Public Money

Bonds and the BFF Problem

The Beatles let us know that we all “get by with a little help from our friends.” Those nine words from the Awesome Foursome capture the essence of the American municipal bond market. Some new developments, however, could redefine how friends help state and local governments get by in the muni market. 

Like all markets, the municipal bond market is about buyers and sellers. The sellers are cities, counties, schools and other public entities that need to borrow money to build roads, bridges, hospitals and other major projects. The buyers are wealthy individuals, property-casualty insurance companies, mutual funds and others who like muni bonds for their secure, tax-free income. In concept, this market is simple and predictable. READ MORE

Double Whammy

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio described social inequality in his inaugural address as a “quiet crisis” on par with fiscal collapses, crime waves and terrorist attacks. He said income disparity was a struggle no less urgent to confront.

Unfortunately, it’s not being confronted, especially in cities where the “quiet crisis” is leading to bankruptcy. These cities have disproportionate levels of poverty, minorities, crime and deteriorating tax bases. With each attempt to balance their budgets, they are forced to reduce essential public services. That, in turn, leads those who can afford it, to leave—further exacerbating an eroding tax base and forcing even more cuts in essential public safety services. Each round of departures results in a smaller and poorer population and tax base. READ MORE

This Annual Financial Report Says What?

It’s hard to see the bright side to the financial upheaval in Detroit and other distressed governments. But if there is one, it’s that taxpayers, journalists and others are starting to pay attention to government financial statements. In a prescient comment, a group of accounting professors once said our model for government financial reporting is—with apologies to Kevin Costner—“if you build it, they will come.” In this case the “it” is not a baseball stadium in a cornfield. It’s a set of financial statements chock full of details about a government’s financial inner workings. And the “they” is not baseball fans. It’s people who actually read those statements. Thanks to Detroit and other distressed cities, the “they” are starting to arrive. 

As new users come into the fold we’re reminded that the defining feature of government financial reporting is complexity. A typical state or municipality’s comprehensive annual financial report, or CAFR, is hundreds of pages long and different parts of it follow different accounting assumptions. Critics say this is because those that set accounting standards are too ambitious. Others say it’s because government financial operations are enormously sophisticated, so reporting on those operations is inescapably complex. READ MORE

Why Paying for Public Colleges Really Pays Off

States are finally starting to see increasing revenues. Whether this windfall is temporary or represents a sustained recovery, it is a welcome change and allows governors and state legislators to make different governing choices than they have been able to for nearly half a decade.

One area that will surely garner public leaders’ attention will be higher education. The options range from whether to privatize state universities and get out of the business altogether, to whether to make it free, as Oregon is doing. READ MORE

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California Pension System Tests New Money-Saving Strategy

What does grocery store chain Krogers and the California Public Employees' Pension System (CalPERS) have in common? The world's fourth largest retailer and the country's largest pension system are trying to tame health-care costs by using something called "reference pricing."

What is reference pricing? It is a variation on price caps: The payer, in this case Kroger or CalPERS, sets the price it will pay for, say, hip replacement surgery or an MRI. Beneficiaries are free to pick any provider they wish to use, but if the price is above the one the payer set (the reference price), the consumer pays the difference. Reference pricing is used mainly for prescription drugs, imaging tests and elective procedures where providers are widely available and there is not much variation in quality. READ MORE