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Following California Down the Path to Fiscal Ruin

Leonard Gilroy
November 13, 2009, 5:43pm

The NGA-NASBO reports issued yesterday—which predict a fiscal "lost decade" for states—weren't the only source of bad news for state policymakers. The Pew Center on the States also released a new report—Beyond California: States in Fiscal Peril—profiling the fiscal disasters in the worst-hit state, California, and nine others (Arizona, Rhode Island, Michigan, Oregon, Nevada, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois and Wisconsin) that aren't far behind in the severity of their crises. The report is well worth a read for some insights into what's driving these fiscal trainwrecks. 

As this Arizona Republic piece by Mary Joe Pitzl notes, these states share some common problems—overreliance on specific economic sectors, voter-approved spending mandates, and general lack of political will to create economically-sustainable fiscal policy, to name a few. But at a practical level the biggest problem, of course, is the mismatch between revenues and expenditures. Arizona's is pretty simple and stark:

...Currently, Arizona's budget calls for $10 billion in spending, but there is only $6.4 billion in projected revenue.

As I wrote yesterday, an imbalance of this scale is not something policymakers can simply tax, borrow and gimmick their way out of, in good economic times or bad.

There's no appetite for the level of tax increases, fee hikes and borrowing that it would take to sustain pre-recession spending levels. And those strategies are akin to shooting oneself in the foot, as they'd prolong and compound the recovery and kick the can down the road. Further, NGA and NASBO (among others) projecting tough economic times for states for the next decade so we're going to have to settle in for a long, difficult ride. Given all of these stark realities, there's no way for policymakers to avoid cutting the size and scope of government.


Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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