Faculty/Instructor Profiles

Faculty Profile: Professor Ronald Fisher – Expertise in Public Finance

fisherMaster of Public Policy faculty Professor Ronald Fisher has had a distinguished career during his time at Michigan State University. His professional highlights include serving as Dean of MSU’s Honors College, Chairperson of the Department of Economics, Deputy Treasurer for the State of Michigan, and as a Visiting Professor and Fellow at a number of universities and institutions in the United States and abroad. He has traveled extensively and given many presentations to share his expertise in economics, particularly government finance issues.

He has also received a number of awards, including the 2014 Stephen D. Gold Award from the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. This award recognizes outstanding achievements through contributions to “public financial management in the field of intergovernmental relations and state and local finance.”

Professor Fisher earned his Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry with high honors from Michigan State and his PhD in Economics from Brown University. His textbook State and Local Public Finance is highly regarded and used in universities across the country.

He has taught numerous courses at Michigan State. He notes, “Each class is unique because of the different set of students in that class. It is the students (rather than the course, location, time, [or] semester) that make it a favorite.”

His research has frequently focused on state and local government debt, government borrowing and infrastructure investment, and the effect of perceptions of government financial information on attitudes and behavior.

His recent article with Robert W. Wassmer, “Does Perception of Gas Tax Paid Influence Support for Funding Highway Improvements?” in Public Finance Review (2016) addressed these three issues. Fisher and Wassmer found that likely voters in both Michigan and California consistently overestimate the gasoline tax and that this affects their support for highway infrastructure investment. They recommended that proponents of investment proposals address voter misconceptions, which are a common problem for policymakers working in public finance.

Other major challenges he observes in public finance are determining suitable and effective funding systems for elementary and secondary education, achieving sufficient revenue generation at both the state and local level, and encouraging infrastructure investment. Last year, he highlighted the importance of appropriate infrastructure investment in a Detroit Free Press article addressing the role lack of such funding played in the Flint water crisis.

Professor Fisher advises public policy students to determine what their goals are and take the time to design an effective plan to reach these objectives.

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MPP Speaker Series

MPP Students Learn About Public Budgeting, Engagement From Experienced Practitioners

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Linda Teeter

Last Thursday, Master of Public Policy students attended a presentation by Rebecca Fleury, City Manager of Battle Creek, and Linda Teeter, Executive Director of Michigan Citizen Action. Both Fleury and Teeter have extensive experience in Michigan government at multiple levels. They shared their collective experiences and insights with a special focus on the importance of public budgeting.

Throughout her presentation, Fleury emphasized how budgeting and financial issues

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Rebecca Fleury

underpin nearly all public decisions. Public finance affects all levels and types of policymaking. Financial information usually plays a key role in determining what policies are adopted and if and how they can be implemented.

As Fleury and Teeter noted, the resources available to local governments have been particularly strained in recent years. This presents a challenge to local officials as well as citizens. Both Fleury and Teeter work to increase public awareness of the budgeting and decision-making process.

fleuryteeter1Fleury considers providing relevant and accurate budgetary information to public officials one of her most important responsibilities. Although it takes place behind the scenes, this work is vital to the success of any government project.

In Battle Creek, Fleury’s financial team updates elected officials on a quarterly basis. This helps the team avoid surprises. By finding out about significant changes in earlier quarters of the year, officials and staff can better plan for future needs and make important changes. Major activities include revenue forecasting and legacy cost planning.

As an example, Fleury explained that she and her staff had determined not to presume reimbursement from the state for the loss of the personal property tax when planning the city budget. As it turned out, the City did receive reimbursement, but by not counting on this money, it was in a better financial position. She noted that planning like this involves a lot of strategic decision-making. Planning for future decisions by means of methods like reserve funding for capital investments is essential. It can also mean increasing reliance on revenue streams like the income tax.

Fleury noted that expenses related to personnel take up the biggest portion of any local budget. This is especially true for police and fire. Staffing and union negotiations are especially significant in determining local expenses.Picture1.jpg

Following Fleury’s presentation, Linda Teeter emphasized to students the importance of being involved in their communities, particularly at the local government level. However, she also emphasized the importance of being aware of state and national policies. She noted there is a great need for engagement, especially among young people.

Teeter explained how attendance at a local government meeting at first inspired her to get involved. Since then, she has worked as a Legislative Aide in the Michigan House, served three terms as a City Commissioner for Kalamazoo, and has lent her expertise to getting the public more involved in policy through MCA.

Together, Fleury and Teeter made a strong case for the importance of public finance and citizen involvement in government.

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Alumni

MPP Alumnus Profile: Cameron Mock

mockcAs Director of Fiscal Policy & Analysis for Chicago Public Schools, Cameron Mock is in a position to influence many of the District’s most important decisions. He never loses sight of the fact that his work can affect policies that shape the educational experience of hundreds of thousands of students.

His work requires him to engage with public officials at multiple levels of government. During the Chicago Public Schools’ contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union, Mock was a member of the CPS bargaining team. His analyses were important for their assessment of contract proposals. Similarly, he has testified before the state’s General Assembly committees and the Chicago Board of Education about the impact of various spending and policy proposals.

Mock says that as a Masters of Public Policy student education finance “wasn’t really on [his] radar.” He was most interested in tax policy. But when he did work with education budgets, he realized how closely related education and taxes were, as well as how important education is to economic health.

Mock recalls, “Furthermore, I knew I wanted to do something where I could make the greatest difference on the most lives. It finally occurred to me that nearly everyone is invested in educational outcomes— whether someone has a child, pays taxes, or simply wants to live in a country or region with robust economic growth, it all generally comes back to how we invest resources in our education system.”

Prior to entering the MPP program, Mock completed an undergraduate degree in Political Science at Michigan State University. During this time, he interned with a state representative and later worked on the same individual’s successful campaign for the Michigan Senate.

It was during the Masters of Public Policy program that Mock developed a real passion for finance. This translated into a job as a Fiscal Analyst at the Senate Fiscal Agency, and it was there that he became involved in education finance. He credits the expertise and concern for the public good among the staff at the Fiscal Agency with giving him a strong foundation for his future career.

After moving to Chicago, Mock became Budget Manager at Illinois Governor’s Office of Management & Budget.

He explains, “In this role, I managed the Governor’s education budgets and conducted tax and fiscal analyses for him and members of his senior staff. As I grew more familiar with the intricacies of the education funding system in Illinois, I set my sights on the financial challenges that face Chicago Public Schools.”

In his previous position as Budget Manager for CPS, and now as a Director, Mock oversees the forecasting and budgeting of over $6 billion in revenues, money that Chicago’s students and schools depend on. He sees it has his duty to care for the District’s finances to ensure that students receive a sound education that will help them learn and put them on the path to future success.

Mock’s advice to policy students is to always persevere in the face of setbacks or self-doubt. As he’s illustrated, being ready to take advantage of opportunities and learning from each experience can lead to new and rewarding work.

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MPP Speaker Series

MPP Speaker Series: State Budget Director John Roberts

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The first event of this semester’s MPP speaker series offered students and faculty the opportunity to hear from State Budget Director John Roberts. Last Thursday evening, Roberts, a Michigan State alum, shared information about his current role as well as insights he has gained from his years of policy work. After serving as Special Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs in Washington, D.C., he returned to his home state of Michigan, working first as Policy Director in the House and then as Deputy Chief of Staff to Governor Snyder.

Now, as State Budget Director, Roberts oversees Michigan’s entire budget. His office is responsible for implementing the final budget and for making recommendations to the governor and the legislature during the budgetary process.

Federal Fund Information for States rates Michigan’s budgetary process as #1 in the nation.  According to FFIS, a good budgetary process “gives people confidence that their state is run in an orderly, efficient, and open manner.” Roberts shared his pride in Michigan’s high ranking, which it earned after significant efforts at streamlining and reform.

Throughout his talk, Roberts reminded the audience of the importance of affordability when making policy decisions and designing programs. He advised students to always consider future economic consequences when creating and analyzing policy.

A consistent theme running throughout Roberts’s presentation was short-term versus long-term thinking. He urged students to evaluate decisions for their long-term impact. As a strong supporter of the state’s balanced budget requirement, which Michigan shares with most other states, Roberts emphasized the importance of savings and rainy-day funds for fiscal health. He also noted how this requirement can force policy makers to make tough but necessary decisions. The topic of teacher pensions and educational expenses served as a good illustration of these types of challenges.

Roberts also discussed the timing of policy decisions and the effect of rules such as term limits on policy design and implementation. He noted how term limits can result in short-term thinking among legislators, who are also given limited time to develop expertise on key issues facing the state.

In addition, Roberts discussed the many factors that go into developing the budget. He noted how financial considerations and constraints, like revenue estimates and baseline spending needs, as well as more political decisions, like advocacy efforts and legislative priorities, affect how spending decisions are made.

His discussion of these issues and the relationships among the state and its communities and schools illustrated how complex his role, and the role of the State Budget Office’s staff, really is.

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At the conclusion of his talk, Roberts took questions from both students and faculty. Our MPP students asked insightful questions regarding a number of important issues. Given the diversity of policy interests and viewpoints, their inquiries included questions on topics like jobs, environmental issues, and education. Roberts noted that the challenges of Michigan’s demographic changes will play an important role in all of these areas. He encouraged students to consider how governments can better adapt to shrinking populations while also making long-term investments in the future.

Roberts’s discussion helped illustrate how important financial considerations are in policy. His diverse experiences in government allowed him to share valuable insights into the political and policy processes. He showed how these lessons are applicable to students who are interested in government as well as the private and non-profit sectors.

Events like Director Roberts’s visit give MPP students the opportunity to learn from professionals and other knowledgeable speakers. This presentation was an excellent start to this semester’s series.

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Faculty/Instructor Profiles

Newest MPP Faculty Member Draws on Top-Notch Academic Training and Real-World Experience

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For our first post of the New Year, we’d like to introduce you to our newest MPP faculty member: Shu Wang, who joined the MSU faculty in fall 2015.

Wang, who grew up and China and obtained her Bachelor’s in Political Science at the prestigious Renmin University of China, has since become an expert on U.S. government and public administration: she has a Master’s in Public Administration from Columbia University, an MBA from Illinois Institute of Technology, and a Ph.D. in Public Administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago; she has also worked as a fiscal analyst for the Chicago Transit Authority.

Last semester Prof. Wang taught an introductory statistics course to students in Michigan State University’s Master of Public Policy program.  This semester, she’s drawing more directly on her research and work experience to teach an MPP elective about management issues in the public sector and challenges faced by public managers during fiscal distress—topics that are highly relevant to MPP students who hope to work in state and local government. “I’m really inspired to teach this class!” says Wang. “The big message I want to give out is: don’t ever underestimate the importance of the day-to-day.”

Fascinated by Federalism

Growing up in China, Wang is fascinated by drastic changes in society brought about by various policy reforms. Her parents had spent some time in Sydney, Australia when she was four, and set an example for her with their curious minds and adventurous experience. After she finished her Bachelor’s degree she decided to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. “As a nosy, curious person I wanted to find out for myself what was out there,” she says.

In the U.S., Wang found herself fascinated by the juxtaposition of Americans’ strong sense of national identity with our fragmented system of government, in which policies can vary greatly among states and municipalities, and the jurisdictions of federal, state, and local governments often overlap and even contradict one another. “The autonomy of decentralized governments, but also their limitations, is really fascinating to me,” says Wang.

Investigating Tax Avoidance by Picking up Litter

One of Wang’s most interesting academic projects prior to joining MSU’s faculty involved researching the effects of different state and local tax rates on consumption—by picking up thousands of littered cigarette packs! Wang was part of a team at the University of Illinois at Chicago that investigated the extent to which differences in cigarette-tax rates between states resulted in consumers crossing borders in pursuit of lower prices. Wang helped to supervise researchers who pick up littered packs in 36 states and recorded whether stamps affixed to them by state tax authorities corresponded to the states they were picked up in, or to others.

Wang and her colleagues estimated that the tax-avoidance rate in the states examined (the percent of cigarettes purchased in jurisdictions in lower taxes rather than in smokers’ state of residence) was as high as 25%—much higher than other, less hands-on studies that estimated about 10% avoidance in high-tax jurisdictions.  According to Wang, the two key drivers of such cross-border shopping are the difference in tax rates and the distance to a lower-rate jurisdiction. The policy implication, Wang says, is that in places like Chicago and New York City, located close to borders with states that have much lower cigarette taxes, governments might actually generate more revenue by lowering cigarette taxes (and thus losing fewer sales to retailers across the border). While Wang enjoyed this unconventional research project, it also created some unusual challenges: “At my office at UIC I still have five thousand packs that I need to get rid of because it’s a public health problem!” she says.

Proud to be a Spartan

Wang says it’s a privilege to work at MSU and for the MPP program. “This program is so highly regarded in public administration,” she says. “I feel it’s really a huge blessing that I can be here! The colleagues are wonderful, they are very collegial and I learn a lot from them. We have similar interests and there are also different takes on some issues that we can compare perspectives on.”

 

Wang says she also appreciates how passionate program director Prof. Valentina Balí is about the Master of Public Policy.

 

And Wang has lost no time in getting into the Spartan spirit: she already has Spartan outfits, a Spartan mug, eats at the cafeteria “way too much,” and even has two Spartan apps on her phone.

 

“Policy Affects Everyone’s Life”

Wang also has some words of encouragement for current MPP students:  “Policy affects everyone’s life, so the skills you obtain really can be applied both in the public and private sectors. Any organization with a broad, long-term vision will see the value in the skills you’ve acquired. You really have a large world out there that can utilize what you’ve gained here. All the MPP students should really be proud of themselves.”

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Research

MSU Research Highlights Challenges Facing Michigan Cities

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The site of a now-demolished auto factory in Flint, a city that according to a new paper by MSU researchers has been affected by state regulations that limits cities’ options for dealing with fiscal distress.

Photo by User Blueskiesfalling on en.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As Detroit and several other cities in Michigan have fallen into fiscal distress and bankruptcy, the state has received national and international attention for its emergency manager policy. With a grant from the C.S. Mott Foundation, a team of MSU researchers led by MPP faculty Joshua Sapotichne and affiliate faculty Eric Scorsone set out to find out why so many Michigan cities were facing distress and how that compared to cities in states across the country.

What they found, in the paper “Beyond State Takeovers: Reconsidering the Role of State Government in Local Financial Distress, with Important Lessons for Michigan and its Embattled Cities,” is that Michigan makes life hard for its cities.

Josh Sapotichne, lead author of the paper and co-principal investigator, notes, “State policies, including labor laws and tax limits, make city management more difficult. Our research shows that the cities of Michigan are, in fact, among the hardest to manage in the country.” He adds, “What we hear about distressed cities like Flint doesn’t tell the whole story. Some cities have made management mistakes or had poor leadership, but that’s not the entire reason they have fiscal trouble. State policies create a web of rules that can help cities succeed or set them up to fail, and Michigan has created a particularly difficult environment for cities.”

When the state intervenes in distressed cities, as it has in Flint, the near-term focus on balancing the budget can produce additional issues over the long term. “You can see an example of how a state’s policy design influences local residents in the Flint water crisis. Michigan empowers an emergency manager to prioritize short-term fiscal solvency over all other demands,” said Sapotichne. “New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other states show that there are alternatives to hyper-austerity.”

The team acknowledges that neither the state nor cities can change their conditions overnight. “There is no simple fix for Michigan’s cities. We hope that our research calls attention to the impact Michigan’s local government finance system has on the ability of all cities to stay healthy and that decision-makers keep that in mind as they consider new policies and legislation,” noted Erika Rosebrook, Political Science Ph.D. student and co-author of the report. “It’s not simply bad decisions or legacy costs that create a distressed city—it’s important to recognize that the State plays a role as well.”

This research provides important opportunities for MPP students to learn about the reality of government policy and academic research. “MPP students have been and will continue to be critical to the project’s success,” Scorsone said. Sapotichne, who teaches the MPP Capstone seminar, Scorsone, who instructs a course on distressed local governments, and Rosebrook, who uses her experience in Michigan’s public sector to assist the MPP program, each cited the important work of MPP students Daniel Casey-Dunn and Marcus Coffin, who have received funded research assistantships to, among other key tasks, help collect and code critical data, interview government officials, and support a national meeting of state officials responsible for intervening in distressed cities.

The work has been highlighted recently in Bridge Magazine, MIRS (subscription required), Michigan Radio, Moody’s, and the Detroit Free Press. The next portion of the project, supported by continued funding from the C.S. Mott Foundation, will focus on refining the state-level comparison and examining in more detail how Michigan’s policy environment and local conditions will  affect Flint’s future.

For more information:

Beyond State Takeovers: Reconsidering the Role of State Government in Local Financial Distress, with Important Lessons for Michigan and its Embattled Cities, Joshua Sapotichne, Erika Rosebrook, Eric Scorsone, Danielle Kaminski and Mary Doidge

The Flint Fiscal Playbook: An Assessment of the Emergency Manager Years (2011-2015), Mary Doidge, Eric Scorsone, Traci Taylor, Joshua Sapotichne, Erika Rosebrook, and Danielle Kaminski

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According to the paper, Michigan legislation relies more on “sticks” than “carrots” in the way it deals with municipalities that are experiencing fiscal distress.

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Faculty/Instructor Profiles, Research

Michigan’s Economy, School Reform, Presidential Approval, and More: MPP Faculty Research—and Influence—Pressing Policies

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Prof. Sarah Reckhow (L) recently gave a presentation on how foundation-funded research affects education policy to the American Political Science Association. Prof. Charley Ballard (R) spoke on the radio program “Current State” about Michigan’s economic outlook.

Students in Michigan State’s Master of Public Policy program have the privilege of learning from faculty who are researching and influencing some of the most important policies in Michigan and the United States.

Prof. Charley Ballard directs MSU’s quarterly State of the State Survey, the longest-running and most widely cited ongoing effort to monitor the opinions of Michigan residents on important social, political, and economic issues.  Ballard recently spoke on the public radio program Current State about how Michigan’s middle class is shrinking. But despite this fact, he says the results from the most recent survey show Michiganders are more optimistic about their finances than they’ve been in a decade. “Is Michigan’s economy back? This is a classic case of a glass that is half full and half empty,” Ballard told MSU Today. “Although the state’s economy has made big strides in the past six years, the losses of the first decade of this century were huge, and continue to resonate.”

Prof. Ballard and fellow MPP professor Paul Menchik also have worked together on two forthcoming papers (based on research that several MPP students contributed to) regarding changes in income inequality in Michigan and throughout the United States from the 1970s through the 2000s.

Prof. Ron Fisher recently published an article in the industry journal State Tax Notes about perceptions of gasoline taxes—a major issue in Michigan, where residents have repeatedly highlighted poor road quality as one of the state’s most pressing issues, but who in May also voted down a ballot proposal to raise road repair funds by increasing the sales tax.

Prof. Sarah Reckhow’s research on how politics affects philanthropist’s choices about funding K-12 education initiatives was recently highlighted in the Washington Post. She’s also currently carrying out research funded by a $277,895 grant from the William T. Grant Foundation into how foundation-funded research affects education policy; Prof.  Reckhow and two coauthors recently presented preliminary findings from this research at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.

At the same conference, Prof. Charles Ostrom presented a working paper titled “Explaining Approval for Clinton, Bush-43, and Obama: A Regime Switching Model.” Ostrom and his coauthors are investigating why the relative importance of factors such as the economy, war, and scandal varies across different presidential administrations in terms of these factors’ effects on the public’s approval of the president.

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