Everywhere you look, states are being crunched by fiscal emergencies that range from painful to excruciating. California, which has been paying bills with IOUs, is now preparing to close state parks and furlough state employees—which is what you have to do when your budget deficit is bigger than the entire budget of some states.
It's not alone. "At least 39 states have imposed cuts that hurt vulnerable residents," trumpeted a recent report from the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. California, New York, and Delaware have approved income-tax increases, and Pennsylvania and Illinois are considering doing likewise.
We all know the reason for the squeeze: An unexpected, severe national recession has dried up revenues just when states need funds to help out-of-work citizens. That's true: You would expect the worst downturn in decades to have a negative effect on tax collections. But it's a long way from the whole truth.
The crisis in state budgets is not an accident, and it wasn't unforeseeable. For years, most states have spent like there's no tomorrow, and now tomorrow is here. They bring to mind the lament of Mickey Mantle, who said, "If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."
If they had known the revenue flood wasn't a permanent fact of life, governors and legislators might have prepared for drought. Instead, like overstretched homeowners, they took on obligations they could meet only in the best-case scenario—which is not what has come to pass.
Over the last decade, state budgets have expanded rapidly. We have had good times and bad times, including a recession in 2001, but according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, this will be the first year since 1983 that total state outlays have not increased.
The days of wine and roses have been affordable due to a cascade of tax revenue. In state after state, the government's take has ballooned. Overall, the average person's state tax burden has risen by 42 percent since 1999—nearly 50 percent beyond what the state would have needed just to keep spending constant, with allowances for inflation.
Even low-tax states like Texas and Nevada have followed the same course. No one has been inclined to say, "Taxpayers don't need to send us more money. We've got plenty."
All that growth should have been enough to pay for essential programs and furnish ample reserves, allowing state governments to weather a downturn without major adjustments. But the states put a priority on burning through all the cash they could get. Last year, they spent about 77 percent more than they did 10 years before.
California illustrates the problem. Adam Summers of the libertarian Reason Foundation in Los Angeles has calculated that if it "had simply limited its spending increases to the 4.38 percent average annual increase in the state's consumer price index and population growth each years since fiscal year 1990-91, the state would be sitting on a $15 billion budget surplus right now."
Illinois is another problem child. The state's general fund appropriation is some two-thirds higher today than it would be if the state had just kept those outlays in line with inflation over the last two decades. That increase, as in California, is the difference between a gaping deficit and a comfortable surplus.
Then there is New York. Last fall, Democratic Gov. David Paterson called for an end to the "unsustainable growth in state spending" in recent years. Since the mid-90s, he noted, the state budget has doubled, outstripping the inflation rate by nearly twofold. And New York was not exactly notorious for its frugality 15 years ago.
Unlike the federal government, states can't simply run deficits indefinitely. For that reason, they have a powerful duty to pile up surpluses during fat years, which would allow them to make up the revenue that goes missing during lean years. But for many lawmakers, the future extends only to the next election. So any money they have, they feel an insatiable need to lavish on someone.
Politicians are happy to blame the recession for depriving citizens of programs they have come to expect. The recession didn't create the gap between state government commitments and state government resources. It only exposed it.
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