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Study: Gerrymandering Leads to Higher Taxes

by State Data Lab, published

Political line-drawing linked to financial outcomes

The topic of gerrymandering has become a topic of interest in the last year. ‘Gerrymandering’ refers to the process of strategic line-drawing of representative districts within states. It tends to favor the chances of one political party over another – or to favor both major parties at the expense of independents.

Gerrymandering can lead to implicit or explicit corruption in government, in part by insulating influential special interest groups and coalitions from political competition.

Most recently, on October 7, contributor Joshua Alvarez authored an article titled “What the Government Needs to Do to Improve Transparency.” Alvarez cited the origin of the term gerrymandering, dating to Elbridge Gerry, an early US vice president (under James Madison).

Apparently, as governor of Massachusetts, Gerry signed legislation leading to some complicated Massachusetts districts, albeit reluctantly. One writer later talked about how they looked like a ‘salamander,’ leading to the ‘gerrymander’ term.

In his October 7 article, Alvarez touched on some of the irony in the situation:

“Unfortunately for Gerry’s legacy, his name has become synonymous with legalized corruption, but he did have at least one saving grace: he was a fierce champion of what is today termed ‘government transparency.’ ”

Well, Mr. Gerry, where are we today, in terms of the intersection of gerrymandering and transparency?

Here is an article in Governing magazine describing some of the math, and reporting four different indexes for 43 states.

Source: StateDataLab Source: State Data Lab

The chart above computes an average for those four indexes, and ranks the 43 states on that average.  Going further to the right, you have states with more gerrymandering. In turn, on the left axis (or y-axis), Truth in Accounting reports its latest estimate for state Taxpayer Burdens.

As a general rule, states with more gerrymandering tend to have higher Taxpayer Burdens. These metrics are based on congressional districts, not state legislative districts, but the state legislatures have an important role to play in congressional districting. 

Also, the political cultures tend to overlap in state and federal districting issues.

(For a deeper dive on districting, click here.)

Higher hidden debts in gerrymandered states relates directly to the question Alvarez posed in the title of his article: “What the Government Needs to Do to Improve Transparency.” Reforms are coming that will improve reporting of retirement liabilities by state and local governments, which for many years have been accumulating off the formal balance sheet.  These previously ‘hidden’ liabilities are some of the most important reasons why some states face higher Taxpayer Burdens than others.

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