Just as New Hampshire begins monitoring its Medicaid work requirements this month, legislators consider a bill to kill those requirements.

Often cited as a justification for eliminating the work requirements is Arkansas’ experience in 2018. That year, 18,164 Arkansas Medicaid enrollees lost coverage after the state enacted work requirements. But a closer look at the Arkansas experience suggests that poor program implementation and design were the most important factors in the enrollment drop. 

In this Barlett Brief, we look at the reasons for the Arkansas enrollment drop and show that they do not justify killing New Hampshire’s Medicaid Expansion work requirement before it has a chance to succeed.

Find the full brief in PDF format here: JBC-Medicaid-work-requirement-brief.

To protect minorities from hiring discrimination, state lawmakers just passed legislation shown in academic studies to reduce the odds that minority applicants are hired. Hello, law of unintended consequences.

It’s recently become a progressive article of faith that employer credit history checks must be discriminatory in their effect if not their intent because minorities tend to have lower credit scores. Bans on employer credit checks have swept across the country in the last dozen years, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has tried repeatedly to pass a national ban.

As with so many feel-good political measures, the issue is fraught with myth and hyperbole.

In Senate debates on Thursday, advocates for House Bill 293 suggested that people wouldn’t know if employers checked their credit or decided not to hire them because of a credit issue.

In fact, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires employers to get written permission before checking an applicant’s credit history, and it requires employers to notify applicants exactly what credit issue caused them not to be hired. This allows applicants to dispute the report.

It also prohibits the use of credit history information to discriminate based on “race, national origin, color, sex, religion, disability, genetic information (including family medical history), or age (40 or older).” That is, using particular credit issues to weed out black or female applicants while hiring white applicants with the same credit history is already illegal. So is checking the credit of only minority applicants.

Legislators expressed concern that employers could access an applicant’s credit score or that a person could be denied a job because of a poor score.

“This bill is about economic opportunity for people who are getting dinged on their credit,” Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes said on Thursday.

But employers don’t have access to credit scores when checking credit reports. Being “dinged” on your score won’t affect your employment prospects.

Employers aren’t looking for credit-worthiness anyway. Employers look for big problems that could indicate an employee might not be trustworthy or might be a security risk.

HB 293 acknowledges that there is real value in employers having access to credit histories. It exempts any “bank holding company, financial holding company, bank, savings bank, savings and loan association, credit union, or trust company,” any “state or local government agency which requires use of the employee’s or applicant’s credit history or credit report” and anyone required by federal law to check an applicant’s credit.

It also exempts numerous executive and managerial jobs and any position that has an expense account or company card.

However, it doesn’t exempt front-line positions that handle cash, such as store clerks. The bill was drafted to eliminate credit history checks for lower-level hires, on the idea that this would reduce discrimination. But academic research shows that such restrictions actually harm minority job applicants.

A 2018 MIT study found that state restrictions on credit history checks “in fact have sizable, negative effects on labor market outcomes for blacks.”

The authors note that a minority applicant’s credit history provides a check against an employer who has biased assumptions about the trustworthiness of minority applicants. Seeing a black applicant with no major credit issues works against preexisting biases. Without access to credit reports, more employers appear to assume that black applicants have worse credit histories than they really do.

A 2017 Harvard/Federal Rserve Bank of Boston study found that “the changes induced by these bans generate relatively worse outcomes for those with mid-to-low risk scores, for those under 22 years of age, and for blacks—groups commonly thought to benefit from such legislation.”

“We find that the introduction of a ban is associated with a 1 percentage point increase in the likelihood of being unemployed for prime-age blacks compared with the contemporaneous change for whites. Thus, it appears that the prohibition of credit screening and the increased emphasis on other signals may actually, relatively, harm minority applicants.”

Legislators may have unwittingly made it harder for minorities in New Hampshire to find employment. They may have done so because they failed to check their own biases about how employers use credit checks.

Cue the Canadian clones singing wildly in a 1970s’ Lincoln Continental on a snow-covered road trip.

SUMMARY: To promote taxpayer funding of a quarter-billion dollar commuter rail project, supporters last week touted a single poll question, without context, that appeared to show strong public support for commuter rail. It’s a tactic rail enthusiasts have repeated for years. Journalists, lawmakers and the public should be skeptical of such PR campaigns. This brief run through the complex commuter rail issue shows how misleading such PR boosterism can be. 

Context

First, everyone should be wary of any poll that purports to show broad support for an expensive public policy without mentioning costs or alternatives. In some cases, it’s useful to know whether people favor or disfavor an abstract concept. But when a specific policy with known costs is being polled, it’s helpful to ask whether people are willing to pay for the nice idea in question.  

The New Hampshire Legislature votes on bills, not concepts. Casino gambling is a good example. Despite the concept frequently drawing broad support from the public and members of the House, no specific bill has been able to pass the Legislature once the details are laid out. Every issue involves tradeoffs, which abstract poll questions often miss.   

This particular commuter rail poll question did not inform respondents of the cost of the project. Nor did it tell them anything about rail’s impact on traffic, zoning regulations, population density, decreased funding for other public works projects, or other quality-of-life issues. Respondents also were not asked whether they would favor a state-run or private option. Without such details, we don’t really know whether the public supports the actual commuter rail projects under consideration.  

The St. Anselm College poll question asked, simply:

“Would you support or oppose commuter rail connecting Manchester or Nashua with Boston?”

Unsurprisingly, three-fourths of respondents (75.5 percent) were in favor. This is similar to 2015 poll that found 74 percent support for commuter rail in the abstract, with no cost mentioned. The 2015 poll was promoted by the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, the second by N.H. Business for Rail Expansion.  Advocacy groups are using abstract poll questions to promote a specific project, the taxpayer-funded, state-developed Capitol Corridor Rail Expansion Project. But the public is not being asked about any details of this project.

Before accepting these poll results at face value, journalists and lawmakers should consider whether they would publish a story or cast a vote after asking only a single, generic question. Commuter rail is a complex issue. Asking whether people would prefer commuter rail in the abstract is like asking if people would prefer to eat ice cream every day. Of course they would. But their answers will change if asked to weigh the tradeoffs. 

Regarding commuter rail, unless the topics listed in this briefing paper are covered, people have not been asked to make an informed choice between competing options. They have merely been asked whether they would like to see ice cream on the menu.  

Read the full paper in pdf form here: Skeptic’s Guide To Commuter Rail Brief.

In an extraordinary show of party discipline, Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes and Finance Committee Chairman Lou D’Alessandro leapt into action Tuesday to quickly smother a political hand grenade tossed by freshman Sen. Jeanne Dietsch, D-Peterborough. They smothered it the old fashioned way — by throwing Sen. Dietsch on top of it. 

Sen. Dietsch committed a double offense against party electability. First, she introduced an amendment (to an unrelated bill) to impose a 6.2 percent payroll tax on income above the $132,900 Social Security tax cap. Social Security taxes are not collected on income above that level.

Sen. Dietsch portrayed the tax as a reasonable levy on a small number of rich Granite Staters. But its financial and political impact were obvious. The tax would hit about 42,000 people and raise about $300 million a year, the Department of Revenue Administration estimated. That’s no small levy.  

Her other mistake was to state the obvious. “This is an income tax,” she acknowledged. 

At that moment, a submarine dive alarm must have gone off in Sen. D’Alessandro’s head.

Dive! Dive! Dive!

Sen. D’Alessandro, a senior senator with slightly less leadership experience than Moses, was so eager to kill the proposal that he ignored or forgot proper procedure and moved the bill without acting on the amendment. He was later compelled to go back and call a vote. (The amendment failed 6-0, N.H. Business Review reported. 

What made the proposal so frightening that it rattled even “Lion” Lou D’Alessandro? There was no way to spin the tax away as anything other than what it was — an income tax. Everyone was admitting it. 

“This is an income tax, which I oppose,” Sen. Feltes said. 

Interestingly, Feltes has spent a good portion of this legislative session arguing that his own payroll tax (in Senate Bill 1, his paid family leave plan) is not an income tax. Republicans say it is. What’s the difference?

Feltes’ bill includes an 0.5 percent payroll tax. But he cleverly wrote the bill so that it labels the tax an “insurance premium payment.” 

In the bill’s language, the “insurance premium payments shall amount to 0.5 percent of wages per employee per week” and employers “have the option of paying some or all of the FMLI premium payments on behalf of employees, or may instead withhold or divert no greater than 0.5 percent of wages per week per employee to satisfy this paragraph.”

Feltes’ payroll tax is a tax on wages. It gives employers the option to pay the tax before allocating it to employees or after. In either case, it comes out of employee compensation.

In cases where employers choose to credit the tax to money already paid to employees, the only difference between Sen. Feltes’ and Sen. Dietsch’s taxes is the amount collected. They are both income taxes. 

By giving employers the option to pay the entire costs themselves, Feltes seeks to put the burden on businesses, not employees, and avoid the income tax label. But the tax is tied to employee compensation and would come from those funds. At the very least, as long as everyone is acknowledging that a direct payroll tax is an income tax, then SB 1 authorizes an income tax.

If you’re curious who voted for and against SB 1, the roll call votes are here. 

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June in South Dakota v. Wayfair that states could collect sales taxes from out-of-state remote sellers, New Hampshire lawmakers chose not to act. Other states did not make the same mistake. 

Eleven months after the Wayfair decision, the number of states with laws requiring out-of-state businesses to collect and remit sales taxes has more than doubled to 33, a Bloomberg Tax survey shows. 

The number of laws New Hampshire has passed to protect its businesses from these collections remains the same as last year — zero. 

Understanding the need for urgency, Gov. Chris Sununu called a special legislative session last July so lawmakers could quickly put some blocking legislation on the books. A majority of legislators opted to wait. A commonly heard reassurance was that we had plenty of time to act because states would respond gradually to the Wayfair decision. 

In fact, several states had passed laws authorizing cross-border tax collections before Wayfair, anticipating the ruling. Others wasted no time capitalizing on it, as the Josiah Bartlett Center warned. Why would a state wait a moment longer than necessary to expand its taxing power over people who cannot vote for any of its elected officials?  

Now, less than a year after the ruling, two-thirds of the states require businesses to collect and remit sales taxes if they do a specified amount of business in the state. 

And that isn’t the only Wayfair-related bad news. 

The Suffolk Superior Court in Massachusetts this week dismissed a lawsuit filed by six online retailers challenging that state’s effort to collect taxes on online sales retroactively. 

The day before that, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt that states “retain their sovereign immunity from private suits brought in courts of other States.”

The ruling shields states from suit by private parties in other states. So a New Hampshire seller cannot sue another state in New Hampshire courts to protect itself against a cross-border sales tax collection. 

The Hyatt case was brought by a Nevada resident who had fled California’s hight taxes and was pursued by his former state’s tax collector. The Multistate Tax Commission, which promotes and facilitates cross-border tax collections, filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Franchise Tax Board of California. It had previously filed a brief supporting South Dakota’s pursuit of Wayfair. This week’s ruling is generally considered favorable to states that hope to reach into other sovereign states to collect taxes. 

As The Wall Street Journal wrote in January, a win for California’s Franchise Tax Board would mean that “governments could bully, extort and defraud residents of other states with legal impunity and no political accountability.”

This is now the law of the land, meaning New Hampshire retailers are increasingly at the mercy of foreign tax collectors. 

What has the New Hampshire Legislature done to protect Granite State businesses?

The House Ways and Means Committee retained three bills written to protect business from foreign sales tax collections, refusing to pass them. The Senate did pass Sen. Jeb Bradley’s Senate Bill 242, which is very similar to the bill killed in special session last year. It remains in the House Ways and Means Committee, where it has sat since February 25.     

The Senate votes Wednesday on two bills to regulate the distribution of plastic straws and bags. Before making outlaws of restaurateurs and grocers, senators ought to consider that there are other, less heavy-handed ways to address the issue of plastics pollution — and they have been shown to work better than bans.

Up for a vote are House Bill 558 and House Bill 560. HB 558 would prohibit restaurants from serving plastic straws unless a customer specifically requests one. HB 560 would prohibit stores and food service businesses from providing single-use plastic carry-out bags. It also would force those businesses to offer reusable bags at a price of “no less than 10 cents” per bag. 

The bills are intended to reduce the prevalence of these plastic items in nature. The targeted businesses, however, do not improperly discard plastic bags and straws themselves. They provide the items as conveniences to their customers. Many individuals later discard the products irresponsibly. 

Littering — which is already illegal — is the major problem to be addressed. But rather than provide people with incentives to stop littering, legislators are seeking to pass laws that would burden New Hampshire retailers and food service providers. 

Recent research suggests that persuasive measures such as education campaigns and strategically placed waste receptacles are more effective at reducing pollution than are plastics bans. 

  • An Australian study published last October in the journal Marine Policy found that education campaigns and additional waste facilities (trash and recycling bins) were far more effective at reducing coastal litter than were coercive policies such as plastic bag bans. “The best model included the total number of outreach programs and waste facilities,” the study found. 
  • That study is consistent with psychological studies that have found a positive impact from campaigns that portray littering as abnormal behavior looked down upon by the majority.  Fewer people litter when they believe that most people like them don’t litter. Campaigns that focus on normalizing positive behavior have been shown effective at reducing littering.
  • Placing more trash and recycling receptacles in state recreation areas where litter is a problem, such as Hampton Beach, is likely to produce sizable reductions in litter. Other studies have shown that more and better-placed waste receptacles can reduce littering.

To reduce plastics pollution, persuasion and incentives can be highly effective. They can reinforce positive social norms, creating a culture of good behavior in which more people voluntarily do the right thing. And they can do this without the negative economic costs that come from trying to achieve the same result through coercive business regulations. 

On Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a Democratic bill to impose a $168 million wage tax on New Hampshire employees for the purpose of limiting their benefit choices and forcing them to accept a state-run paid family leave program. Here are five reasons why a veto was the only responsible action for the governor to take. 

  • The tax to fund a mandatory, state-run paid family and medical leave program was entirely unnecessary. The governor had proposed an alternative program that would allow businesses to opt in. With a voluntary option on the table, there was zero need to create a state-run program funded by a $168 million annual tax on workers’ wages, and which cost $6 million a year to run.  
  • The mandatory program in Senate Bill 1 limited employee and employer choices. By forcing employers to offer this one particular benefit, SB 1 would have prevented many employers from affording other benefits that their employees might prefer. As we have reported before, national polls show that employees tend to prefer many other benefits, such as more flexible schedules and more robust health care benefits, to paid family leave. The bill also forbade businesses from offering a smaller paid leave benefit in combination with other benefits employees might prefer.
  • Because SB 1 potentially overpromised benefits, it allowed a commissioner to raise taxes. Were the bill to become law, employees would expect 12 weeks of paid leave at 60 percent of their pay. But the bill acknowledges that these benefits might exceed program revenues. It authorizes the Employment Security commissioner to reduce benefits or raise the wage tax. It also authorizes the commissioner to reduce the tax or increase benefits if the program generates a huge surplus. A huge surplus would indicate that the tax rate is set too high. The bill in that case should authorize only a tax cut, not a benefit increase.   
  • SB 1 imposed a political preference on businesses and employees that in the long run could make New Hampshire less economically competitive. Paid leave is politically trendy, but trends change. Future employees may demand a different benefit. Passing a law compelling employers to offer this benefit freezes resources that could be used to respond to changing market conditions. This makes employers less nimble and less competitive. 
  • Even if Granite Staters overwhelmingly preferred paid family leave over other compensation options, SB 1’s approach would be economically foolish. But there remains no evidence that Granite Staters demand this benefit over others. Supporters of the bill have cited several University of New Hampshire surveys to claim that Granite Staters support paid family leave. But none of the surveys, including one released on the day of the House vote last week, gives respondents the option of choosing other benefits or higher pay. Nor do they inform respondents that a paid family leave program could mean lower pay raises or reduced benefit options in the future. It’s disappointing that these surveys continue to leave out important information that is regularly included in national surveys of employees’ benefit preferences. 

Renewable Portfolio Standards increase electricity costs more than was previously believed, a comprehensive study by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute has found. Moreover, the study concluded that the costs outweigh the benefits of whatever carbon reduction RPS laws can be credited with producing. 

Measuring both direct and indirect costs, the EPI study concluded that “electricity prices increase substantially after RPS adoption.”

RPS mandates cause electricity rates to rise by 11 percent within seven years and by 17 percent within 12 years, the study concluded. And the largest burden of RPS laws falls on residential ratepayers.

“The estimated increases are largest in the residential sector, but there are economically significant price increases in the commercial and industrial sectors too.” 

Studies of RPS impacts have failed to capture the full cost because they tend to measure only the direct cost of new renewable generation, the authors of the EPI study wrote. Their review included a comprehensive examination of indirect impacts such as transmission and stranded costs.

“A particularly striking finding is that the indirect costs of RPS programs, which have not been possible to comprehensively measure to date, appear to account for the majority of RPS program costs,” the study found.

When all costs are included, the study found that RPS laws are an extremely expensive and inefficient way to reduce carbon emissions.

When the carbon reduction attributable to RPS laws is tallied, “the cost per metric ton of CO2 abated exceeds $130 in all specifications and can range up to $460, making it at least several times larger than conventional estimates of the social cost of carbon,” the study concluded. 

“This study joins a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that when climate policies favor particular technologies or target something other than the real enemy—carbon emissions—the result is less effective and more expensive than is necessary. In contrast, the global experiences from carbon markets and taxes make clear that much less expensive ways to reduce CO2 are available right now,” study co-author Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute and former chief economist for President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, said in a statement.

In New Hampshire, Senate Bill 124 would raise the state’s RPS from 25% to 60% by 2040. The study suggests that this would produce significant electricity rate increases because rates have been shown to rise along with the percentage of renewable energy utilities are required to use.

“RPS program passage leads to substantial increases in electricity prices that mirror the program’s increasing stringency over time,” the study found.

Joe Biden kicked off his 2020 presidential campaign in Pittsburgh last week with a speech that contained a serious but overlooked policy proposal to expand economic opportunities for all Americans — one that can draw broad bipartisan support.  

“The major moral obligation of our time is to restore, rebuild and respect the backbone of America: the middle class,” Biden said. “As we rebuild it, we need this rebuilding to be all-inclusive, opening the doors of opportunity for all Americans….”

Few Americans would disagree with that idea. One serious obstacle to a broader expansion of economic opportunity, Biden pointed out, comes from anti-competitive occupational licensing laws. 

After advocating the abolition of non-compete clauses for lower-wage workers, saying they exist only “to suppress wages,” Biden said we should “do the same thing with occupational licenses.”

“Why should someone who braids hair have to get 600 hours of training? It makes no sense. It’s designed to keep the competition down. Look, folks, you can’t just transfer your licenses across one state to another. They’re making it harder and harder in a whole range of professions, all to keep competition down. Why should we get rid of these unnecessary hoops out there? Because we have to restore America’s ability and individual Americans to be able to fight for their own dignity.”

Biden is right on this — as was President Obama before him. 

Anti-competitive occupational licensing regulations reduce economic opportunities and diminish human dignity by forbidding ambitious Americans from working in many fields unless they first obtain permission from the government.

The result is a particularly regressive form of wealth redistribution — from lower-income to higher-income workers. 

“Not only does licensing redistribute earnings from unlicensed to licensed workers; it also shifts the burden of unemployment away from licensed workers,” as the Brookings Institution put it a few years ago.

Occupational licensing also limits mobility, as Biden noted and as a study for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found. If you get a license in one state, but that license isn’t recognized by other states, you’re stuck. Licensing reduces competition in part by restricting worker mobility. 

This is not a fringe issue. A dramatic increase in occupational licensure has occurred since the middle of the last century. In the 1950s, only about 5 percent of occupations in the United States required a license, but by 2006 almost 30 percent did, a 2008 National Bureau of Economic Research study found. 

Because these requirements have been shown to reduce competition and limit economic opportunities for millions of Americans, they have drawn condemnation from across the ideological spectrum.

The libertarian Institute for Justice has produced compelling reports showing the negative effects of occupational licensure, the latest being available here. The Obama administration undertook its own review of occupational licensing laws and in 2015 released a report that called for widespread reform. 

“There is evidence that licensing requirements raise the price of goods and services, restrict employment opportunities, and make it more difficult for workers to take their skills across State lines,” the Obama administration review concluded.

The Obama administration considered occupational licensing barriers so economically harmful to people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder that it began offering federal grants to encourage state-level reductions in licensing laws. 

Matthew Yglesias of Vox noticed at the time that the administration’s push against occupational licensing laws, which are government regulations, after all, was out of synch with liberal orthodoxy. Reducing these regulations might be even more unfashionable now, as “socialism” has grown in popularity among the far left. 

Yet Biden wasn’t afraid to connect these state laws to his broader fight for economic opportunity and human dignity. For Biden to point out the harmful and demeaning effects of some government regulations in his campaign kick-off speech is both noteworthy and praiseworthy.

This is an economic problem that both the left and the right can agree to fix — if leaders of both sides are willing to address it.

Technological innovation has brought solar power to the brink of market competitiveness. It will never be as reliable as a gas or nuclear plant that can run 24/7, but as a supplement it doesn’t have to be. When its price is truly market competitive, individuals and businesses will rush to build their own facilities so they can lower their bills and make money selling power back to the grid. 

We appear to be on the verge of such a transformation, as the price of producing solar power has fallen dramatically in the last half century. By at least some measures, solar generation is already price competitive. And yet the Legislature appears set to pass two simultaneous subsidies that would raise New Hampshire’s already astronomically high electricity rates for the express purpose of creating huge new subsidies for the solar industry (and hydro too).

The first subsidy was passed by the Senate last week. The amended version of House Bill 365 would expand the state’s existing net metering subsidy. Under net metering, utilities are forced by law to pay above-market rates for electricity purchased from small-scale, consumer-owned renewable power generators (think rooftop solar). 

The Senate’s version of HB 365 would allow this net metering “tariff” (read: subsidy) to apply to generators who produce up to 5 megawatts of power. (The current limit is 1 MW.) A 5 MW generator is not a home solar array. That’s large enough to power thousands of homes. Here’s a newly opened 5 MW solar plant in Egypt.)

Supporters say the bill would encourage the creation of new solar facilities. But that isn’t necessary given recent advances in solar technology. That also doesn’t explain why the bill contains a provision to allow existing power plants to convert from wholesale generators to net-metered generators in what can only be a blatant consumer rip-off. 

Most New Hampshire hydropower plants already qualify for net metering under the current 1 MW cap. But some, notably four of the hydro plants Eversource sold to Hull Street Energy last year, generate between 1 and 5 MW. The amended version of HB 365 would allow those facilities to legally reclassify themselves as net-metered generators after they fulfill their existing wholesale contracts. 

Once these hydro plants are reclassified, utilities by law would have to pay them at the default energy rate rather than the wholesale rate. The default rate — about 9 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) — is roughly twice the wholesale rate — about 4 cents per kWh. Consumers would be forced by their own elected representatives to pay twice the wholesale price for hydropower generated by existing hydro plants. 

The New England Ratepayers Association estimates that the subsidies in this bill will cost consumers about $10 million a year. But legislators have still another plan to compound the subsidy. 

Senate Bill 124 increases the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards. The bill would mandate that 18.9 percent of New Hampshire’s power come from new solar generation by 2040. That’s up from 0.5 percent this year. 

The double whammy, then, would work like this: The state by law forces utilities to pay twice the wholesale rate for net-metered solar power, then compels utilities to buy 38 times more solar power. 

Just like that, legislators would create a huge transfer of wealth from Granite State residents and businesses to a politically favored industry. 

Legislators considering these bills should take note of a study published this week by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. It concludes that Renewable Portfolio Standards increase the cost of electricity far beyond the benefit of the carbon reductions they cause. The “cost per metric ton of CO2 abated exceeds $130 in all specifications and ranges up to $460, making it at least several times larger than conventional estimates of the social cost of carbon,” the study concluded.

With a retail electricity rate 60% higher than the national average, New Hampshire should be doing all it can to lower electricity rates. Instead, legislators continue pushing laws designed to raise rates even further.