Fiscal Federalism and Tax Effort in the U.S. States

This is a review of Fiscal Federalism and Tax Effort in the U.S. States (2008) by Sean Nicholson-Crotty. State Politics and Policy Quarterly 8 (summer): 109-126. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Putting it all together, Nicholson-Crotty is telling us that federal grants-in-aid are little more than a redistribution of the income tax burden from liberal states to conservative ones.

The federal government gives billions of dollars to the 50 state governments as grants-in-aid, whether to fund schools, Medicaid, or whatever. The idea is this: The federal government gives states extra money so that they will increase spending in a particular area without having to cut spending elsewhere. But is that what really happens?

Nicholson-Crotty presents evidence that it does not. Instead, he finds that states (indirectly) refund a significant proportion of federal funds to state taxpayers. When states receive money from the federal government, they use it to reduce state tax rates.

More precisely, Nicholson-Crotty finds that an increase in grant monies (X) leads to a decrease in the state’s taxation effort (Y), a measure (from the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations) of the state’s effective tax rate relative to the amount of money the state government could (hypothetically) tax. As X goes up, Y goes down.

This doesn’t mean that states don’t spend the money the way Congress wanted it spent. But it does mean that the states are cutting their own spending in the particular area, and possibly in other areas, keeping the state’s overall spending somewhat constant despite the influx of federal funds.

Now, this relationship isn’t perfect. Nicholson-Crotty considers three factors that might affect the extent to which federal monies simply get returned to state taxpayers.

  1. First, the type of grant. An unconditional grant gets refunded to taxpayers at the highest rate.
    A matching grant (wherein the state receives more federal money if it spends more of its own money on the program) gets refunded to taxpayers at the lowest rate.
  2. Oversight. If Congress exercises lots of oversight about a particular grant program, we might expect a different pattern. (But it turns out, in the final analysis, that oversight matters little.)
  3. Preferences. State governments that have a strong prior preference for a Medicaid-style program will be more inclined to spend the federal government’s money without cutting money elsewhere.

As always, there are several control variables derived from previous work, such as partisanship, fiscal centralization, wealth within each state, urbanization, tax/spending limits, and election year effects.

And as always, there are a few methodological shortcomings in this article. Nicholson-Crotty addresses two–missing data and endogeneity–and applies reasonable remedies. The endogeneity issue is interesting; federal money is most likely to go to those states that are most likely to spend it–that is, to liberal states.

A third, which he does not discuss, is that his first intermediate variable (grant type) does not vary sufficiently. He examines only matching grants. Although the level of matching varies (from $.50 on the dollar to $.77), I would like to see more variance here. This is a bigger oversight than you might think. Given NIcholson-Crotty’s findings, members of Congress might like to know what they can do to minimize the problem and ensure that federal grants have the intended effects. An easy solution implied by the article is to switch from block grants to matching grants with a highly elastic matching rate–but this article does not directly tell us how much we can gain from such a change.

The political implications of this study are broader than the author seems to realize. To see why, consider these two points from the article:

  • When discussing endogeneity problems, he tells us that federal money is mostly likely to go to the “tax and spend” states.
  • When discussing his results, he tells us that a major effect of federal grants is to reduce a state’s tax burden; the state gets to have the same amount of spending (or a little more) as before, but at the expense of taxpayers in other states.

Putting it all together, Nicholson-Crotty is telling us that federal grants-in-aid are little more than a redistribution of the income tax burden from liberal states to conservative ones. No wonder Republicans have been so interested in their “devolution revolution.”

For other views on the “devolution revolution,” see here and here.

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One Comment

  1. Toni Unregistered
    Posted April 5, 2009 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    “…federal money is most likely to go to those states that are most likely to spend it–that is, to liberal states.” Very interesting point.

    I’ve spent the day researching how to get a grant to build a community garden in my neighborhood, considering how much garbage there is when you search for the word “grant” on the internet I have tried to limit my search to just political sites talking about grants or other intelligible information. After reading your article here and several other sites. I’m pretty sick of hearing how well the liberals are working the system these days and hope an end is coming soon.

    I’m currently living in a very liberal state (after living in an extremely conservative state for 11 years.) I would feel guilty asking for a grant at this point. I’m also pretty sick, considering how much debt the Obama administration is incurring right now. I read an article entitled the “Rampant Spending of American Tax dollars” at [link] sufficed to say, a sickening and sobering look at the debt we are encurring for future generations.

    I know it is unrealistic to think federal funding, grants and other favors (earmarks) will not always be an intrinsic part of the American economy but it needs to be seriously overhauled.