As state legislators kicked off their 2022 sessions this spring and started planning new budgets, many found that their tax coffers were overflowing. What lawmakers do with that extra money could have long-range consequences.
The excess revenue resulted from a convergence of two windfalls. State tax collections rose sharply in 2021 as the pandemic waned, businesses fully reopened, and consumers started spending again. And the federal government showered states with more than $360 billion as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed in March 2021. The passage of President Joe Biden's $1 trillion infrastructure bill means even more federal taxpayer money for state treasuries in the near future.
All told, state revenues (including federal funds) increased by more than 12 percent in 2021, according to data from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Thirty-two states reported higher than expected revenue in 2021, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.
As a result, many states now have significant year-over-year budget surpluses for the current year. California leads the way with a $31 billion surplus—an amount larger than many states' entire annual budgets. Florida ($11.2 billion surplus), Maryland ($4.6 billion), Minnesota ($7.7 billion), and Virginia ($2.6 billion) also have large cash reserves. But state lawmakers should be careful about letting the extra dough burn a hole in their pockets.
"It's understandable that there is all this pent-up demand for different kinds of new programs or tax cuts," says Josh Goodman, a senior officer with Pew's state fiscal health initiative. The impulse to use surpluses for pet projects, Goodman says, ignores data that suggest many states are running long-term structural deficits—largely due to pension obligations and health care costs in programs like Medicaid. "The question is not just what's the budget situation this year," Goodman says, "but what is the budget -situation going to be five or 10 years down the road."
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, both Democrats, have outlined plans for huge increases in spending on schools and social programs. Both also want to set aside some of the excess revenue in a reserve account for future years.
Another option is to return as much of the surplus as possible to taxpayers via temporary tax breaks. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has proposed using $1 billion of the state's surplus to fund a gas tax holiday for the state's drivers amid unusually high fuel prices.
There's also a lesson here for the federal government the next time a national economic crisis strikes: The states don't need bailouts.