B&G Report: Questionable Credit Ratings, Tax Credit Disclosures and Gas Tax Secrets

Plus more public-sector management news you need to know.
October 23, 2014
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

You’d have to go far to find a taxpayer who is particularly fond of the property tax as a way for cities and schools to raise money. Yet, according to the Council on State Taxation (COST), people are far more willing to comply if they believe their property taxes are fair and efficient. With that in mind, COST has published a new version of an intriguing study, last done in 2011, measuring several elements of property tax administration and management: perceived fairness, transparency and consistency.

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The six states with the lowest rankings turned out to be Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Nevada and Rhode Island. For example, Pennsylvania, Hawaii and Delaware lack standardized forms for the reporting and administration of property taxes. Connecticut has an appraisal cycle that’s longer than most (five years). And in Nevada, property owners “receive notice of secured roll assessments, but appeals information does not have to be included."

The best-ranked state was Oregon, which, by contrast, has thoroughly standardized forms, an annual appraisal cycle and appeals information included in the notice of assessments.

So, it’s not news anymore that North Dakota is rolling in money thanks to its fracking enterprises. Yet its credit rating from Moody’s is Aa1 -- a notch lower than Alaska’s even though declining oil production has hurt Alaska’s economy. Why?

According to a Moody’s statement, even though North Dakota’s oil production has experienced a wild 1,223 percent increase since 2004, “restraining top credit quality is the state’s exposure to the Bank of North Dakota, the state-owned bank that serves both as the state’s financial arm and its economic development agent.” By a unique arrangement, BND is a state-owned institution and by law, North Dakota guarantees all bank deposits. This deal could “entail considerable risk, particularly in the event of steep declines in property values,” according to Moody’s.

“Ceremonies are the first thing to be attended to in the practice of government.” -- Confucius

The Connecticut State Auditor’s Office recently came out with a powerful report about the state’s Department of Revenues. Ordinarily, we might have framed this as an important development likely to result in real changes. But as it turns out, the office made many of the same recommendations two years ago almost entirely without impact.

For example, according to the report, the review indicated that (and please read the entirety of this quote. It’s the last line that’s important), “Performance evaluations were not completed for five managers since 2008. We inquired whether evaluations were completed for other managers who were not in our sample. We were informed that the same situation exists for all managers.”

One of the most hazardous problems cited by the audit was the lack of a strong internal process to make sure that there are controls over procedures and that there’s enforcement to make sure they’re followed. “Nothing functions well unless there are internal checks to make sure it’s working well,” Robert Ward, one of the states two auditors, told us. “This agency has a director of internal audit and one employee who is not in a confidential position.” That means that the department can’t effectively keep track of its own controls, and “then they’re waiting for us to come in,” says Ward.

Why has internal control been so underfunded? Ward states the understandable yet regrettable truth: "When you have so many needs, you put money into direct services instead of ways to run the services well.”

There have been many studies done about the way governments spend money on tax abatements in order to attract new businesses or hang onto companies that are already around. These studies have garnered a fair amount of press. But there's still a significant gap in the information that the states themselves provide about this issue.

Next Monday, Oct. 27, if all goes as planned, the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) will issue a proposal to require disclosure of the amounts that states are forgoing in taxes in order to promote economic development. Naturally, some people will be disappointed. GASB won't be requiring any kind of information that points to the results of these presumptive investments like whether or not abatement actually yielded the number of new jobs promised.

At the same time, we feel pretty certain that there will be pushback from entities that simply don't want to use the resources necessary for any kind of new disclosure.

But arguments or not, we think this can be a very reasonable first step, if for no other reason than that it will help to focus attention on the sheer magnitude of dollars individual states, counties and cities forgo in taxes.

When people complain about the high cost of education, we always wonder whether they’re making any distinction between the price tag for educators as opposed to administrators. Apparently Mississippi’s lieutenant governor, Tate Reeves, has been focusing on just that distinction, pointing to statistics that indicate that some schools are shrinking their instructional spending even as administrative costs rise. Frequently cited numbers show that spending on instruction barely moved from 2008 to 2013 -- it was up just .5 percent, while school administration costs rose by 6.9 percent.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about raising the gas tax in New Jersey in order to pay for catching up with maintenance necessary for the state’s rapidly deteriorating roads (the third worst in the country, according to the Reason Foundation.) This has raised quite a ruckus, as citizens rage at the potential average of $200 a year in additional gas taxes.

But they may not be paying sufficient attention to another number. That’s the roughly $600 that roads in poor repair cost motorists each year. Much of that  goes to replacing cracked rims or damaged suspensions, according to studies cited by New Jersey’s Star-Ledger.

The desperate effort on the part of states to collect sales taxes on Internet transactions hasn’t been entirely successful. But there have been some bright spots. For example, Amazon now does just that in nearly half of the states. The key here is that states in which the company has a physical presence (a call-in center or a warehouse, for example) are allowed to levy these taxes. In almost all of the states in which Amazon has a facility, the state collects sales taxes. Ohio, however is one that doesn’t and there’s a particular irony here.

The Ohio Tax Credit Authority “recently approved tax breaks for Amazon valued at $81 million over 15 years for a subsidiary’s new facility in Ohio,” according to Policy Matters Ohio. Policy Matters goes on to indicate that “the result is tens of millions of dollars a year in lost revenue, hurting Ohio’s ability to finance needed public services and privileging Amazon with a continued price advantage over Main Street Ohio retailers who must collect the tax.”

This decision was made by the state’s taxation department based on 19-year-old case law. We can’t help but wonder whether Ohio will find a way to get around this obstacle and will start taxing Amazon soon.