Politics

Was Turning Down Stimulus Money Smart After All?

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This weekend's Wall Street Journal, in the course of sketching out the fiscal contours of Stimulus II, makes that claim. Excerpt:

We'll be using this once a week, forever

Remember how $200 billion in federal stimulus cash was supposed to save the states from fiscal calamity? Well, hold on to your paychecks, because a big story of 2010 will be how all that free money has set the states up for an even bigger mess this year and into the future.

The combined deficits of the states for 2010 and 2011 could hit $260 billion, according to a survey by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Ten states have a deficit, relative to the size of their expenditures, as bleak as that of near-bankrupt California. The Golden State starts the year another $6 billion in arrears despite a large income and sales tax hike last year. New York is literally down to its last dollar. Revenues are down, to be sure, but in several ways the stimulus has also made things worse.

How's that? Read on:

First, in most state capitals the stimulus enticed state lawmakers to spend on new programs rather than adjusting to lean times. They added health and welfare benefits and child care programs. Now they have to pay for those additions with their own state's money. […]

A few governors, such as Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Rick Perry of Texas, had the foresight to turn down their share of the $7 billion for unemployment insurance, realizing that once the federal funds run out, benefits would be unpayable. "One of the smartest decisions we made," says Mr. Daniels. Many governors now probably wish they had done the same.

These boots are made for stomping…ON YOUR FACE

Second, stimulus dollars came with strings attached that are now causing enormous budget headaches. Many environmental grants have matching requirements, so to get a federal dollar, states and cities had to spend a dollar even when they were facing huge deficits. The new construction projects built with federal funds also have federal Davis-Bacon wage requirements that raise state building costs to pay inflated union salaries.

Worst of all, at the behest of the public employee unions, Congress imposed "maintenance of effort" spending requirements on states. These federal laws prohibit state legislatures from cutting spending on 15 programs, from road building to welfare, if the state took even a dollar of stimulus cash for these purposes.

The upshot?

This is the opposite of what the White House and Congress claimed when they said the stimulus funds would prevent economically harmful state tax increases. In 2009, 10 states raised income or sales taxes, and another 15 introduced new fees on everything from beer to cellphone ringers to hunting and fishing. The states pocketed the federal money and raised taxes anyway.

Now, in an election year, Congress wants to pass another $100 billion aid package for ailing states to sustain the mess the first stimulus helped to create.

Whole thing here. Do yourself a favor: If you don't subscribe to Reason's print magazine yet, fix that problem. And while you wait for the paperwork to be processed, get thee to a newsstand and buy our February cover story on public sector unions (pictured), which people are already applying to their own lousy government situations. Also, Happy New Year!