Archive for July, 2015

In the U.S., states have full authority over local government. Some states strictly centralize power and leave local government little to do. For instance, Hawaii has a single school district for the entire state, so that different localities cannot choose to spend different amounts on the government schools. Michigan effectively has a similar system, because it requires every school district to spend the same amount of money per student and redistributes tax funds across districts to make that possible. Vermont has also centralized school funding.

At the other end of the spectrum, states like New Hampshire let local governments pretty much decide their own level of funding for schools and other programs (about half of all local spending in the U.S. goes toward schools), and towns differ widely. If you want to live in a low-tax, low-spending town or a high-tax, high-spending town, it isn’t terribly difficult to find one. In the middle are states like Texas, where local governments are responsible for their own tax and spending decisions, but the most important level of local government is the county, much larger than the town, and it is therefore difficult to choose where to live based on local taxes and services.

Can we measure how decentralized each state is? I’ve tried to do so. The first measure of decentralization looks at how important local taxes are compared to state taxes. It divides local taxes by state and local taxes put together. This is a familiar variable to scholars of “fiscal federalism,” and it is typically called “tax decentralization.” Here is how the states rank on tax decentralization, as of fiscal year 2011-12, the most recent year for which data on local taxes are available from the U.S. Census Bureau:

New Hampshire 0.62475539
Alaska 0.584999114
Texas 0.555497037
Colorado 0.5420195
New York 0.540915308
Louisiana 0.520062304
South Dakota 0.514664958
Florida 0.508526077
New Jersey 0.503867865
Georgia 0.502739018
Missouri 0.490816162
Nebraska 0.486587041
Rhode Island 0.483462474
Ohio 0.47233672
Virginia 0.468452418
Illinois 0.466955731
Wyoming 0.465238453
South Carolina 0.459566438
Maryland 0.451067476
Pennsylvania 0.449406333
Arizona 0.440699694
Iowa 0.437082825
Oregon 0.434834984
Kansas 0.434319401
Washington 0.431347838
Wisconsin 0.423486277
Tennessee 0.421965652
Utah 0.420621904
Maine 0.411333699
Massachusetts 0.398031363
Connecticut 0.397670719
Montana 0.389680799
California 0.387518844
Nevada 0.383740954
Oklahoma 0.383081024
New Mexico 0.382245601
Alabama 0.382121115
North Carolina 0.366066432
Michigan 0.361458412
Indiana 0.352963108
Kentucky 0.33512693
Idaho 0.325219717
North Dakota 0.312465478
Mississippi 0.306727915
West Virginia 0.29895431
Minnesota 0.282530032
Hawaii 0.258739008
Arkansas 0.220173834
Delaware 0.215201394
Vermont 0.152464302

This isn’t the only way we can measure decentralization, though. After all, some states have more “competing jurisdictions” from which a prospective homeowner can choose than others do. To get at this concept was a little more complicated. I first counted the number of county, municipal, and township governments for each state from the U.S. Census Bureau. Then I looked at what proportion of local taxes came from each level of government and created a weighted average of number of local governments for each state. So if a state had 100 towns, 10 counties, 0 townships, and towns raised 20% of local taxes, while counties raised 80% of local taxes, the formula for the weighted average would be 10*0.8+100*0.2. The formula “rewards” states for letting lower-level, more numerous governments raise more taxes.

Then I thought about the decision of a homeowner in choosing a government to live under. Typically, your general location is set by where you have a job, say, a metropolitan area. But there may be several jurisdictions in that metro area to choose from. So I divided the “effective number of competing jurisdictions” described in the last paragraph by the state’s privately owned land area in square miles and multiplied by 100. So the resulting variable is the effective number of competing jurisdictions per 100 square miles of privately owned land. Higher values mean there is a lot of choice among governments.

Here is how the states come out on this variable measuring choice among governments:

New Jersey 5.619216533
Massachusetts 4.644661232
Pennsylvania 4.458726121
Rhode Island 4.016477858
Connecticut 3.634408602
Vermont 3.315789474
New York 2.934484963
New Hampshire 2.529344945
Wisconsin 2.189851779
Illinois 1.823655675
North Dakota 1.699505873
Delaware 1.586429725
Ohio 1.522032431
Maine 1.515194346
South Dakota 1.21988394
Missouri 1.105963152
Iowa 1.092652689
Indiana 0.972491305
Michigan 0.968708835
Kentucky 0.818674996
Minnesota 0.789141489
Arkansas 0.724807709
West Virginia 0.709066369
Oklahoma 0.693505752
Alabama 0.684705931
Georgia 0.551970462
North Carolina 0.535369811
Tennessee 0.506450581
Maryland 0.49052107
Kansas 0.479065166
Virginia 0.475682594
Florida 0.453352937
Nebraska 0.444783283
South Carolina 0.431428983
Louisiana 0.427531008
Utah 0.382243912
Mississippi 0.375744252
Washington 0.373979057
Texas 0.326573652
California 0.301273953
Colorado 0.284535146
Idaho 0.275746556
Oregon 0.273392409
Arizona 0.094351369
New Mexico 0.087975845
Montana 0.077669113
Hawaii 0.070909413
Wyoming 0.058851844
Alaska 0.042298043
Nevada 0.036335668

In general, the northeastern states score highly, largely because of a historical legacy of strong town government.

We can multiply both variables, tax decentralization and effective number of competing jurisdictions per 100 sq mi, together to get a single measure of how decentralized each state is.

New Jersey 2.831342639
Pennsylvania 2.003779755
Rhode Island 1.941816321
Massachusetts 1.848720839
New York 1.587307839
New Hampshire 1.580221888
Connecticut 1.44529788
Wisconsin 0.927372178
Illinois 0.851566468
Ohio 0.718911807
South Dakota 0.627831517
Maine 0.623250495
Missouri 0.54282459
North Dakota 0.531036915
Vermont 0.505539528
Iowa 0.477579724
Michigan 0.350147957
Indiana 0.343253553
Delaware 0.341401889
Georgia 0.277497088
Kentucky 0.274360038
Oklahoma 0.265668894
Alabama 0.261640594
Florida 0.23054179
Minnesota 0.22295617
Virginia 0.222834661
Louisiana 0.222342761
Maryland 0.221258101
Nebraska 0.216425781
Tennessee 0.21370475
West Virginia 0.211978447
Kansas 0.208067296
South Carolina 0.198270281
North Carolina 0.195980916
Texas 0.181410696
Washington 0.161315058
Utah 0.160780162
Arkansas 0.159583693
Colorado 0.154223598
Oregon 0.118880584
California 0.116749334
Mississippi 0.115251251
Idaho 0.089678217
Arizona 0.041580619
New Mexico 0.03362838
Montana 0.030266162
Wyoming 0.027380141
Alaska 0.024744317
Hawaii 0.018347031
Nevada 0.013943484

New Jersey is the state where the taxpayer has the most choice of government. While local property taxes are generally high there, that may simply reflect the preferences of local homeowners who want to spend money on services. It would be unsurprising if there are also some local jurisdictions in New Jersey where taxes are especially low.

In general, northeastern states, which are mostly left of center and high-tax, have a heretofore unseen advantage in their fiscal systems, letting competing local governments do much or even most of the taxation, making them responsive to local property owners. Perhaps it is precisely because of that responsiveness that overall tax burdens are allowed to be high in some of these states (New Hampshire aside): homeowner voters are more content with the way government uses their tax money there.

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