Faculty Focus: Dan Smith, Assistant Professor Public Budgeting & Financial Management
Dan Smith, Assistant Professor of Public Budgeting & Financial Management
Assistant Professor of Public Budgeting and Financial Management Dan Smith joined the Wagner faculty in spring 2009. His research focuses on the fiscal implications of state-level budgetary institutions, especially balanced budget requirements, and public financial management. "I've always been interested in "financey" things, like economics and statistics, and my practical experience honed that interest."
How did you become interested in budgeting and finance?
I got my master's at the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Delaware, which is a unique program in that everyone who's accepted does assistantships with state, local or federal agencies, nonprofits or in-house policy research centers. In the two years I was there, I worked in a conflict-resolution center and then had three revolving research fellowships: one in the city council of Wilmington; one in the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO); and one in the legislative fellows program, which is the non-partisan research arm of the state. It was an eye-opening and terrific opportunity. I decided to get a PhD, because I wanted to conduct independent research on the states, which is my main focus. The federal government doesn't have a lot of structure to its budgeting process, so I study the states because there's 50 of them and they do things individually enough that you can determine if one state's way of doing things in better than others.
How was your first year as a full-time Wagner faculty member?
Great! Busy. We're a big program with a lot of students, and a lot going on, so the scale and scope took some getting used to. Having a great staff made it a lot easier. Wagner is an intellectually vibrant place that offers a lot of support for research and teaching, which is wonderful.
What is the most satisfying aspect of your job?
I get the most satisfaction when I see what my students accomplish. If I have a student in the fall who then gets a great internship for the spring, and I helped them by writing a letter of recommendation, then that's very satisfying.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Time-management! Being a professor is self-directed, so you have to be completely self-motivated and self-disciplined, which is tough. Our schedules are always very full; we do research, review papers, go to conferences, serve on boards, chair conferences and serve on search committees, not to mention teach and correct papers. You'd need 40-50 hours in a day to accomplish everything you'd like to. At the end of the day, though, I wouldn't trade it for any job in the world.
Let's talk about your current research. What are you working on this summer?
For the last few years I've done a lot of research on balance budget requirements at the state level, figuring out what exists in the laws and studying what works and what doesn't. Do these requirements do as they're intended, and if not, what are they actually doing?
Now I'm looking more at questions of financial management by studying how states accumulate and then use three major funds: unemployment insurance trust funds, rainy day funds and general funds. The unemployment insurance trust research is ongoing. Incredibly, nobody has studied unemployment insurance spending at the state level-we're talking about many billions of dollars-so I'm looking at the political and economic determinants of how states decide how to raise and use that revenue because they have a lot of discretion.
My research this summer focuses on general funds. First of all, the term "general fund" varies from state to state. In some states this fund includes education spending, in some states it doesn't. Some states have laws governing how it's raised and spent, some states don't. Right now I'm collecting data on the general funds from all the states. I'm looking at the comprehensive annual financial reports (CAFRs) from the year 2000 on, which detail the states' financials, to determine what's in them, how they differ (quantitatively) and how these differences matter in terms of maintaining long-term fiscal responsibility.
How would you characterize Wagner students?
Wagner students are, first and foremost, really smart and hard working. A strength of Wagner is that most of our students have been working for a few years, so they take the graduate school experience for what it is-professional training. They want the tools we can provide. Flexibility is another strength of Wagner. For example, we now have a course in race, class and gender which came about, in part, because students requested it, and it has created a better environment for everyone at Wagner. Also, the students work together a lot, which makes Wagner less of a purely academic exercise and much more of a professional training environment, which is great. And when you teach students who care, who've done the reading and the work, it motivates you to teach and improves the experience for everyone.
What is your idea of a perfect day?
1. Brunch with my wife
2. Yankees defeat Red Sox
3. Lecture at the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History
What's one skill that you wish you were better at?
I wish I were better at math. My hidden dream is to be an astrophysicist.
Where's your favorite place to travel?
Probably State College, Pennsylvania. I visited once a month during the first two years I was getting my PhD (as my wife, then girlfriend, was in school there) and just always loved that place. It's quiet and aesthetically pleasing. I'm from a small town in South Jersey, so it's like that only not as boring.
What would you say to someone who wants to pursue a career in public finance?
I would say that public finance is everywhere and in every sector, so you should keep an open mind in terms of sector. Maybe you work on Wall Street as a bond broker dealer; that's public finance. The recent health care reform bill was passed through a budgetary procedure, for example; that's public finance. Also, the private sector works closely with the public sector finance-wise, in that there's nothing the private sector can do without public finance-whether basic corporate taxes or tax credits or incentives-and there's not much the public sector can do without some aid from the private sector.