Travis St. Clair

Assistant Professor of Public Service

Travis St.Clair is an assistant professor at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, focusing broadly on financial management in the public sector. His research examines the long-term budgetary challenges facing state and local governments in the United States, and in particular how fiscal institutions, such as tax limitations or accounting rules, mediate governments’ responses to these challenges. Some of his recent projects examine contribution volatility in public defined benefit pension plans and the effect of new accounting standards on municipal debt issuance. In addition to his substantive interests in financial management, Prof. St.Clair also has methodological interests in causal inference and program evaluation.

St. Clair received a BA in chemistry from Harvard and a PhD in public policy from George Washington University. From 2012-2013, he was a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research. Prior to joining NYU, he was an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

In this core course in financial management, students will learn the fundamentals of budgeting and accounting for public, health, and not-for-profit organizations. Through readings, lectures, real-world case studies, and assignments, students will gain an understanding of how to use financial information in organizational planning, implementation, control, reporting, and analysis. In addition, students will have the chance to develop their spreadsheet skills by using Excel to perform financial calculations and create financial documents.

The first half of the course focuses on managerial accounting, a set of tools used by managers for planning, implementation, and control. Topics in this portion of the course include operating budgets, cash budgets, break-even analysis, indirect cost allocation, variance analysis, the time value of money, capital budgeting, and long-term financing.

The second half of the course focuses on financial accounting, a set of tools used by managers and outside observers for reporting on and analyzing an organization’s financial health. Topics in this portion of the course include the preparation and analysis of financial statements (balance sheet, activity statement, and cash flow statement), ethics in financial management, and government accounting and financial condition analysis.

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Open only to students in the MSPP program. Students will learn the fundamentals of budgeting and accounting for public, health, and not-for-profit organizations. Through readings, lectures, real-world case studies, and assignments, students will gain an understanding of how to use financial information in organizational planning, implementation, control, reporting, and analysis. In addition, students will have the chance to develop their spreadsheet skills by using Excel to perform financial calculations and create financial documents.

The course focuses on managerial accounting, a set of tools used by managers for planning, implementation, and control. Topics include operating budgets, cash budgets, break-even analysis, indirect cost allocation, variance analysis, the time value of money, capital budgeting, and long-term financing.

Download Syllabus

In this core course in financial management, students will learn the fundamentals of budgeting and accounting for public, health, and not-for-profit organizations. Through readings, lectures, real-world case studies, and assignments, students will gain an understanding of how to use financial information in organizational planning, implementation, control, reporting, and analysis. In addition, students will have the chance to develop their spreadsheet skills by using Excel to perform financial calculations and create financial documents.

The first half of the course focuses on managerial accounting, a set of tools used by managers for planning, implementation, and control. Topics in this portion of the course include operating budgets, cash budgets, break-even analysis, indirect cost allocation, variance analysis, the time value of money, capital budgeting, and long-term financing.

The second half of the course focuses on financial accounting, a set of tools used by managers and outside observers for reporting on and analyzing an organization’s financial health. Topics in this portion of the course include the preparation and analysis of financial statements (balance sheet, activity statement, and cash flow statement), ethics in financial management, and government accounting and financial condition analysis.

Download Syllabus

In this core course in financial management, students will learn the fundamentals of budgeting and accounting for public, health, and not-for-profit organizations. Through readings, lectures, real-world case studies, and assignments, students will gain an understanding of how to use financial information in organizational planning, implementation, control, reporting, and analysis. In addition, students will have the chance to develop their spreadsheet skills by using Excel to perform financial calculations and create financial documents.

The first half of the course focuses on managerial accounting, a set of tools used by managers for planning, implementation, and control. Topics in this portion of the course include operating budgets, cash budgets, break-even analysis, indirect cost allocation, variance analysis, the time value of money, capital budgeting, and long-term financing.

The second half of the course focuses on financial accounting, a set of tools used by managers and outside observers for reporting on and analyzing an organization’s financial health. Topics in this portion of the course include the preparation and analysis of financial statements (balance sheet, activity statement, and cash flow statement), ethics in financial management, and government accounting and financial condition analysis.

Download Syllabus

Open only to students in the MSPP program. Students will learn the fundamentals of budgeting and accounting for public, health, and not-for-profit organizations. Through readings, lectures, real-world case studies, and assignments, students will gain an understanding of how to use financial information in organizational planning, implementation, control, reporting, and analysis. In addition, students will have the chance to develop their spreadsheet skills by using Excel to perform financial calculations and create financial documents.

The course focuses on managerial accounting, a set of tools used by managers for planning, implementation, and control. Topics include operating budgets, cash budgets, break-even analysis, indirect cost allocation, variance analysis, the time value of money, capital budgeting, and long-term financing.

Download Syllabus

2018

Abstract

Revenue uncertainty is a common concern among public administrators, but little research examines its effects on service delivery. Using a novel empirical strategy to capture how revenues deviate from administrators' expectations, we estimate the impact of revenue uncertainty on Ohio public school districts' educational effectiveness. We find that errors in districts' revenue forecasts have a significant negative impact on student achievement, beyond what one would expect based on changes in spending levels. In particular, a one percentage point increase in error involving revenue shortfalls leads to a decline in student achievement growth of between 0.004 and 0.02 standard deviations during the following school year, which equates to about 2-8 days of learning. These effects are concentrated in urban school districts with low fund balances (below 22 percent of annual revenues) and high enrollments (more than 1,730 students). We also find that revenue shortfalls lead to teacher attrition and to districts placing new tax levies on the ballot.

Abstract

State governments in the United States are well placed to identify opportunities for mitigation and the needs for adaptation to climate change. However, the cost of these efforts can have important implications for budgets that already face pressures from diverse areas such as unfunded pensions and growing health care costs. This paper evaluates the current level of spending on climate-related activities at the state level and provides policy recommendations aimed at improving financial management practices as they relate to climate risk. An examination of state budgets reveals that climate mitigation and adaptation activities represent less than 1% of spending in most states. However, state governments are not clearly demarcating climate expenditures, hindering the identification of climate-related budgetary risks. In the absence of guidelines, these longer-term fiscal outlays may remain chronically underfunded in favor of more near-term spending priorities.

Abstract

In the wake of the economic downturn of 2008–2009, researchers and policymakers have focused considerable attention on the extent of unfunded liabilities in US public sector pension plans and the implications for the long term fiscal sustainability of state and local governments. In response to the growth in liabilities, many states have introduced legislation that cuts back on defined benefit (DB) plan commitments, in some cases even shifting the pension system from a DB to a defined contribution or hybrid plan. This paper explores the factors that have led states to engage in pension reform, focusing particular attention on one factor that has only recently gained attention in the research literature: contribution volatility. While unfunded liabilities have significant long-term solvency implications, in the short term fluctuations in the amount of required contributions pose substantial difficulties for the ability of plan sponsors to balance budgets and engage in strategic planning. We begin by quantifying the volatility in the required contributions US states were expected to make between 2001 and 2013 and comparing the volatility of pension spending to other relevant tax and spending measures. Next, we describe the various types of pension reforms that states have implemented and examine the fiscal pressures facing those states that have engaged in reform. States with greater fluctuations in their required payments have been more likely to reduce benefits and increase employee contributions; they have also been more likely to institute these reforms sooner.

2017

Abstract

Climate change poses a real and meaningful threat to economies, industries, and companies at global, national, and local levels. The physical impacts of climate change create multiple, well-documented risks to people, governments, and business, but the risks are not limited to physical damages: other important risks include loss of competitiveness and value associated with the transition to a low carbon economy, and legal liability for the mismanagement of such risks. These risks are particularly relevant to public pension funds, which have long-running, predefined obligations to beneficiaries and need to sustain growth over longer time horizons.

In recent years, the financial community and many state governments have begun working to understand the nature and extent of the climaterelated risks to which their investments are exposed. Major efforts have been undertaken to promote climate risk assessments and to establish standards for related disclosures; many thought-leaders now argue that climate risk management is mandated by fiduciary duty. Stockholders, including major pension funds, are pushing companies to quantify their emissions and “stress test” their exposure to climate risks. Such risks accrue to all investors; fiduciaries need to understand the implications of these risks for their portfolios.

This is particularly true of state pension systems, and this report highlights the importance of incorporating such risks in the context of Maryland’s State Retirement and Pension System (SRPS). The Maryland SRPS currently manages over $47 billion in assets on behalf of over 380,000 members across numerous state and local government agencies. While some other state pension systems are beginning to systematically address their climate risk exposure, SRPS has implemented only some of the important policies and actions related to climate risk management.

Fortunately, industry leadership groups, working with diverse stakeholders, have begun developing best practices for managing climate risk. These include clearly articulating a fund’s investment philosophy and governance principles with respect to climate change, conducting a climate risk assessment, leveraging stockholder privileges to engage with corporate boards, and reallocating assets. Each of these practices requires, and is strengthened by, transparency of strategy and action. While SRPS has embraced some of these best practices, it has only partially implemented others. We highlight that the State of Maryland could benefit from (1) clarifying its investment principles, (2) undertaking a comprehensive climate risk assessment, and (3) increasing its corporate engagement and transparency.

The report offers several policies the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System could adopt in order to address its climate-related financial risks, and in doing so seeks to start a conversation and initiate a process of stakeholder engagement that can illuminate how the State might proceed in incorporating climate impacts into its investment strategy.

Abstract

Metropolitan economies sometimes experience economic adversity, with resulting serious impacts on the area's residents and institutions.  The causes, nature, and length of these regional economic problems vary.  The question we address in this book is why some regions are resilient in the face of economic adversity, while others are not.  In particular we examine the role of public policy and intentional activity in achieving resiliency; what strategies and policies can regions pursue to help bring about economic resilience and long-term economic health and what are the implications for economic development policymakers and practitioners. Our analysis covers the period from 1978 to 2014.  We separate out the Great Recession years and their aftermath (2007-2014) in order to assess the effect of this severe and prolonged shock. We also look closely at six American metropolitan areas to determine what strategies they employed, which of these contributed to economic resilience, and which did not. 

2016

Abstract

Nonprofits in the United States must comply with various state and federal regulations to maintain their tax-exempt status. Despite persistent calls to increase accountability in the nonprofit sector, there is little research examining the burden imposed by existing regulatory requirements, especially at the state level. This paper uses a bunching design to estimate the avoidance behavior exhibited by tax-exempt charities in response to New York State's audit requirements. There is clear evidence of bunching in response to the requirement that nonprofits above certain revenue thresholds file financial statements reviewed by or audited by an independent certified public accountant. Measuring the extent of bunching around the revenue notches yields estimates of the average revenue that nonprofits either forego or fail to report in avoidance of the requirements. Results from dynamic estimation show that charities near the threshold for a review engagement report approximately $1,300 less revenue than otherwise predicted by a counterfactual; charities near the threshold for a full audit report approximately $1,400 less. The results have implications for the optimal design of state-level financial regulations.

    Abstract

    We explore the conditions under which short, comparative interrupted time-series (CITS) designs represent valid alternatives to randomized experiments in educational evaluations. To do so, we conduct three within-study comparisons, each of which uses a unique data set to test the validity of the CITS design by comparing its causal estimates to those from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) that shares the same treatment group. The degree of correspondence between RCT and CITS estimates depends on the observed pretest time trend differences and how they are modeled. Where the trend differences are clear and can be easily modeled, no bias results; where the trend differences are more volatile and cannot be easily modeled, the degree of correspondence is more mixed, and the best results come from matching comparison units on both pretest and demographic covariates.

    2015

    Abstract

    Recognizing that cross-sectional data are often insufficient to address the identification problems associated with estimating the effect of government taxation or spending, economists engaged in public finance research often utilize longitudinal data that span the period over which a policy change occurred. As economic data have proliferated over the last decade, uses of the difference-in-differences design and its variations have become more numerous. Nevertheless, published research that invokes difference-in-differences commonly fails to present evidence and reasoning that enable the reader to properly evaluate the causal claims under investigation. In this paper, we examine the threats to internal validity that exist when using difference-in-differences for causal inference and review variations of the design that can be used to address these threats. Next, we survey the public finance literature in order to examine the ways that these threats are addressed in practice. We conclude by proposing a number of recommendations for researchers to consider as they implement difference-in-differences as an empirical strategy.

    2014

    Abstract

    Although evaluators often use an interrupted time series (ITS) design to test hypotheses about program effects, there are few empirical tests of the design’s validity. We take a randomized experiment on an educational topic and compare its effects to those from a comparative ITS (CITS) design that uses the same treatment group as the experiment but a nonequivalent comparison group that is assessed at six time points before treatment. We estimate program effects with and without matching of the comparison schools, and we also systematically vary the number of pretest time points in the analysis. CITS designs produce impact estimates that are extremely close to the experimental benchmarks and, as implemented here, do so equally well with and without matching. Adding time points provides an advantage so long as the pretest trend differences in the treatment and comparison groups are correctly modeled. Otherwise, more time points can increase bias.

    2013

    Abstract

    Despite the shortfalls in public employee pension funds, there is little known about the effect of fiscal institutions on pension funding. This paper focuses attention on the link between pension contributions and budget stabilization funds (BSFs) over the period 1997–2008. It employs the Blundell–Bond (1998) estimator in order to address the concern that the deposit and withdrawal rules that drive the management of BSFs may be endogenous to state pension contributions. Empirical results suggest that BSFs with strict deposit rules are associated with higher pension contributions, while strict withdrawal rules are associated with lower contributions.

    Abstract

    The Full Birth History has become the dominant source of estimates of fertility levels and trends for countries lacking complete birth registration. An alternative, the ‘Own Children’ method, derives fertility estimates from household age distributions, but is now rarely used, partly because of concerns about its accuracy. We compared the estimates from these two procedures by applying them to 56 recent Demographic and Health Surveys. On average, ‘Own Children’ estimates of recent total fertility rates are 3 per cent lower than birth-history estimates. Much of this difference stems from selection bias in the collection of birth histories: women with more children are more likely to be interviewed. We conclude that full birth histories overestimate total fertility, and that the ‘Own Children’ method gives estimates of total fertility that may better reflect overall national fertility. We recommend the routine application of the ‘Own Children’ method to census and household survey data to estimate fertility levels and trends.

    2012

    Abstract

    The mission of the Urban and Regional Policy and Its Effects series is to inform policymakers, practitioners, and scholars about the effectiveness of select policy approaches, reforms, and experiments in addressing the key social and economic problems facing today’s cities, suburbs, and metropolitan areas.

    Volume four of the series introduces and examines thoroughly the concept of regional resilience, explaining how resilience can be promoted—or impeded—by regional characteristics and public policies.

    The authors illuminate how the walls that now segment metropolitan regions across political jurisdictions and across institutions—and the gaps that separate federal laws from regional realities—have to be bridged in order for regions to cultivate resilience.

    Abstract

    Much of the research on tax and expenditure limitations (TELs) focuses on the impact that limits have on the size of the public sector or the distribution of expenditures at the state and local levels. While these results shed light on the extent to which TELs succeed in reducing government spending, they do not have much to say about the impact of TELs on government budgeting or financial planning, despite the fact that voters support TELs in the hope of reducing government inefficiency (Courant, Gramlich, and Rubinfeld 1980; Ladd and Wilson 1982). This paper examines the effect of TELs on the stability of government revenues; sound tax policy entails controlling the volatility of revenues in order to plan more effectively for the future. Using panel data from Colorado's Division of Local Government as well as the Census Bureau's Annual Survey of State and Local Government Finances, this paper examines the impact of Colorado's 1992 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) on local government finances. Results from difference-in-difference estimation suggest that TELs increase revenue and expenditure volatility.