March 2006

Taxation with Representation: Intergovernmental Grants in a Plebiscite Democracy

Byron F. Lutz


Economic theory predicts that unconditional intergovernmental grant income and private income are perfectly fungible. Despite this prediction, the literature on fiscal federalism documents that grant and private income are empirically non-equivalent. A large scale school finance reform in New Hampshire--the typical school district experienced a 200 percent increase in grant income--provides an unusually compelling test of the equivalence prediction. Most theoretical explanations for non-equivalence focus on mechanisms which produce public good provision levels which differ from the decisive voter's preferences. New Hampshire determines local public goods provision via a form of direct democracy--a setting which rules out these explanations. In contrast to the general support in the literature for non-equivalence, the empirical estimates in this paper suggest that approximately 92 cents per grant dollar are spent on tax reduction. These results not only document that equivalence holds in a setting with a strong presumption that public good provision decisions reflect the preferences of voters, but also directly confirm the prediction of the seminal work of Bradford and Oates (1971) that lump-sum grant income is equivalent to a tax reduction. In addition, the paper presents theoretical arguments that grant income capitalization and heterogeneity in the marginal propensity to spend on public goods may generate spurious rejections of the equivalence prediction. The heterogeneity argument is confirmed empirically. Specifically, the results indicate that lower income communities spend more of the grant income on education than wealthier communities, a finding interpreted as revealing that the Engel curve for education is concave.

Full Paper (Screen Reader Version)

Keywords: Intergovernmental grants, fiscal federalism, flypaper

PDF: Full Paper

Disclaimer: The economic research that is linked from this page represents the views of the authors and does not indicate concurrence either by other members of the Board's staff or by the Board of Governors. The economic research and their conclusions are often preliminary and are circulated to stimulate discussion and critical comment. The Board values having a staff that conducts research on a wide range of economic topics and that explores a diverse array of perspectives on those topics. The resulting conversations in academia, the economic policy community, and the broader public are important to sharpening our collective thinking.

Back to Top
Last Update: November 23, 2020