Category Archives: News

Tax Act Impact on Virginia: 5,782 Jobs

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018 will create 218,000 full-time equivalent jobs across the United States this year, asserts the center-right Tax Foundation, which specializes in analyzing the impact of tax policy on the U.S. economy.

Using its Taxes and Growth econometric model, the Tax Foundation provided a job-creation estimate for each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. In Virginia, predicts the model, the economic stimulus of corporate and personal income tax reform will create 5,782 jobs.

That number compares to 20,100 total jobs created between Dec. 2017 and May 2018, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Annualized, Virginia was on track for creating 48,200 jobs in 2018, suggesting that the tax cuts are accounting for about 12% of the state’s job growth.

The tax cuts’ impact on Virginia falls in the middling range compared to other states. The 5,872 jobs created in Virginia amounts to 678 jobs per 1 million population, according to Bacon’s Rebellion calculations. On a jobs-per-population basis, the impact ranges from 1,640 in Washington, D.C. to a mere 110 in Oklahoma, both of which appear to be anomalies. Excluding those two, the impact ranges from 564 jobs per million population in Mississippi to 824 in North Dakota.

 

Shrinking Community Colleges Looking to Pivot

Germanna Community College

Nothing like losing a quarter of your customers to get your attention.

That basically is what has happened to Virginia’s Community College System, with last term’s enrollment down 57,000 (actually only 22 percent) from its peak six years ago during the early days of the economic recovery. That drop exceeds the total enrollment at the 17 smaller campuses and has cost the institutions millions in revenue and forced personnel cuts.

Chancellor Glenn DuBois and two of the community college presidents shared that information and spent about an hour Tuesday with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia laying out steps underway to attract more students, which will have to happen if Virginia is to meet the goals it has set for degrees and work certifications.

DuBois, who has served as chancellor since 2001, spoke again during the meeting at Richard Bland College of his vision of “a college graduate in every household” and of abolishing the phrase “first-generation student.”

One response has been only modest increases in VCCS tuition and fees for the coming year, at 2.5 percent below the official inflation rate and in stark contrast to the four year institutions. The annual cost for a full semester load is around $5,000, but DuBois noted that is still a great deal of money for many Virginians. Students in the community colleges are older, lower income, working part time. Fifteen of the 23 schools have food banks.

Like many of his predecessors, Governor Ralph Northam has made education and workforce development a high priority and Northam talked during his campaign about lowering or eliminating the cost of attending the public community colleges. About 20 states now have some version of a “promise program” where all or some high school graduates face no tuition bills at community colleges.

DuBois said that remains under discussion, which was confirmed a bit later in the meeting by the Governor’s Chief Workforce Advisor Megan Healy. But with a price tag in the hundreds of millions of dollars, “I don’t think that’s going to happen this year,” Healy said. In 2019 the General Assembly will be considering budget amendments, but the Governor doesn’t do his own full budget until 2020.

Absent a sudden commitment to free or almost free tuition, a VCCS task force responding to the situation focused heavily on marketing and process improvements. They are leaving the comfort zone, DuBois said, using words like “pivot” and “evolve.”

What if students didn’t have to apply to attend? The system is working on an open enrollment approach, but it isn’t there yet. It is making progress on reducing the paperwork and migrating the application process to smart phones. People should enroll in one day, “one and done,” said President Janet Gullickson of Germanna near Fredericksburg. “Believe it or not, that’s radical.”

The task force also said to make scheduling, degree planning, advising and even payment and financial aid compatible with the mobile environment. An early alert system can flag a struggling student, so a counselor reaches out to them rather than the other way around.

Do people understand how an associate degree or even a workforce certificate can boost their income? Better marketing may spread the word about the FastForward program which offers reimbursement grants on completion of a workforce credential. The grants “sold out” in their first two years and the General Assembly boosted the funding for this new budget, which may sell out again.

The target audience is no longer 18 to 24-year-olds. DuBois mentioned a Winchester man who lost his long-time job at a recycling center, came to the community college looking for his GED, but in 12 weeks earned a manufacturing technician certificate. He quickly landed a job with 40 percent more pay and, for the first time in his life, full benefits. He will be highlighted as the 10,000th FastForward graduate.

Another popular certificate program for forklift operations takes just four days. Before any of these programs is approved there is a demonstrated demand for the skills.

Gullickson mentioned a basic marketing problem she found at Germanna when she started – no one able to translate for Spanish students dealing with administrative matters. With the changing demographics in that region, the website needed a Spanish version, at an 8th grade reading level so the parents of potential students could understand it.

Work continues eliminating remaining barriers or duplicate requirements for students seeking to start at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution. There are state grants for that process, too, which not long ago was getting the most attention as a new role for the community colleges. But based on comments Tuesday, the long-term response to the current challenge may be a system that looks more like its original 1960’s focus on workforce training.

Virginia Tuition Hikes Exceed Inflation Again

Cost of attending a four-year state college as a percent of household income. Click for interactive version. Sources: Penn and Vanderbilt

Tuition and mandatory fees at Virginia’s state colleges and universities are rising an average of 5.3 percent for the term starting next month, eighty percent faster than inflation.  The increase at the state’s community colleges for next term of 2.5 percent tracks well behind the current 12-month consumer price index (2.9 percent).

The report is contained in advance materials for the July 17 meeting of the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia. Director Peter Blake reports tuition and fees will increase by an average of $669 at four-year institutions and $113 at Virginia’s community colleges under charges set recently by the institutions’ governing boards. Increases range from $330 at Virginia State University to $1,100 at Christopher Newport University. “The systemwide increase is slightly higher than the increases in the previous two years,” he wrote.

2018 tuition and fee hikes. Source: SCHEV

Looking at tuition alone, the average increase is just under 6 percent, but smaller growth in mandatory fees softens that a bit.  Four years at the College of William and Mary will cost a new freshman paying the full freight almost $94,000 (before room and board), but at that school each incoming class’s in-state tuition rate is fixed for four years. A new in-state student at the University of Virginia will need at least $66,000 for four years but may face three more tuition hikes before graduation.

Christopher Newport University in Newport News had the largest overall increase on a percentage basis, 8.1 percent, and the new cost of four years there for new in-state students is $59,000 (again, with further increases likely.)

Out-of-state price compared to cost. Source: SCHEV

Out-of-state students pay substantially more in tuition than the cost of their education, according to another chart in the SCHEV data. It is more than double at some schools, and close to double at others. The pattern between Virginia and William and Mary reverses, with Virginia charging the higher premium for non-Virginia residents.

The state provides more than $2 billion annually from taxpayers as direct support for the schools or financial aid for individuals. The General Assembly increased General Fund support for the schools by more than $165 million in the new budget, but with most of the additional dollars in the second year of the budget starting July 2019. The increase for the coming school term for operations and aid was a modest $17 million. Much of the new money over the period is going to things unrelated to classroom instruction.

On Friday SCHEV sent out a news release focused on University of Pennsylvania data showing that Virginia’s higher education system faces lower risk than almost all other states. Whether that is because of Virginia’s strength or weaknesses in other states is unclear. It still warned Virginia’s population would not have the needed number of degree or certificate holders by 2025.

Virginia’s 4th graders were highly-ranked compared to other states on the National Association of Educational Performance but only 47 percent were proficient or better in mathematics, and 43 percent proficient or better in reading. By 8th grade those were down to 38 and 36 percent.  In four years those 8th graders are the college admission pool.

The Penn report ranked Virginia 41st on affordability. It included interactive charts comparing the affordability of state systems across the country by comparing costs to average household incomes. Cross-referencing the recent CNBC business network’s Best States for Business ranking, Virginia and Massachusetts had the highest costs on that basis among the top ten states, at 32 percent of household income. Five of the ten had costs at or below 25 percent of household income, with Florida the lowest at 20 percent.

Virginia’s community colleges, which are seeing significant enrollment declines, cost only 17 percent of average household income. That is right in line with most of the other top-ten states in CNBC’s list, with Colorado and Minnesota the most expensive for two-year degrees.

A debate continues to rage over whether rising school costs are driving away students, but the Virginia schools under the largest enrollment pressure, the community colleges and the two historically-black institutions, stand out in the SCHEV data lower overall costs, lower cost increases, and lower mark-ups for out of state students.

State Solicits Input from Solar, Wind Stakeholders

A nonprofit company specializing in addressing complex public policy issues has begun holding a series of meetings to solicit input from solar and wind energy stakeholders that will be used to formulate the Northam administration’s update to the Virginia Energy Plan.

Discussion topics will address community solar, corporate procurement of clean energy, state/local barriers to the deployment of renewable energy projects, and net metering (connecting rooftop solar panels to the electric grid).

The nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based Meridian Institute is organizing the sessions under contract with Dominion Energy, as provided for under the Grid Transformation and Security Act enacted earlier this year. Meridian will publish a compilation of comments around the end of August. The feedback from this and other stakeholder groups addressing energy efficiency, electric vehicles and battery storage will provide input into the Northam administration’s development of the state’s energy plan. The previous plan, written by the McAuliffe administration, was published in 2014.

The inaugural session was not organized to collect input on the designated topics but to discuss the way Meridian had organized and framed the issues. Stakeholders will have a chance to make specific comments in hearings scheduled in July and August.

Given the preliminary nature of discussions, no strong points of contention emerged at the meeting, which was held at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond earlier today.

A few members of the roughly 60 people in attendance did wonder if Meridian might suffer from a conflict of interest due to its engagement by Dominion. Tim Mealey, a Meridian managing director, responded that his group is committed to openness, transparency, and reflecting the voices of all stakeholders. Meridian will not be issuing a report or making policy recommendations — its work product will be a summary of the participants’ views. Dominion will not review or approve the summary.

Several others questioned the way Meridian framed issues relating to the siting of solar and wind projects: What is Virginia doing right regarding the siting of renewable energy projects, and do stakeholders believe there are impediments to siting renewable energy projects in the Commonwealth?

Adam Gillenwater with the American Battlefield Trust said members of his group do not see the preservation of battlefields as an “impediment” to solar farms but rather as a competing good to be taken into consideration in siting decisions.

Others noted that the problems encountered by utility-scale solar and wind projects are different from the obstacles experienced by small power producers generating electricity at the rooftop level. Perhaps Meridian would consider conducting separate discussions for utility-scale and rooftop-scale issues, suggested Katharine Bond, Dominion senior policy adviser.

Mealey did not indicate what changes he might make to the discussion format. It is a “very unusual arrangement” to have an electric utility pay and contract for policy discussions mandated by a piece of legislation, he said. But he did not see that as a problem. His charge is to address the topics enumerated in the Grid Transformation and Security Act without being “unduly constrained” by the wording of the act.

SCC Examiner Rejects Dominion Tax Argument

A State Corporation Commission hearing examiner has rejected Dominion Energy Virginia’s arguments that it was correct to ignore a lower federal income tax rate in calculating transmission costs for 2018 and is recommending that the full commission give ratepayers the benefit of the lower tax rate immediately.

Chief Hearing Examiner Deborah V. Ellenberg’s ruling was issued July 9, following a June 29 hearing where Dominion employees said it had to use the 35 percent tax rate in calculating bills running into 2019, even though the federal corporate income tax rate had dropped to 21 percent effective January 1 of this year.  This was the subject of an earlier Bacon’s Rebellion post.

At issue is the rate adjustment clause (RAC) known at Rider T1, which passes along to customers the utility’s cost for transmission services.  It is one of several elements on monthly bills and the utility was seeking a substantial increase.  Dominion had put the higher monthly cost for a residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours at more than $4, with higher amounts hitting larger customers.

At the hearing Dominion argued that the T1 rate is driven by a formula approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that includes as a factor the base federal rate, and it had to plug in the higher previous tax rate because it hadn’t consulted with stakeholders since the tax rate had changed.   Consumer advocates at the hearing said there was no prohibition on correcting the rates based on the new tax rate.   The hearing officer agreed.

“I find it disappointing that the Company has taken the position that the revenue requirement should include a 35% federal income tax rate that is no longer in effect rather than incorporate the significantly lower tax rate made effective even before the Company made its informational filing with the FERC in January 2018, and well before it filed this Application in May 2018,” she wrote. “It could, and should have, like other utilities, revised its annual filing to include the known and certain tax rate change. I recommend the Commission direct the Company to file a corrected annual filing with FERC effective January 1, 2018.”

The RAC tariff in question is due to be adjusted September 1 and stay in place 12 months.   Ellenberg suggested that the full commission adjust the new rate to reflect the lower taxes, saving consumers $71 million during the period.  She also suggested an additional reduction of $46 million to reflect the lower tax liability during the first eight months of 2018.  Dominion was arguing that consumers would have to wait until the true-up process in future cases to see rates adjusted to reflect the lower tax rates.

Ellenberg ruled against Dominion on a second point, involving a $13 million credit being paid to Dominion by the regional transmission organization PJM.  Dominion argued that payment was for generation services at its Yorktown plant, which is staying open longer than planned.  Ellenberg agreed with the SCC staff, the Attorney General and other consumer advocates that the payment was for transmission services and should reduce the revenue requirement for Rider T1.  The cost of operating Yorktown is fully recovered in base rates and the fuel charge.

If the full commission adopts her recommendations, Dominion’s request for $755 million for Rider T1 over the next 12 months will be reduced to $625 million, which is about the same as was approved a year ago.  That wipes out the 20 percent increase requested by the utility, with any increase in transmission costs being balanced by the lower taxes.

State Employees Not Funding Own Retirement

Source: VRS Report to JLARC

State and local employees, like many of their peers in the private sector, are declining in droves to contribute to their own retirement plans, despite the availability of matching funds, a.k.a. free money which compounds for decades.

The Virginia Retirement System has been putting new hires into a hybrid retirement plan that combines a defined benefit with a defined contribution plan which depends on employee contributions. More than 85,000 active workers are now part of the hybrid plan, but only 18 percent of those are socking away the maximum 4 percent of their pay, which is matched with another 2.5 percent by the state.

Of the rest, 42 percent are contributing nothing, and 36 percent are contributing  only one-half of one percent, or $50 per $10,000.  Most of those are apparently doing so because the state automatically escalated all contribution rates by one-half of one percent on January 1, 2017 and employees had to then intentionally opt out.

The information was part of the annual report on VRS to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission Monday, covering all aspects of an operation vital to 700,000 participants or beneficiaries.  JLARC was presented with a brief oversight, a longer and more detailed overview, and the report of an outside actuary.

Since that first “automatic escalation” the participation has been dropping and it may continue to drop until a second auto-escalation is planned for 2020.  “Current low rates of voluntary contribution by hybrid plan members will result in lower retirement income,” the presentation slide states.   That’s a major understatement, but the hybrid plan and the low participation are saving the taxpayers a bundle in the short run and will save even more as the previous defined benefits plans fade away.

As of March 1, the overall year to date return was 9.9 percent, slightly behind the goal of 10.0.  No figure was given for the end of the fiscal year on June 30 and the last 90 days have been a trade fear-induced roller coaster.  The long-term return baked into VRS funding assumptions is 7 percent.  The five-year average has been 8.1 percent and the 25-year average 8.2, but as the saying goes, past results are not a guarantee.

The charts tracking the funding status of the various individual retirement plans were all inching up and the average overall is now about 77 percent.  Under current assumptions it will take 26 more years to get back to 100 percent funded, where the state was as recently as 2002.  The key phrase there is “current assumptions.”

“VRS is actuarially sound” concluded Lance Weiss of Gabriel, Roeder, Smith and Co. (GRS), the outside auditor.  He praised Virginia for setting that 7 percent target return a few years back, but then reported it is no longer a conservative assumption but merely a reasonable one.  Many of their clients are moving to 6.75 percent, he said.  A figure below 6.5 percent was hinted at.  With an aging workforce looking at starting benefits in the short term, there is even more reason for Virginia to rethink that 7 percent assumption on return.

The assumption on return is what drives the size of employer contributions.  In another report it was noted that if the two largest funds, those for teachers and for general state employees, moved to a 6.75 percent “discount rate” the state would need to increase its annual contribution by $182 million.  Changing that assumption also drives up the unfunded liability on both funds and pushes the 100 percent funded goal further out.

The reports today were merely accepted, with few hard (or easy) questions. It may take a longer period of market uneasiness to undermine the current return assumptions, but House Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones told reporters after the meeting he would consider it.

Senate Finance Co-Chair Thomas Norment did ask out loud if the hybrid plan was “worth keeping” but the question received no response.  The defined benefit plan is gone and unless participation patterns change future VRS retirees (86 percent of whom remain in Virginia) will not have the same comfortable income as current retirees.