Reserve Funding

Welcome to Kansas, the bastion of how not to run a state, but claim things are just dandy.  I noted in a prior blog that Kansas has no reserves.  And apparently a $350 million deficit in 2016, a continuing trend for a number of years now.  And bigger deficits to come.  Kansas is the poster child of why cutting taxes a lot does not work.

How did they get here?  The state governor and legislature decided that cutting taxes spurs economic growth.  So if you cut a lot of taxes, you get lots of growth. They cite the Laffer curve, a  totally discredited economic tool drawn on the back of a napkin  by Arthur Laffer at a 1974 dinner to argue why Gerald Ford should not raise taxes.  On the face of it it makes no sense but that has not stopped supply side politicians from using it for nearly 40 years  to cut taxes.  The problem, it is wrong.

Cutting taxes does not spur enough economic growth to make up for the loss in taxes when you go down the Kansas role.  If you s cut them too much, it is really hard to raise them if you run short.  The result is that  economic growth in most of Kansas will be stunted for years due to the lack of investment in Kansans.  Now you would think that Kansans would be up in arms about the poor stewardship by elected officials. But no.  See if you get constant bad news, just stop reporting revenues and deficits.  No news is good news right?  Welcome to Kansas!


The troubling aspect of that is that Governing magazine reports that many state are likely to see less revenue in 2017 vs 2016.  Governing‘s analysis of projected 2017 budget data from the National Association of State Budget Officers shows shows states now have a median 4.9 percent of annual expenditures saved for the fiscal year, down from 5.1 percent the previous year.  Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey and North Dakota have no reserves as of 2017.  They add to Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Montana who had no reserves last year.  And Alaska that is burning though theirs.  Economic and tax policies are to blame.  The Kansas solution to cut taxes to create economic growth has not worked.  The state continues to get farther behind and it is becoming harder to pretend all is well.  Having no reserves is a crazy bad idea.  It is hard to explain just how crazy bad this idea is – it means that if a negative economic issue occurs, these states are in huge trouble unless they start cutting education and other essential services.  The best way to get out of a budget hole is not cutting education – the one thing needed to dig out and attract new economic activity.  Clearly these officials did not learn from 2008-2011 when there reserves were depleted to address the economic downturn. That makes no sense and dooms their residents to a repeat of 2009/2010, only worse.


My cousin  once asked me what I thought about deciding on who to vote for for President might be best done when evaluating how well your 401K or investments did.  Kind of an amusing thought.  In that vein the decisions might be very different than they were.  Clearly your 401k did with with Clinton.  The economy was flat for George W. Bush, and the end of his term was the Great Recession.  Reagan’s first term was flat.  We all know about George H.W. Bush.  Interesting thoughts.  Not so good.  So what about the last 8 years?   But is raises a more interesting issue.  So don’t get me wrong, this blog is not intended to lobby for any candidate (and Obama can’t run), but it is interesting to look at the last 8 years.  They have been difficult.   The economy responded slowly.  Wages did not rebound quickly.  But in comparison to 2008 are we better off?

The question has relevance for utilities because if our customers are better off, that gives us more latitude to do the things we need – build reserves (so we have funds for the next recession), repair/replace infrastructure (because unlike fine wine, it is not improving with age), improve technology (the 1990s are long gone), etc., all things that politicians have suppressed to comport with the challenges faced by constituents who have been un- or under-employed since 2008.

Economist Paul Krugman makes an interesting case in a recent op-ed in the New York times:  (  Basically he summarizes the figure below which shows that unemployment is back to pre-2008 levels, and income is back to that point.  Some income increase would have been good, but this basically tracks with the Bush and Reagan years for income growth – flat.  So the question now is in comparison to 2008 are we worse off that we were?  And if not, can we convince leaders to move forward to meet our needs?  Can we start funding some of the infrastructure backlog?  Can we modernize?  Can we create “smarter networks?”  Can we adjust incomes to prevent more losses of good employees?  Can we improve/update equipment?  All issues we should contemplate in the coming budget.

Krugman Income percent


For the new year, my PUMPS website (not this site) will be undergoing reconstruction.  It has been a few years and some things are out of date.  Instead the focus will be more on rate studies, financial planning and asset management as opposed to all the other issues (like publications).  I will have a separate website for me, with all that stuff since some folks have hit the website looking for it.  My main goal is to partner with some folks and try to help smaller utilities with financial and management issues.  I will be adding work products, including the asset management stuff we are doing in Dania Beach and Davie.  My hope is I  energize PUMPS a bit.  At the same time via FAU, we will be developing a study of utility costs and revenues since 2005, with emphasis on the impact of the 2008-2009 Recession.  This will be instructive  – and be an update to the 1997 and 199 studies I did (hard to believe they were so long ago).  We will be looking nationally, as well as at different types of treatment, location and size.  The idea will be to develop some tools to help utilities benchmark where they are in the bigger picture, and to help with identifying trends and potential missing issues.  COnncection rates and asset  is improtant to insure hte timely renewal and repalcement of critical infrastrucutre.  After all, the people who get fired when things go wrong with a utility are not the politicians – its us!.  I will be solicitng (or my studnet will) data from over 300 utilities across the country.  If you are interested, or have clients who might be, let me know.  I have tnatively discussed publication with AWWA – but it won’t jsut be water.  Resue, wastewater etc will be included.  Should be fun!  Look for the results next summer!!

Most states were doing pretty well before the 2008 recession hit, but that ended in 2009. Most states had to make extremely difficult cuts or raise taxes, which was politically unacceptable. Of course invested pension systems received a lot of attention as their value dropped and long term sufficiency deteriorated, which was fodder for many changes in pensions, albeit not how they were invested. The good news is a lot of them came back in the ensuing 5 years, but 2015 may be different. A number of states have reported low earnings in 2015 and whether this may be the start of another recession. The U.S. economy has averaged a recession every six years since WWII and it has been almost seven years since the last contraction. With China devaluing their currency, this may upset the economic engine. At present there are analysts on Wall Street who suggest that some stocks may be overvalued, just like in 1999. If so, that does not bode well states like Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, Louisiana, Alaska and Pennsylvania that are dealing with significant imbalances between their expenses and incomes. Alaska has most of its revenue tied to oil, so when oil prices go down (good for most of us), it is a huge problem for Alaska that gives $2200 to every citizen in the state. An economic downturn portends poorly for the no tax, pro-business experiment in Kansas that has been unsuccessful in attracting the large influx of new businesses, or even expansion of current ones. California and next door Missouri, often chided by Kansas lawmakers as how not to do business, outperform Kansas.

Ultimately the issue that lawmakers must face at the state and as a result the local level is that tax rates may not be high enough to generate the funds needed to operate government and protect the states against economic down turns. There is a “sweet spot” where funds are enough, to deal with short and long term needs, but starving government come back to haunt these same policy makers when the economy dips.   It would be a difficult day for a state to declare bankruptcy because lawmakers refuse to raise taxes and fees.

Your grandma always told you to save money for a rainy day.  She wasn’t really talking about rainy days, but days when you had less or no income.  The press talks about the huge percentage of Americans that have little or no savings, and how compared to other countries, we are at a disadvantage during economic times.  A huge problem is that the same argument can be translated to governments, which must provide services, and often more services during economic downturns.  But if they have no savings, how are they to accomplish this?  They do not want to raise taxes and fees in down situations, so won’t the loss of services just make things worse?

A recent PEW reports suggests that states “had about half the reserves necessary to address budget gaps during the first year of the Great Recession.  The 50 states had about $60 billion set aside in the summer of 2008, but in fiscal 2009, budget gaps across the country totaled $117 billion, about twice what states had in reserve. The budget gaps continued to grow in 2010 and many states struggled with shortfalls for years afterward.  Bad news, but the news really does not improve.  They report that 37 states have legal caps that prevent them from saving enough to weather recessions or even enough to substantially offset revenue losses, and most of those are based on some percentage of the prior year’s revenues.  Why?  Short-term views?  Most governments figure on keeping enough cash on hand to pay bills during tax seasons. That accounts for 60-90 days of funds.  Far too little for dealing with economic impacts.  Far too few state governments recognize the importance of saving, figuring that cutting taxes during time of plenty and giving back to taxpayers is a better use of funds.  Then it is someone else’s issue when the next economic hiccup occurs – and it will.  Unless you raise your cap now as Minnesota and Virginia have recently done.

But the issue is not just a state issue.  It is a local and a utility issue as well.  Local governments are closer to the ground, have less leeway in their budgets and often have far too little funding as a result of resistance to raising property taxes, user fees and over-dependence on state shared sales tax, which often drops precipitously during a recession.  Same goes for sin and gas tax dependence.  When people slow smoking, or as oil prices drop, so do revenues.  Ask Alaska, Louisiana, Kansas, Texas, North Dakota and others that are oil rich states about their budget this past year.  The legislatures were begging Grover Norquist to let them out of their no tax increase pledges.  He said no of course, because he doesn’t want government to function properly.  So those legislators were stuck in the either “do the right thing” or “get whacked by Grover in the next election” conundrum.  You know what they did because they want to get re-elected  That doesn’t help the citizens of those states.  Standard & Poor’s revised its outlook on Alaska’s general obligation and appropriation-backed debt from stable to negative. That will cost them in the future. St. Louis, Moody’s downgraded the city’s credit rating one step to A1, citing “the city’s weak socioeconomic profile; reliance on earnings taxes which are due for voter reauthorization in 2016.”  Diversity in industry and taxes is beneficial.  Too often this gets lost in the desire to do more with less, but doing more means you need more funding!  And you need to collect those savings as grandma counselled!

Earlier this year the Journal for AWWA had several articles about water use and infrastructure needs.  One of the major concerns that has arisen in older communities, especially in the Rust Belt and the West is that demands per person have decreased.  There are a number of reasons for this –the 1992 Energy Policy Act changes to plumbing codes that implemented low flush fixtures, the realization in the west that water supplies are finite and conservation is cheaper than new supplies, a decline in population, deindustrialization, and climate induced needs.  But all add up to the result that total water use has not really changed over the past 30 years and in many locales, water sales may have decreased.  Water utilities rely on water sales for revenues so any decrease in sales must be met with an increase in cost.  Price elasticity suggests the increase will be met with another decrease in sales, etc.  It is a difficult circle to deal with.  So less water, whether through deliberate water conservation or other means, creates a water revenue dilemma for utilities.  A concern about conserving to much and eliminating slack in the system also results.

Less water means less money for infrastructure.  Communities do not see a need for new infrastructure because there are fewer new people to serve.  Replacing old infrastructure has always been a more difficult sell because “I already have service, why should I be paying for more service” is a common cry, unless you are in my neighborhood where the water pipes keep breaking and we are begging the City to install new lines (they are on my street J)  Educating customers about the water (and sewer) system are needed to help resident understand the impacts, and risk they face as infrastructure ages.  They also want to understand that the solutions are “permanent” meaning that in 5 or 10 years we won’t be back to do more work.  Elected officials and projected elected officials (the tough one) should be engaged in this discussion because they should all be on the same page in selling the ideas to the public.  And the needs are big.  We are looking at $1 trillion just for water line replacement by 2050 and that is probably a low number(2010 dollars).  The biggest needs are in the south where infrastructure will start hitting its expected life.  The south want west will also be looking for about $700 billion in growth needs as well.  All this will cause a need for higher rates, especially with ¼ less low interest SRF funds avaialalbe this year from Congress.

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