Vermont’s student enrollment has declined steadily in recent years, leaving hundreds of small-town school districts serving fewer and fewer kids — some as few as 20. Meanwhile property taxes that fund education have steadily risen, along with the profile of education finance as a political lightning rod.
In 2015, the Vermont Legislature instituted a controversial program requiring school districts to consolidate, or else face stiff property tax penalties. Towns have three years to respond to Act 46, as it’s known.
Using CartoDB, I created a map to track the merger status of all districts. The map, embedded in stories published by Vermont Public Radio, is sync’d to data hosted on GitHub. This allows the most current data to be reflected in all online stories with the map embedded.
With a surface area of 435 square miles stretched over a length of 120 miles, Lake Champlain is one of the largest lakes in North America. Its waters support aquatic ecosystems, recreation, agriculture and public water supplies.
But high levels of phosphorus in the water threaten all these uses of the lake. A plan to clean up Lake Champlain proposes limiting phosphorous runoff, which causes potentially toxic blue-green algae to proliferate. The plan is called the Total Daily Maximum Load, or TMDL.
The limits apply not just to farms and developments (although those are the leading contributors of phosphorus to Lake Champlain), but also to wastewater treatment plants, back roads and even forests and streams. Runoff from all these sources throughout a 8,234-square-mile watershed in Vermont, New York and Quebec ends up in the lake.
A new proposal, referred to as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL), is a choice between scenarios that allow different amounts of pollution from various sources to enter specific parts of the lake. It’s a long and technical document; this series of interactive graphs and charts explains the basics of the official plan — which is not without controversy.
Data-driven exploration and explanation of Vermont’s $1 billion annual tax expenditures that remain on the books with little scrutiny.
By Taylor Dobbs (Vermont Public Radio) and Hilary Niles (Niles Media), with web production by Angela Evancie (Vermont Public Radio). Illustration by Aaron Shrewsbury. Graphics by Hilary Niles, based on data from Vermont Tax Expenditures Reports, 2006-2015.
As the Vermont Legislature works to overcome a $100 million budget gap for fiscal year 2016, one of its largest fiscal liabilities remains outside the reach of the annual budget bill. The state gives up about $1 billion in tax breaks annually through policies that have remained largely unchanged in recent years, even as lawmakers struggle to balance budgets.
Vermont isn’t alone on that front. Robert Zahradnik is the director of state fiscal health for the Pew Charitable Trust, and he says the majority of states don’t tend to keep close track of these tax breaks or measure their efficacy.
Known as “tax expenditures,” the impact of these tax breaks is the same as money spent. Think of it like an instant rebate: Instead of accepting the revenue and then handing it back out in the form of subsidies or payments, the state simply never collects certain revenues. The effect is the same.
A special commission in 2011 referred to this foregone revenue as a “shadow budget” that lacks sufficient transparency. And Zahradnik says tax expenditures don’t typically get the same level of scrutiny as the annual budget.
“We looked at this issue back in 2012 and released a report called Evidence Counts that found that most states really weren’t producing the kind of information that can ensure tax incentives – those tax expenditures focused on economic development … And since that time, we’ve been working with states to put in better practices,” he said.
Tax expenditures come in the form of policies and programs such as tax credits, exemptions, deductions or modified tax rates. Common at both the state and federal levels, they’re designed to encourage certain activities or lower the tax burden for certain populations. Such tax breaks are available for individuals and businesses, and virtually everyone in Vermont enjoys at least a few.
Vermont is one of many states, Zahradnik says, that has taken a renewed interest in tax expenditures in recent years.
“There wasn’t always an opportunity for them to be reviewed in the same way that other programs are,” he said. “And I think on top of that, when you had the Great Recession and the fiscal crisis, our sense is there was just much more attention being paid to every dollar that state governments spend, and how do you make sure you’re making decisions that are based on evidence and that are based on an actual review of which programs are working and which ones are not?”
Vermont is ahead of some other states, he said, in that the state has defined measurable goals for all of its expenditures. But the state has not yet put significant effort into measuring progress against those goals or modifying policy to better reach them.
These tax “preferences,” as they’re also sometimes called, are divided into five broad categories based on which tax revenues are foregone: sales and use, income, property, motor fuel and vehicle and banking and insurance.
And unlike state spending, most of the tax breaks are permanent – unless they’re amended. They’re not voted up or down annually like the budget. But every two years, the state tallies how much money it’s not collecting. Here’s the latest glimpse of who gets to keep it.
Sales and Use
Sales and use taxes are the most visible form of taxation in the state. Virtually every time someone pays for goods or services, the state gets a small piece of that money. This category is also where the state gives up the most revenue in tax breaks each year, most of it (an estimated $339.1 million* in FY 2014) to manufacturers and other producers.
Manufacturers, including just about any company that produces tangible goods, don’t have to pay taxes on their input materials or equipment. So if a sock manufacturer is expanding its factory, it won’t have to pay for taxes on all the new fabrics or machines it buys. Manufacturers also don’t pay taxes on the energy they use in the manufacturing process.
The state does this to make it easier for manufacturers, which employ about 31,700 Vermonters, according to most recent estimates, to operate in the state by reducing overhead costs.
Tax breaks for individuals make up a significant portion of the sales and use expenditures as well. There’s no tax on most groceries, residential energy purchases or clothing, and those tax breaks make up $174.7 million of FY 2014’s foregone revenue from sales and use taxes.
Total Expenditure (FY 2013): $281,080,500*
Portion of overall tax xxpenditures: 28 percent
Largest tax break: property tax adjustments for income sensitivity ($146,850,000*)
Income sensitivity adjustments on statewide property tax bills also save Vermont taxpayers big, lately to the tune of about $145 million* a year — and that’s not counting tax breaks for public, religious and charitable organizations, or for landowners whose farm or forestland is enrolled in the state’s Current Use.
Including land such as church grounds, parcels in Current Use, and government-owned properties, property tax expenditures total about a quarter of the state’s tax breaks.
It’s also one of the few categories of tax breaks that’s made its way into the latest round of budget discussions. In Gov. Peter Shumlin’s third inaugural address in January, he proposed revoking farmers’ Current Use status if they repeatedly fail to comply with state water quality standards.
Total expenditure (FY 2013): $59,744,000
Portion of overall tax expenditures: 6 percent
Largest tax break: earned income tax credit ($26,884,000)
It’s people, not companies, who find the most savings from income tax expenditures. The personal exemptions and standard deductions individuals claim on their annual income tax returns add up to more than half of all income tax breaks in Vermont.
Vermonters get income tax breaks for a wide range of things, from low income families’ spending on daycare ($61,000 in FY 2013) to saving for college ($1,777,000 in FY 2013).
Corporate tax breaks make up a much smaller portion of this category, though they vary dramatically year to year.
Lately, most savings for corporations comes from either the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive (a cash incentive for high-paying job creation) or the Research and Development Tax Credit (designed to encourage innovation in Vermont).
Banking and Insurance
Total expenditure (FY 2013): $29,231,800
Portion of overall tax expenditures: 3 percent
Largest tax break: hospital and medical service organizations ($14,070,800)
Most tax savings available for the banking and insurance industry go to hospital and medical service organizations in an effort to keep down the cost of health care in Vermont. And for about $10 million, some annuity considerations are exempted for insurance companies.
Banks pick up less than $4 million through other tax policies, including an incentive to invest in affordable housing.
While tax breaks in this category are expected to top $30 million in the coming fiscal year, overall they account for a small portion of total tax expenditures in the state.
Motor Fuel and Vehicle
Total expenditure (FY 2013): $28,420,000*
Portion of overall tax eexpenditures: 3 percent
Largest tax break: trade-in allowance ($24,700,000)
The vehicle trade-in allowance ensures vehicles are only taxed once (when they’re bought) rather than twice (if they’re traded in). This accounts for virtually all of the tax breaks in the motor vehicle and fuel category. Other tax breaks limit the costs of certain vehicles for religious and charitable organizations, veterans and people with disabilities.
There is also a tax break for diesel fuel used for farm equipment and other off-road uses. That tax break has been inaccurately reported in past years, but the accurate figure came in around $333,000 in FY 2013.
Editor’s note: The data presented here reflect state estimates reported by Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office and Department of Taxes in annual or biennial tax expenditure reports since 2006. Some tax expenditures are not estimated due to unavailable data. Additionally, methodologies for estimating these values have evolved, and the details of several tax expenditures have been amended in the intervening years. As a result, the comparison over time cannot be exact, but is presented here as accurately and fairly as possible with the best available data.
* Beginning with the state’s 2015 Tax Expenditures Report, certain items are no longer reported as tax expenditures. Some FY2013 values have been estimated as an average of prior projections for Fiscal Years 2012 and 2014.
Amid election-season rhetoric and political spin about jobs, this series of data visualizations documented labor statistics over time and across sectors, with both county-level detail and nationwide context.
I conceived and designed the series, wrangled and analyzed the data, and wrote accompanying explanatory stories.
Published on VTDigger.org in September 2014
* * *
STATEWIDE ALTERNATIVE UNEMPLOYMENT RATES, 2003-PRESENT
The unemployment rate changes depending on how “unemployment” is defined. Does it include long-term joblessness? Discouraged workers? Underemployed? A firm grasp of the different ways employment is measured is essential to understanding the meaning behind labor statistics.
This series of four visualizations explains and illustrates those differences. It starts by tracing the size of Vermont’s labor force alongside unemployment rates from 1976 to 2014, then delves into alternative unemployment measurements. Interactive graphs compare the state’s alternative unemployment rates over a decade, examine every state’s alternative unemployment rates over time, and contrast Vermont’s alternative unemployment rates against national averages.
Focusing on Vermont for the publication’s primary audience, this interactive tool compares both the number of people employed in various sectors over time, and the average annual pay those workers received.
This set of three visualizations automatically changes two detailed views as the reader hovers over or clicks on each sector in the main graph.
Vermont’s official unemployment rate may be approaching pre-recessionary lows, but when part-time and other marginally attached workers are factored in, the rate has been slower to budge.
At 3.3 percent, the state’s official jobless rate remained second lowest in the nation in May, the most recent month for which estimates are available. The official rates from the Vermont Department of Labor only include jobseekers who have been looking for work for a four-week period. Averaged annually, the official rate in Vermont was 4.3 percent in 2013.
But discouraged and underemployed workers don’t show up in official rates. A more inclusive measure of “labor underutilization” averaged 9.3 percent last year.
Economist Tom Kavet of Kavet, Rockler & Associates, who consults for the Vermont Legislature, said in a normal economic recovery, he would expect the number to have come down more by now.
“Things are getting better, but we’re not back to anything near full employment,” Kavet said. “A lot of people would like to work more but are not able to.”
The federal government estimates unemployment six different ways to account for different segments of the workforce. Here’s a rundown, with more detail at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
U-1: unemployed 15 weeks or longer U-2: job losers + temporary workers U-3: official rate — jobless available to work who have looked in most recent four weeks U-4: unemployed + discouraged (potential workers who have dropped out of the labor force but looked for jobs in the last year) U-5: unemployed + discouraged + other marginally attached (available for work, but hadn’t looked in last four weeks) U-6: unemployed + discouraged + marginally attached + part-time workers who’d prefer full-time work
Health care reporter Morgan True assesses the impact of the Affordable Care Act in the six New England states. Analysis is based on spending and enrollment data for federally qualified health plans: federal earmarks and per-person spending, subsidy ratios and demographics.
December brought good news and bad news for Vermont’s jobs picture: The unemployment rate dropped again, but so did the labor force.
Among the people who consider themselves ready and willing to work, more of them were employed in December than in recent months. The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remains among the lowest in the nation, at just 4.2 percent compared to a national average of 6.7 percent.
But fewer people consider themselves ready and willing to work. Vermont’s labor force lost about 950 people in December, dropping to 349,900 — the lowest in 35 years.
A rare breed among American states, Missouri sets no limit to campaign finance contributions in political races. But all that money must be disclosed. So we tracked it.
In Fall 2012 elections, I led the Columbia Missourian’s government reporters in a coordinated effort to harvest and report the campaign finance earnings and expenditures reports of 33 candidates for 14 state and local races. I also helped coordinate efforts with other desks in the newsroom as we worked together to publish a complete set of graphics and a comprehensive online, searchable database of all contributions.
This was all set up for a night-turn project with well over 30 staffers on-deck. We produced and published all of the October quarterly reports the same night they were due to the Missouri Ethics Commission. Two weeks later, for the reports due eight days before the election, we prioritized the races and released the reports in batches.
While none of the reporting bears my name, this accomplishment is an important part of my portfolio because I took responsibility for developing its systems and execution. Leading up to production night, I prepared training resources for our team of Public Life reporters, coordinated work sessions with the information graphics editor and news applications developer, and assisted communications with the copy desk. On production night, I led the reporters through the process of downloading reports, entering data and proofing each other’s work. I also took responsibility for decision-making when we became aware of inconsistent reporting procedures among various candidates. I coordinated efforts with the other desks processing our work, and edited again after publication to ensure accuracy.
Following our first production night, I communicated with all parties to brainstorm and catalog any potential improvements to the process. I implemented all of those changes in time for the next campaign finance report night, two weeks later.
The following links bring you to the fruits of this labor, a project of which many people rightfully feel very proud: