State and Local Finance and The Future Part II: Debts and Infrastructure, and the Sold Out Future Ranking
In my previous post, I showed how the future of New York City, the rest of New York State and New Jersey have been diminished by retroactive pension enhancements for active and retired public employees, and past pension underfunding. That post contains two spreadsheets with a series of charts and a table that I will continue to refer to here.
This post will talk about the weight on two sides of a seesaw, the negative weight of state and local government debts, and the positive weight of past state and local government capital construction expenditures, investment in public buildings and infrastructure. Older and former residents of a community are on one side of the see-saw, and younger and future residents are on the other. If the older residents bore the weight of more capital investment, while leaving behind less debt to weigh future residents down, the quality of life of those future residents will be lifted up. That essentially describes the condition many in older generations were born into. If, on the other hand, older and former residents contribute less in capital investment, while shifting more debt onto those who follow, the quality of life of younger and future residents of that community will be diminished as their taxes rise. So how have New York City, the Rest of New York State, and New Jersey fared by these measures compared with other states and the U.S. average? Lets look at the charts and table and find out.
Let’s pick up the prior discussion with Chart 7, which presents state and local government debts as a share of residents’ personal income for the United States, New Jersey, California and Illinois. The chart presents the same figures for New York City and the rest of New York State, with the debts of the State of New York allocated between the two parts of the state in proportion to personal income, on the grounds that personal income will be taxed to pay it back.
The data, from the Governments Division of the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that New York’s state and local government debts were much higher than the U.S. average or the other states in 1972, at the close of the infrastructure investment era in the United States, and in 1977 during a dark period for the Northeast in general and New York City in particular. New York’s debts have remained above average ever since.
Much has been made of New Jersey’s precarious fiscal condition, in particular the state’s near bankrupt and debt-riddled transportation trust fund. California is considered by some to be the next Greece, a government whose bankruptcy will cause a global fiscal meltdown, but attention has recently shifted to Illinois, which has an enormous budget deficit. These states, however, have debts that have been close the U.S. average as a percent of their residents’ personal income in recent decades. Illinois’ state and local debts had been below average relative to its residents’ personal income until recently, but are now above average – but still lower than New York City or the Rest of New York State.
In FY 1977 New York City’s state and local debts had soared to 37.6 percent of city residents personal income in the wake of the Lindsey and Rockefeller eras, but by FY 1984 this figure had fallen to just 21.0%. The rest of New York State saw similar decrease in debt as a share of personal income during the period. How was this accomplished? First the city and state stopped borrowing money, in part by allowing the infrastructure – particularly the New York City infrastructure – to fall apart. Total New York City debts fell from $14.9 billion in FY 1977 to $9.9 billion in FY 1981 as old debts were repaid and new ones not added.
Second, however, inflation eroded the fixed value of the debts that had already been incurred. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a dollar in 1977 was worth only 58 cents in 1984 – and the same may be said of the city’s debts. The same inflation reduced the cost of the pensions of public employees who had retired with generous “Tier I” benefits awarded in the late 1960s.
New York’s state and local debts were fairly stable thereafter, until the early 1990s recession when money was borrowed in response to a fiscal crisis. This was the “original sin” of the current “sell the future and flee to Florida” era. It was symbolized by former Governor Mario Cuomo’s plan to have the state borrow money to sell the New York State Thruway to itself. That deal is one reason that money is not available to replace the deteriorating Tappan Zee Bridge, after 50 years of collecting tolls on it. Cuomo, who has been a pro-future Governor to that point, might have believed he would restore fiscal rectitude when the economy improved, something that did happen at the federal level in the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush (Bush I) and Bill Clinton. But Cuomo and his legislative partners were ousted by then.
In New York State, the increase in debt in the early 1990s recession was never paid back when the economy improved during the late 1990s boom, and debts continued to rise in proportion to personal income until the next recession in 2001. Following 9/11, the state’s contribution to New York City’s recovery was even more debt for short term needs, pushing debt as a percent of city residents’ personal income to 36.3% as of fiscal 2005 – nearly as high as in the devastating 1970s fiscal crisis. The MTA was particularly burdened with debt by state policies during the early 1990s recession, the early 2000s recession, and all the years in between.
With the housing bubble throwing off tax revenues, some of those revenues used to pre-pay debt, and personal income increasing, New York City’s state and local debts fell somewhat as a share of city residents’ personal income from FY 2005 to FY 2007, but they have no doubt soared since. The state and local debts of the Rest of New York State, in contrast, have been more or less stable since the mid-1990s as a share of the personal income of the residents of the rest of the state. Yet those debts remain above the U.S. average.
In FY 2007, the table with data for all states shows, New York City’s state and local debts equaled 33.4% of its residents’ personal income, nearly 65 percent higher than the national average of 20.3%. The rest of New York State was also above average at 23.6%. New Jersey was somewhat below average at 19.7%. California was slightly above average at 21.0%. The U.S. federal debt, in comparison, was 75.8% of personal income that year. If New York City had been a separate state, it would have had the highest state and local debts as a percent of personal income in FY 2007, 51st out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia. The rest of the state would have ranked 45th , with New Jersey 32nd.
How about the other side of the see-saw, the public infrastructure and buildings current and future residents received to go along with all that debt? I focus on Capital Construction expenditures, as tabulated by the Census Bureau in Chart 8. Other types of public capital expenditures include land acquisition and equipment purchases, inflated for New York relative to the U.S. average in the latter case by the purchases of subway cars and buses. According to the Consumer Expenditure Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, motor vehicle purchases (net in the case of used car purchases and sales) account for more than 5 percent of U.S. household consumer spending, and with New York City residents owning few cars, they collectively purchase subway cars and buses instead. But city residents still need rail structures and stations, in addition to roads, water and sewer systems, and schools. Did they get them?
In order to allocate the capital construction expenditures of the State of New York between New York City and the rest of the state, I once again allocate in proportion to personal income. This may or may not be accurate, but will have to do to make an order of magnitude comparison possible. Direct capital construction expenditures by the State of New York totaled $7.5 billion in FY 2008, compared with $16.4 billion for local governments in the state, with $9.5 billion of that attributed to the City of New York.
The data in Chart 8 show that aside from a period during the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the city’s worst fiscal crisis, New York City’s state and local capital construction expenditures have exceeded the U.S. average. Aside from a period in the mid-1980s and another one in the last two years, the same is true for the rest of New York State. Capital construction expenditures, in contrast, had been consistently below the U.S. average as a percent in personal income New Jersey, in Illinois, and until recently in California. Whereas the U.S. average, excluding FY 1972 at the close of the infrastructure investment era, has been relatively consistent at 1.7% to 2.2% of personal income, New York City shows two distinct eras – with lower capital construction expenditures as a percent of personal income through the late 1980s and higher such expenditures thereafter.
Shifting to the table, if New York were a separate state its FY 2007 capital construction expenditures, at 2.7% of personal income, would have ranked 10th among the 51 states and DC. The U.S. average was 2.1%, with the rest of New York State also at 2.1%, which would have ranked 26th as a separate state, and New Jersey at 1.6%, which would have ranked 43rd.
Capital construction in just one year, however, is not what determines the quality of life of current and future residents. What matters is capital expenditures over time, and what is received in exchange for those expenditures. With the Census Bureau no longer updating its rex-dac files for all states after FY 2006, I’ve updated them for a few states. During the period from FY 1977 to FY 2008, state and local capital construction expenditures for the U.S. as a whole equaled 2.0% of personal income for the period. Including the years when data is available (not FY 2003 for NYC or FY 2001 and 2003 for other states), the averages are 2.5% of personal income for New York City, 2.1% for the Rest of New York State, 1.8% for California and Illinois and just 1.4% for New Jersey.
Sounds like a relatively bright future for NYC? Not necessarily.
Consider the condition that New York City’s schools, public buildings and infrastructure were in at the start of this period in FY 1977 – heavily deteriorated. In the infrastructure investment era, the federal and state governments directed tax dollars for public works to growing suburban and Sunbelt areas even as in older cities such as New York the infrastructure, which the cities had paid for themselves, deteriorated. What New York City did receive in the period up to the early 1970s was a substantial federal investment in public and publicly subsidized housing.
So in 1977 the urban infrastructure was decrepit, while elsewhere the infrastructure was brand new. The subsequent period of excess investment in New York City has merely raised the condition of its infrastructure to a substandard level. For example, $billions were borrowed to make basic repairs to the New York City schools, but the city’s high schools only have enough seats for its students if a substantial share of them drop out. And while conditions on the subways are not dire right now, none of its signal systems were older than 75 years old when the MTA took over the subways in 1968, but now a substantial and growing share are.
After 31 years of state and local government capital construction at a level that was just 25 percent higher (as a share of income) than the U.S. average, moreover, New York City had state and local debts that were 65 percent higher than the U.S. average. Clearly not all of that debt has been used for capital construction.
Since New York City and large parts of the rest of New York State and New Jersey were already built out in 1977, moreover, much of the capital construction that has occurred here is little more than ongoing normal replacement of existing infrastructure as (or after) it wears out. That is an ongoing expense akin to maintenance, yet has been borrowed for. The risk of this is that eventually interest payments on the debts soak up all the available money, leaving no money to continue ongoing maintenance, let alone long-promised improvement such as ARC, the Second Avenue Subway, and East Side Access.
As Chart 9 shows, before the 1970s and early 1980s “Great Inflation” diminished the real value of its debts, the City of New York was forced to spend far more on interest payments than it did on capital construction. For the State of New York, tabulated separately in this case, this situation persisted as late as FY 1991. Interest payments were a much lower percentage of capital construction expenditures in recent years, but low interest rates receive much of the credit, as Chart 10 shows. For the City of New York, interest payments as a percent of debt outstanding at the end of the year fell from 6.8% percent in fiscal 1989 to just 4.5 percent in fiscal 2008. That can turn around quickly due to actual or perceived inflation, or investor concerns about state and local government defaults. Unfortunately, Wall Street has convinced MTA Board members and state and local politicians to shift to variable rate debt rather than fixed rate debt in recent years, meaning interest cost can explode at any time. One explosion has already occurred, due to dislocations in the “auction rate” bond market.
Then there is the question of what kind of value New York receives for its capital construction dollars. The answer is relatively little, with soaring costs and expanding time frames, since contractors know delays and change orders mean more money for less work. There are a number of factors. “Prevailing wage” laws require construction workers on public projects to be paid union scale, but the union wage tends to be inflated in construction booms. In recession, construction workers work for less, but only “off the books” on non-union jobs, with a wink and a nod, keeping the public cost just as high as during the booms. In addition, contractors may be rigging bids, and the influence of organized crime in the industry is an ongoing concern.
More and more money is spent on consultants. On the Second Avenue Subway, these consultants received $hundreds of millions to produce a detailed design so contractors would not be able to claim changes and cost increases. Despite this, utilities were found in places not in the plans, and contractors delayed the project for years and increased their charges as a result. After 9/11, with they eyes of the world on them, New York City Transit and the city’s construction contractors planned, built and re-opened the #1 subway line south of Chambers Street for well under budget in less than a year. When the public looked away, conditions reverted and construction at the Fulton Transit Center and Ground Zero has dragged on for years as costs have risen.
For whatever reason, even if the New York construction industry needs work, it will not produce infrastructure at a cost New Yorkers can afford. According to a White House Report cited by the New York Times, now is the time for infrastructure investment because so many construction workers are idled and costs can be lower. “With construction companies scrambling for work, the combination of lower-than-expected bids and jobs completed under budget freed up money for additional projects, the report said. For example, the $1.1 billion budgeted for airport and runway improvements in the stimulus package was expected to cover 300 projects, but 367 were approved and financed. In total, the number of highway, airport, bridge and transit projects financed exceeded by more than 2,000 what had been anticipated, the report said.” Not in New York.
Finally, much of New York City’s capital construction investment has been simply to raise its older infrastructure to the standards required by law. Examples include sewage treatment plant upgrades, the water filtration plant, and the hundreds of millions of dollars borrowed just to paint the bridges, due in part of the rising cost of removing lead paint.
The rest of New York State has been just 6.5 percent above average in capital construction as a share of personal income, but was 16.2 percent above average in accumulated debt in FY 2007. Another gap. Many of the state’s older cities face infrastructure problems similar to New York City in the 1970s. And many of its suburban areas are approaching 50 years old, and are beginning to face challenges as well. They will face those challenges with state and local debts that are already well above average.
New Jersey, on the other hand, has been 26.4 percent below the U.S. average in capital construction as a share of its residents’ income over 31 years, a situation that puts the recent debate over the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) rail tunnel cancellation in perspective. That state has simply not invested in its future. Even so, New Jersey’s state and local debts are just 2.9 percent below the U.S. average – another gap. Here, as well, the debt levels are much higher than would be predicted by the low level of capital construction over 31 years. Money has been borrowed to defer taxes into a future that has become the present, one reason New Jersey’s tax burden is now above average as a share of income after having been below average.
Using FY 2007 data alone, I combined debt, capital construction and pension indicators into a “sold out future rank.” I ranked the states for four factors. Taxpayer contributions to the pension funds as a percent of the wages of the state and local government workers, an indicator of how much of one’s taxes go to those retired in Florida rather than producing public services. Pension benefit payments as a percent of pension fund assets, an indicator of how much taxpayer pension contributions may rise in the future. Debt as a percentage of personal income, and FY 2007 capital construction expenditures as a percentage of personal income. The average of these four rankings is the “sold out future rank.”
If New York City had been a separate state, it would have been the worst or close to it in every category save capital construction expenditures, and would have ranked 48 of 51 among the states and DC in the overall “sold out future rank.” The rest of New York State would have ranked 34th, with New York State as a whole at 42nd and New Jersey at 45th. Other states with sold out futures include, going down from the worst, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Louisiana and Pennsylvania.
Virtually the entire Northeast is near the top of the list in having a sold out future. Even though debts and pensions are being measured relative to incomes and public employee wages, both of which are higher than average in the Northeast. The disastrous situation of Rhode Island, clear to anyone paying attention, has received little such attention simply because the state is so small. These are also the states that, a few cities such as New York excluded, young people have been moving out of and new businesses have avoided. So are young people moving out of the Northeast because they realize that existing interests are in control and their future is sold out? Or has the shortage (or in the case of New York City immigrant status or cluelessness) of young people and new business allowed politicians to sell out their future?
Strangely, the foreclosure crisis has revealed how irresponsibly individual families handle their own finances, and here the Northeast states are among the least affected. New York ranked 37th among states in foreclosures in May according to RealtyTrac, with Upstate New York metro areas particularly low. So Northeast families have been less likely to use cash out refinancing and home equity lines of credit to live large in the housing bubble and go broke in the bust. Unlike their politicians.
Regardless, most young people and new businesses perceive that their future would be better elsewhere, and are only willing to locate in the Northeast in unique cities such as New York, and prime transit-connected suburbs, that provide a transit and pedestrian oriented-lifestyle and public amenities that the typical post-1950 American suburb or Sunbelt city lacks. That transit system and those public amenities may be credited to those who lived before the era of Generation Greed. And those public amenities and transit system may be heading downhill thanks to our sold out future.
For all the angst about California, it does well in the sold out future ranking, though that may be misleading as its FY 2007 capital construction expenditures as a percentage of personal income were greater than in past years. Other states with a less sold out future are states people have been moving too, including not only under-populated states with lots of federal largess such as Wyoming, Nebraska and the Dakotas but also states with more diversified economies and growing urban centers, such as Virginia, North Carolina, Washington and Oregon. Also included are states with famously effective governments and positive civic cultures, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The ranking isn’t definitive. Fast growing states with relatively few public employee retirees can get away with underfunding their pension plans for a while, but face devastating consequences later. But it would appear that New York’s best hope is that the damage from our sold out national future, in the public and private sector, will overwhelm the apparent differences between state and local governments. Unlike the 1970s, with every part of the U.S. becoming worse off due to our sold out future, perhaps fewer people will notice that New York’s future has been sold out more than average. And perhaps there will be fewer places to flee to.
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