Alaska should take a page out of Colorado’s tax book

Olivia Gonzalez for the Mercatus Center’s Neighborhood Effects: This fall, eligible Alaskans will be receiving a check of $1,100 from their state government. Although the amount of the check can vary, Alaskans receive one every fall – no strings attached.

Other states’ residents are probably more familiar with IRS tax refunds that come every spring, but this “tax refund” that Alaskans receive is unique. It’s a feature that residents have benefited from for decades, even when the government has experienced fiscal stress. Considering the state’s unique and distressed budget situation, I think it warrants a discussion of the fiscal viability of their refunds.

A narrow tax base reliant on volatile revenue sources, restricted funds and growing spending are all factors that made closing Alaska’s budget gap this year very difficult. …

Another state that we can look at for comparison is Colorado, which has a similar “tax refund” for residents but is structured very differently. Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights requires that higher-than-expected tax revenue each year be refunded to taxpayers and acts as a restraint on government spending growth. In contrast, Alaska’s check comes from the state’s Permanent Fund’s earnings that are generated from oil severance taxes each year and acts more like a dividend from oil investment earnings. …

Comparing Colorado and Alaska’s situations reveals two ways of giving tax refunds to residents. Doing so doesn’t necessarily have to be fiscally irresponsible. Colorado has provided refunds to residents when state revenues have exceeded expenses, and as a result this has acted as a restraint on spending more than than expected revenue.

Body cameras for cops might not be worth the money

Jennifer Doleac for the Brookings Institution: In a new study in Washington, the city’s police department randomized body-worn cameras by officer, so that some officers always wore a camera, while other officers never did. …

The study found no significant impact on use of force by officers nor citizen complaints against officers: That is, the behavior of officers who wore cameras all the time was indistinguishable from the behavior of those who never wore cameras. The authors looked at myriad other outcomes and found that body-worn cameras had no significant effect on any of them.

It’s possible that the cameras affected community trust in ways that don’t show up in D.C.’s police data: If individuals feel safer and trust the police more, that’s a good thing, even if actual use of force isn’t changing. And it could be worthwhile to have footage in rare events where a problem officer needs to be held accountable. But it’s tough to argue from the data that body-worn cameras affected day-to-day police behavior in any way. …

You might think that as long as the cameras aren’t doing any harm, it makes sense to keep using them. But the programs are extremely costly, mostly because of the costs of storing and managing the video footage. D.C. spent $1 million on cameras and will spend an additional $2 million each year for data storage. Given this new evidence that body-worn cameras have no impact on police behavior in the District, D.C. might be better off spending its taxpayers’ dollars in other ways.

Stop the vape hate

Charles Hughes for E21: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed a bill banning vaping in all public indoor places throughout the state. Under the new bill, e-cigarettes would be treated the same as conventional cigarettes. Many New York municipalities already had a similar provision in place, including New York City. With the new bill, New York becomes the 11th state to ban vaping in places where conventional cigarettes are prohibited.

Failing to recognize the differences between conventional cigarettes and e-cigarettes could slow the rate at which people shift away from conventional cigarettes. Some degree of uncertainty remains regarding the risks of e-cigarettes, particularly in the long term as they are a relatively new development. However, multiple studies and a comprehensive literature review published by several national governments have estimated that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than cigarettes. There is no uncertainty regarding the serious health risks of conventional cigarettes, which are well-documented. …

Critics of e-cigarettes worry that these products could be a gateway leading more young people to smoke and that the use of e-cigarettes has surged in recent years. Looking at data on recent trends from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, use of cigarettes for high school students has been cut in half over the past seven years, from 16 percent in 2011 to 8 percent in 2016. For high schoolers, the drastic reduction in cigarette use has coincided with the proliferation of e-cigarettes, and e-cigarette use seems to have plateaued.