportation services
Skiing services
Tour operator services
Personal care (except hair care, including manicure, pedicure, etc.)
Security system services
Mini-warehouse and self-storage unit services
Business service center services (e.g., hire out payroll service)
Investment advice
Consumer-buying services
Discount-buying services
Genealogical investigation
Social introduction services
Numerology services
Pay telephone services
Personal fitness training
Personal shopping services
Coin-operated photographic machines
Phrenology services
Packaging and labeling
Specialized design services
Passenger and ground transport services
Courier and messenger services
Document preparation

Of course, the income tax also increased from 3.9% to 4.35%. What did we get in return? Two reforms, although they are important, they are not worth the tradeoff.

First, the Michigan Education Association (the teacher's union) runs its own health care plan called MESSA. MESSA health care is, by some estimates, 20% more expensive than market-rate health care plans. Part of the problem is that, for those familiar with how health care works, MESSA premiums are the same for single individuals and families. Most health plans today cost employers more based on whether the employee is single, married, or married with children. With MESSA, it doesn't matter, school districts get charged the same family rate, regardless of the employee's status. This translates to much higher costs. The other factor increasing costs for school districts is the fact that MESSA is just repackaged Blue Cross coverage, with a premium attached simply because it is union-run. Basically, MESSA is a money-laundering scheme for the teacher's union.

The bill that passed the legislature this weekend would require MESSA to publish its claims data, so competing health care plans could quote school districts their rate for the same plans. Previously, MESSA has vigorously opposed this because they will do anything to maintain their stranglehold on healthcare coverage for teachers in Michigan. In fact, the teachers union frequently threatens school boards with a strike if they attempt to bid out health care coverage, even though it is illegal for teachers to strike in Michigan. One MEA bumper sticker shows how militant they are - it reads "You'll get my MESSA card from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hand."

You understand why the union is so militant about protecting MESSA? Because it is a union cash cow. Now the legislature has finally stood up and made it easier for school districts to make sure that taxpayers get the best deal by allowing for competition in health coverage. Unfortunately, it only allows school districts to bid out care, it doesn't require it. This means that local school boards will still have to deal with union threats and potential strikes if they want to do the right thing.

Second, reforms to the state teacher retirement system were enacted. This is a very long-term reform because it will only effect teachers who start working after July 1, 2008. However, it is an important reform because it will increase the time in service requirements for teachers to be able to get health and pension benefits in retirement. Currently, teachers can work as little as five years to get free health care for life. Unfortunately, the reform does not include a phase-out of the defined-benefit plan. Nearly all other state workers have been transitioned to a defined-contribution plan, much like a 401(k), which is sustainable and a bigger benefit to retirees. The current defined-benefit plan will continue to be unsustainable and extremely expensive. This issue will have to be dealt with again in the future, so this bill just put the pain off on future legislators.

And that's it! We get those two watered-down reforms in exchange for more job-killing taxes. Only two local legislators voted in favor of the tax increases - Mike Sak and Robert Dean, both Representatives from Grand Rapids. We have heard rumors that the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance will target Robert Dean in their recall efforts. We wish them luck.

The good news is that the media is full of stories of ticked off Michiganders today. Lots of people are talking recalls, not just the MTA.

Michael Lafaive, of the Mackinac Center, put it best in an editorial in the Detroit News today:

"The state Legislature has kicked Michigan while it is down. Government is going to take another $1.48 billion out of the hands of residents and private job providers when they can least afford it -- and do so with a new tax on services, too.

Michigan is already ranked 50th among the states in economic growth. It has the highest unemployment rate (7.4 percent), and our per capita income growth is well below the national average. By one measure, people are moving out of Michigan in near record numbers. And the bad news just got worse.

Lansing's political class has pushed its service tax nose under Michigan's economic tent. Next year, if new revenues do not flow into the treasury at anticipated rates, or if the cost of state government rises, it will be easy to add even more businesses to the 23 now on the state service tax hook.

We should fear for Michigan's future. All the cheerleading by government officials won't overcome the fact that it is more expensive to work, live and invest in the Great Lakes State."

Recall 2007!!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Freedom Rang Across Michigan for 258 Minutes

Our state government shut down this morning at 12:01 am and remained shut down until 4:18am, when two Senate Republicans broke ranks and voted in favor of $1.5 billion in tax increases. Freedom rang across the land for 258 minutes, but alas, the politicians relented and voted to destroy more jobs by raising our state income tax to 4.35% from 3.9%, as well as adding a 6% sales tax to services.

Michigan, the land of the one-state depression, will get even worse. $1.5 billion extracted from the populace and added to the general fund budget is an increase in spending of 18% in one year. That's right, Governor Granholm has increased spending 18% in one year.

We'll have more detail on the vote and the associated reforms later today. We are also attempting to confirm that those who voted in favor of the tax hikes will be recalled.