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The sacred and the profane of budget cycles: evidence from Italian municipalities


This paper investigates the influence of the staggered schedule of Italian mayoral elections and of the calendar of traditional religious celebrations (Patron Saint Days) on the timing of fiscal decisions and on the selection of candidates. We find that potentially disruptive local income tax increases are more likely to be taken after local elections and Patron Saint Days. Moreover, when the elections take place during the weeks leading to Patron Saint Day’s traditional celebrations, the elected mayors tend to exhibit milder ideology and higher indicators of valence, reinforcing the hypothesis that local folklore contributes to increasing the sense of community and lowering the ideological stakes of local races.

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  1. 1.

    Using daily data would imply managing a sparse dataset with over 25 million observations.

  2. 2.

    While complex policy changes having heterogeneous impact on taxpayers do occur in the dataset, the cases of municipalities moving over time to schedules with lower statutory marginal tax rates are extremely rare.

  3. 3.

    Again, for tractability, the time unit of analysis is the week of the year the Patron Saint Day in a given locality happens to fall into.

  4. 4.

    Due to the difficulty in interpreting marginal effects of interactions from nonlinear models, Table 6 reports the estimates of linear models only.

  5. 5.

    Further specifications of Models 2–4 that include an “After Patron Saint Day” dummy and the associated interaction term return no additional statistically significant coefficient estimates. The results are available on request.

  6. 6.

    Religious activities sometimes go along with folkloric representations and art and music performances for weeks and often require a long preparation. Those events can involve carrying a statue of the saint in procession, historical reenactments, dancing, flag waving, singing, and concluding with fireworks display.

  7. 7.

    The few cases in which Patron Saint Day celebrations are held exactly in the day of the election have been included in the after-celebration dummy.

  8. 8.

    Similar results emerge when using alternative time windows.

  9. 9.

    Indeed, while we know the number of candidates and the rate of voter turnout for all elections, we can only observe a number of personal characteristics for those candidates who manage to become mayors. Therefore, we cannot answer the potentially interesting question of how concomitance of elections and traditional celebrations affects the characteristics of the pool of mayoral candidates.

  10. 10.

    “Honesty” is more difficult to proxy because episodes of corruption or other criminal records of candidates are not available.

  11. 11.

    We follow the classification by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) which identifies the level of competence needed to implement strategies at policy and institutional level such as those acquired by those working in the judicial system, universities, management of public and private companies.

  12. 12.

    We also explored the possibility that the concurrence of elections and Saint Day celebrations might affect political competition by broadening the number of candidates. The number of mayoral candidates in the 2007–2015 time span varies from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 19 candidates. Races with two-digit candidates are very rare and occur only in very large cities. The estimation results do not show any significant effect of concomitance of electoral and religious events on the degree of competition for office, though (results available on request).

  13. 13.

    Clearly, no effect on turnout should be expected if V already exceeds the cost of voting c.


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We thank the Editor and two anonymous referees for useful comments and suggestions. We also thank all participants at 2018 International Institute of Public Finance (Tampere), 2018 Italian Society of Public Economics (Padova), 2019 Public Choice Society (Louisville), 2019 European Public Choice Society (Jerusalem) and at the Department of Economics and Statistics “Cognetti de Martiis” (University of Torino) internal seminar for comments and suggestions. The usual disclaimer applies.

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Correspondence to Federico Revelli.

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Appendix 1

See Table 9.

Table 9 Estimated coefficients on distance from election dummies: municipal budget indicators

Appendix 2

Timing of elections, social capital, and the selection of candidates: the model

In order to clarify the mechanism by which the timing of sacred events can transmit to the process of political selection, we briefly sketch here a theoretical model of expressive voting that relies on Lo Prete and Revelli (2017) and easily lends itself to the analysis of the impact of a temporary boost to social capital on the democratic process. The model has two candidates (labeled by l and r) running for mayoral office in city n (n = 1, …, N) in a “winner-takes-all” race, where the winner sets the ideological policy \( \pi^{x} \), with \( x \in \left\{ {l,r} \right\} \). Voting is driven by the position issue motive \( \pi^{x} \)—with x-type voters liking the policy of candidate x—and by a common value motive given by the valence of candidates in terms of imperfectly observed competence or probity. In particular, each voter j has a set of beliefs \( \left\{ {\iota_{j} ,\kappa_{j} } \right\} \), with \( \iota_{j} \in \left\{ {l,r} \right\} \) being the ideological attachment to either of the candidates’ policies, and \( \kappa_{j} \in \left\{ {l,r} \right\} \) being voter j’s belief about candidates’ valence. Assume that voter j receives a signal \( \kappa_{j} \) before the election about the valence of candidates, and that the signal may or may not match a voter’s ideology \( \iota_{j} \). If the expressive benefit of voting by ideology is larger than the expressive benefit of voting by valence, a voter votes according to \( \iota_{j} \). If the expressive benefit of voting by valence is larger than the expressive benefit of voting by ideology, he votes according to \( \kappa_{j} \), thus accepting to “cross party lines” and vote for the candidate that the signal suggests to be the most valent.

Based on the comparison between the benefits and the costs of voting, the net benefit of turning out to vote (\( e_{j} \)) is:

$$ e_{j} = \left\{ {\begin{array}{*{20}l} {\left[ {i_{j} + v_{j} } \right] - c_{j} } \hfill & {\quad {\text{if}}\quad \iota_{j} = \kappa_{j} } \hfill \\ {\hbox{max} \left\{ {i_{j} ,v_{j} } \right\} - c_{j} } \hfill & {\quad {\text{if}}\quad \iota_{j} \ne \kappa_{j} } \hfill \\ \end{array} } \right. $$

where i is the expressive benefit of voting by ideology, v is the expressive benefit of voting for the candidate that is believed to be valent, and c is the cost of voting. A voter turns out to vote (\( t_{j} = 1 \)) if the net benefit is positive:

$$ t_{j} = 1(e_{j} > 0) $$

Clearly, voters are more likely to turn out if the valence signals match their ideological views (\( \iota_{j} = \kappa_{j} \)). Let us assume that \( v_{j} = V \), with V a positive parameter, and that i is independently and uniformly distributed on \( \left[ {0,I } \right] \), with \( I > V \), and cumulative distribution function \( \varPhi = \frac{i}{I} \).

Figure 9 offers a graphical representation of the forces determining how people vote, and whether they turn out to vote. Voters are first ordered according to the relevance of the private value issue i to them, with \( \varPhi \) on the horizontal axis indexing voters’ cumulative distribution function. The fraction of voters \( \varPhi = \frac{V}{I} \) in Fig. 9 has \( i_{j} < V \) and votes according to the valence signal they receive, while the fraction \( 1 - \frac{V}{I} \) has \( i_{j} > V \), and votes ideologically. As for the turnout decision, voters for whom the valence signal matches their ideological views have total benefits from turning out to vote as given by the solid straight line m (i + \( v \)) in Fig. 9, while voters for whom valence signals clash with ideological views have benefits described by the solid piecewise linear curve nm (\( \hbox{max} \left\{ {i,v} \right\} \)). If the cost of voting is homogeneous across voters at \( c_{j} = c > 0 \), all voters for whom the benefits from voting (m or nm) exceed c will turn out, while the others will abstain.

Fig. 9

Ideology and valence in voting. Note: Graphical representation of the forces determining how people vote, and whether they turn out to vote

Consider now what are the consequences of holding the elections in circumstances (like Patron Saint Day celebrations) that raise the expressive benefit of voting based on the valence of candidate (V). First, Eqs. (1) and (2) and Fig. 9 suggest that, holding everything else constant, an exogenous increase in V raises the rate of turnout. In particular, if the cost of voting c exceeds V, a marginal increase in V raises the turnout rate of voters for whom the valence signal matches their ideological views, leaving the turnout rate of voters for whom the valence signal clashes with their ideology unchanged.Footnote 13 Second, Fig. 9 makes it clear that an exogenous increase in V raises the share of individuals that vote according to the valence of candidates (that is, it shifts the V/I threshold to the right), thus raising the chances that a valent candidate is elected. Consequently, both effects work in the direction of tilting the selection mechanism in favor of the most valent candidates.

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Revelli, F., Zotti, R. The sacred and the profane of budget cycles: evidence from Italian municipalities. Int Tax Public Finance 26, 1446–1477 (2019).

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  • Budget cycle
  • Elections
  • Local taxation
  • Folklore
  • Social capital

JEL Classification

  • H71
  • H72
  • D71