This Infrastructure Program Ended Up Costing Governments Millions. Trump Might Bring It Back.

States and localities are wary of the president's support for the Build America Bonds program.
BY  APRIL 6, 2017

A popular Obama-era infrastructure financing program may get revived this year as President Trump moves forward on his pledge to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure. But this time around, state and local governments might not be as excited about it.

The program, Build America Bonds (BABs), was created in 2009 as one of many recession-era initiatives aimed at jump-starting the economy. Unlike tax-exempt municipal bonds, BABs are taxable, and, as a result, open up the municipal market to new investors, such as pension funds or those living abroad. But BABs are also more expensive for governments. So to defray the added cost, the federal government offered a direct subsidy of 35 percent of state and local governments' interest payments on BABs.

But the program became a casualty of sequestration: cutbacks in federal subsidies promised under the program left state and local governments scrambling to fill the void. A recent estimate by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois found that so far Illinois and its localities have had to pay out a collective $70 million to offset the higher costs of BABs.

The Week in Public Finance: Trump's Infrastructure Plan, Risky Pensions and NYC's Surprising Fiscal Health

A roundup of money (and other) news governments can use.
BY  JANUARY 13, 2017

How Will Trump's Infrastructure Plan Affect the Economy?

Economic impact estimates are all over the map when it comes to how much of an affect President-elect Donald Trump’s 10-year $1 trillion infrastructure proposal will have on the economy. To that end, two reports came out this week that come to completely different conclusions.

The first, by Georgetown University, says that Trump's plan could create as many as 11 million jobs. However, it cautions, the additional spending in combination with proposed tax cuts and other economic policy shifts could “overheat the economy” by increasing inflation and setting the stage for further interest rate hikes.

The Tax Foundation had a much more modest take. This is partly because the report assessed the varying degrees of economic impact the proposal would have depending on what other policy measures are implemented. The foundation looked at the impact of a theoretical $500 billion investment by the federal government through five funding mechanisms: borrowing, cutting government spending, raising excise taxes, raising the top tax rate on individual income and raising the corporate income tax.

The Week in Public Finance: What the Rate Hike Means, a Legal Win for Online Sales Taxes and More

A roundup of money (and other) news governments can use.
BY  DECEMBER 16, 2016

Movin' On Up

The Federal Reserve announced a short-term interest rate hike on Wednesday, the first one in a year and a move that was largely expected. But what wasn’t on the radar was the Fed's announcement that it plans to raise rates three more times in 2017, up from previous expectations of two rate hikes.

Given the reticence to move rates for most of the last decade, the faster pace for next year has municipal analyst Chris Mauro calling the decision a “rather splashy hawkish surprise.”

The rate hike will move the target interest rate on short-term debt up one-quarter of a percent -- to a range of 0.5 to 0.75 percent. The Fed's previous rate hike was a year ago, and that was the first one in nine years.

The Takeaway: The Fed's plan to raise rates signals that economic growth is accelerating.

This Government Bond Insures Against Failure

The first-ever environmental impact bond gives an agency some of its money back if its idea doesn't pan out.
BY  NOVEMBER 10, 2016

As the drive for accountability in government spending increases, many are looking for ways to keep from paying the full price for programs that don't work.

In Washington, D.C., that desire has led to the first-ever environmental impact bond, issued this fall by DC Water, the city's water and sewer authority. The $25 million bond will pay for new, green infrastructure like rain gardens and permeable pavement to reduce stormwater runoff.

But if the projects don't work as expected, that's where the new financing structure comes in. Under the terms of the bond, which DC Water sold directly to Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group and the nonprofit Calvert Foundation, the utility stands to get a multimillion discount on its total borrowing costs if the project doesn't meet a certain threshold.

It's essentially an insurance policy on the project's effectiveness. Here's how it works: After five years, the new infrastructure will be evaluated. If stormwater runoff isn't reduced by at least 18.6 percent, investors will owe DC Water a $3.3 million "risk share" payment. The payment represents a near-full refund of the 3.43 percent interest rate payments DC Water made during the first five years of the bond. After that, the bonds would likely be refinanced into 25-year bonds. DC Water would also drop green infrastructure projects and go back to so-called gray ones (like pumps and water tunnels) to reduce runoff.

The Week in Public Finance: A New Pension Trend, a Last-Ditch Effort to Hold Lenders Accountable and More

A roundup of money (and other) news governments can use.
BY  MAY 6, 2016

A New Trend in Pension Funding?

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill into law this week that establishes a rainy day fund for the state’s pension system. Called the Pension Improvement Act, the law creates a fund that the state can use to help with its annual pension costs. There are no rules for when to put money in the fund, but the law does say money can only come out via legislative appropriation. It also says that money can only be used to help the state pay its full pension bill in tough economic years or to help fund cost-of-living increases for public employees.

Oklahoma isn’t the only state this year to create a separate fund to help with pension costs. Last month, Kentucky lawmakers started a $125 million permanent fund, which is similarly expected to help the state afford its annual pension payment. The state has asked for independent audits to help determine when the fund should be tapped.

The takeaway: Many states have rainy day funds to help supplement their budgets in years when revenues fall short. Theoretically, those funds could also help with paying a state’s pension bill. But the reality is that pension payments are often the target of cuts in tough economic times. What's more, pensions also lose money from investment losses during economic contractions.