Public Money

The Always Tricky Reverse-Commuter Tax

The commuter tax is a tricky one. Many big cities struggle with meeting the needs of thousands of workers who flood downtown every day and then head home to the suburbs (where they’re actually taxed) at night. But other places struggle with the exact opposite problem: capturing revenue from residents who live in the city but commute out to the ’burbs to work. When residents work in suburbs, the whole city misses out on essential revenue -- in many places the city income tax is the largest single source of revenue. Two variations on the reverse-commute hurdles -- one in Michigan and the other in Kansas -- show just how complicated the issue can be.

In Michigan, Detroit levies a tax on outward-bound commuters, but only 15 percent of them actually pay the self-reported tax. The loss adds up, because 62 percent of Detroit residents commute out to the suburbs, according to the nonprofit Citizens Research Council of Michigan. READ MORE

CFOs Are Movin' On Up

Dick Costolo, Twitter’s chief executive officer, announced in June he would be leaving the company. Few were surprised. Twitter’s stock price had fallen nearly 30 percent and shareholders were eager for a change. One initial favorite to succeed Costolo was Anthony Noto, Twitter’s chief financial officer and former CFO of the National Football League. (At press time, a new CEO had not yet been named.)

Of course, unless you’re into Silicon Valley corporate intrigue, you probably don’t care who the next “Top Tweeter” is. But the Costolo-Noto story is noteworthy, because it shows that in some major companies today the CFO has a clear path to become CEO. In fact, in the past few months AMC Theatres, Siemens, BASF, Sprouts Farmers Markets and Blue Earth, among others, all hired a CEO from the CFO ranks. It seems that a growing number of corporate boards not only want traditional CEO skills like decisive decision-making and persuasive communication, but also the dispassionate, reflective, analytical leadership style we associate with CFOs. READ MORE

Municipal Bondholders Beware

Four cities emerged from bankruptcy court this past year, and in each case, their road to fiscal stability was paved not with cuts to the pensions of firefighters, teachers and other local government employees, but to the wallets of bondholders who had invested in those cities. In California’s San Bernardino, Stockton and Vallejo, and in Detroit, bondholders faced losses of up to 99 percent of their holdings, according to Moody’s Investor Services. In the bankruptcy resolutions in all three California cities, the courts preserved full pensions for retirees, while in Detroit pensions were cut only by about 18 percent.

This has neither ensured nor clarified the future fiscal sustainability of those cities or for others with structural debt problems. It has merely perpetuated concerns that cities have found a get-out-of-jail-free card. In May, Moody’s sharply downgraded Chicago’s credit rating, attributing the decision almost entirely to the city’s pension liabilities for its teachers and its inability to pay for schools. Should the Illinois Legislature grant Chicago and other municipalities access to bankruptcy, many fear that municipalities’ political inabilities to rein in pension liabilities could trigger future bankruptcy court decisions that, as in California and Michigan, would have repercussions for municipal bondholders throughout the nation. READ MORE

Are Muni Bonds an Income Equalizer?

Income inequality has reemerged as the central issue in American politics. States and localities across the country are considering a variety of responses, including raising the minimum wage, enacting rent control and expanding affordable housing. But how will we pay for these responses?

Advocates for the “99 percent” have built a simple and compelling story: They blame their situation on taxes, the super-fortunate “1 percent” and a broken promise. For decades, the story goes, the lower and middle classes permitted the rich to pay less than their fair share of federal taxes. More money in the private economy was supposed to mean stronger economic growth, more jobs and better opportunities for everyone else. But instead of reinvesting in America, the 1 percenters took the money and ran. Now the 99 percent want to put an end to tax exemptions, credits and other “tax preferences” that have done little to help them. READ MORE

Municipal Bankruptcy's New Rulemakers

Neither Congress nor the Obama administration had a response -- or even words of support -- when two large U.S. cities lurched into bankruptcy two years ago. And there still isn’t a response now as Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, heads in that direction.

Well, that’s not entirely true. As Congress completed its 2016 budget resolution in May, it included for the first time in U.S. history a provision of singular discrimination. It barred so-called “bailouts” to municipal corporations, cities and counties -- none of which have ever been “bailed out” -- while leaving unchanged support for federal bailouts of nongovernmental corporations, such as major Wall Street banks and automobile companies. READ MORE