In terms of determining just how massive the potential ticking time bombs of state debt and dependence on federal government subsidy are, there are few groups as useful as State Budget Solutions. The advocacy group recently released two studies to which those who run for office in Maryland should be paying particular attention.
First of all, SBS annually calculates the total amount of state debt each state labors under as it tries to get the financial house in order. While Maryland’s debt is nowhere near as unmanageable as that of other states like California – which is nearly $800 billion in the long-term hole – their $94.2 billion unfunded liability is nothing to sneeze at. Of that $94 billion, SBS determined that $68.3 billion was unfunded public pension liabilities, $16.5 billion was outstanding bond debt, and $9.4 billion in what they call OPEB liabilities, described as “mainly retiree health care.” Considering our latest budget proposal for FY2015 is just a shade under $40 billion, the debt we are carrying could theoretically take our entire state budget for the next 29 months or so.
SBS slices and dices up these numbers for every state, and in comparison to some others Maryland doesn’t look that bad – while their overall debt is 14th in the country, it’s only 20th per capita. We rank just ahead of Virginia on the overall debt, but Virginia’s per capita debt is just 41st. On the other hand, while Delaware’s overall debt is 43rd by virtue of its small size, their per capita debt ranks ahead of Maryland as Delaware is 17th.
The second study comes at a time when federal influence in state budgets is at an all-time high. The good people at SBS determined that the average state received 31.6% of its budget in the form of transfers from Uncle Sam. Surprisingly, Maryland is just a little below that mean as they only get 30.25% of their money directly from Washington, D.C. Obviously this doesn’t tell the whole story because so many of Maryland’s workers are employed by the federal government so they get the transfer from a middleman who might be a lowly clerical employee or a high-ranking Cabinet officer – as long as they reside in Maryland, the state derives some of its revenue indirectly from the federal government that way.
All this is made more interesting by the fact that Virginia received the third-lowest share from the federal government, with just 23.53% of state funds being federally-supplied. Delaware was also very low in the rankings, getting only 24.46% from the federal government. (The highest was Mississippi at 45.35%, lowest Alaska at 19.98%.)
But imagine the nation trimming its sails to Alaska’s level: we would save about $51 billion annually.
Of course, the idea of block-granting various functions to the states using federal money has strong appeal to conservatives who believe the states could best determine how to spend their money. All that is true, but I never cared for the idea of government as pass-through conduit. To me it would be better just to have the state do all the work.
I’m hoping the four gubernatorial candidates on our side are familiar with this group’s work because they could all stand to benefit from the insight.
Remember last year when the Obama campaign came up with the idea for “Julia”, a fictional woman who was supposed to represent how Obama made life better for women everywhere? (You know, that phony, made-up ‘War on Women’ and all that.) I wrote about this about a year ago.
Well, one year later the good folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute came up with the idea of “Julius”, a black worker affected by Big Labor and its policies and politics. It’s well worth the three minutes of your time to watch. I’ll wait.
While the account is fictional, the problems being caused by these policies are not. Yet the liberals never seem to learn – they seem to think that just one more increase in the minimum wage will do the trick, or one more revenue hike will lead to the proper “investments” of taxpayer money. And the golden goose will never stop a-layin’.
All these ideas, though, defy logic.
For example, the idea of paying just minimum wage is that of giving someone who doesn’t have a high skill level and is not all that valuable to the employer the amount which has to be given by an artificially-created law which has no relation to the actual market. If someone’s labor is worth $7.25 an hour to the company and no more, well, then that person will be a minimum wage hire. But if the minimum wage is $10 an hour – and they’ve tried to do this in Maryland on a couple of occasions – there’s no reason to hire someone who’s still only worth $7 or $8 an hour to the compamy because it would be unprofitable in the long run. That’s the point made in the video. (One thing not mentioned is that the reason unions push for minimum wage increases is because many labor contracts are pegged to maintaining a salary point a certain percentage or dollar figure above the minimum, which means automatic but unearned and non-negotiated wage increases for their workers if the minimum wage goes up.)
But if there were no minimum wage, all it would mean is that the labor market would find its level. Arguably, this is one problem which is blamed on illegal immigration and the penchant to work on a cash or “under the table” basis – they could be happy with $5 an hour if taxes aren’t taken out and there’s no need for a Social Security number.
Taken to its opposite extreme, what if there were a maximum wage and no one could work for more than, say, $20 an hour? What incentive would anyone have to succeed knowing they could only reach a certain level, and what enjoyable parts of life would we have to do without given the artificial limit of $800 a week for 40 hours of labor? That’s only $41,600 a year before taxes. To me, having a minimum wage is just as unrealistic as having a maximum one – and don’t get me started on the idiocy presented by the so-called “living wage.”
Without a minimum wage, would employers try to take advantage and pay, say, $5 an hour? (Ironically, that was my hourly wage on my first job in 1986 – one Lincoln per hour.) Some would, but in time these low-level employers would find that the labor pool willing to take that kind of wage would leave a lot to be desired, so they would have to increase their offerings to find better workers. On the other hand, in places where labor is in high demand, like the oil-rich portions of North Dakota, even workers at menial jobs get double-digit hourly pay. (Incidentally, North Dakota is a right-to-work state.) Once the employment market levels out there, that boom will slow down and wages will come back to a particular supportable level for both employers and employees, with those who work in the oil fields remaining on the top of the wage totem pole because their work is more valuable to their employer than a guy flipping burgers at the local fast food joint, as it should be.
But there is one entity which will never settle for the minimum wage, and that’s government. Living in a state which seems to be the leader in one category above all else – tax and fee increases – it always seems as though Big Labor is right behind them every time the state wants a little more out of our pockets. Perhaps this is more understandable in the case of increasing the gas tax, as those unions involved in construction moaned and complained that we hadn’t increased the tax in over two decades. (To which I replied: so?) Supposedly, the additional jobs created by building new infrastructure – even as frivolous as new light rail mass transit lines will eventually be – will assist in jump-starting the state economy.
Again, however, this is a case of gaming the market and not allowing it to seek its own level. Granted, to use the example above, we do need to improve our roads and transportation infrastructure but there were other methods of doing so and more productive ways to spend the money. Nor does this count the other tax increases we have endured over the last half-decade on income and sales taxes, additional fees, and various other methods of vacuuming our hard-earned dollars out of our greedy little fingers and into the deserving coffers of the state for “investment.” Instead of each of the six million or so Marylanders making their own decisions on where to spend, they get part of their check confiscated from them so the state can transfer wealth from flush to impoverished, taking a decent-sized cut for themselves in the process and producing nothing. Julius is the one left poorer for it.
In the video, Julius reaches what’s supposed to be his golden years without a pension because his company was driven to bankruptcy by the union he didn’t belong to. Unfortunately, the creation of promises over a generation – without the actual funding to back them up – are poised to harm both union and non-union retirees alike. Public pension funds nationwide on the aggregate have a funding gap between assets and promised benefits estimated at around $1,000,000,000,000. (That’s one trillion dollars, or about 3/10 of our annual federal budget.) While that pales next to the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare, this is still a vast sum which in all likelihood won’t be made whole without rampant inflation or a significant devaluation of the dollar.
Perhaps it’s a good plan for those under 50 to plan on a retirement – if leaving a job is even a possibility in that distant of a future – without either Social Security or Medicare because neither can survive in their present form. Simply put, they aren’t taking in as much as they are putting out. A half-century or more of promises and IOUs was never addressed because people thought the good times would last and last while the bill never arrived. That simply defies common sense, and here’s your invoice.
We don’t know what happened to “Julius” but I’m sure a lot of people can guess the rest – he dies a pauper, having done things the way he was told to do and getting no reward for it because other special interests figured out how to prime the political pump and have the system rigged in their favor. This all can be changed, but it will take a long-term concerted effort and there will be some bitter, bitter medicine to swallow in the interregnum.
As the son of a former union worker whose plant was a casualty of the recession of the early 1990s and a mom who worked for over 20 years to help support the family, I can understand just where this was coming from. My mom might not agree, but I hope she has a happy Mother’s Day nonetheless.