My latest commentary makes the point that the revenue derived from sales or long-term leases of government assets should be primarily (or mostly, in the pinch of a fiscal crisis) used for long-term economic benefit, such as paying down public debt, shoring up underfunded pensions, investing in long-lived infrastructure and the like. Similarly, ongoing (recurring) spending should rely on recurring revenues from taxes, fees and the like.
Confusing the two situations—spending proceeds from the divestiture of long-lived assets on recurring spending—is a recipe for long-term structural budget deficits. After all, a one-time influx of revenues is by definition temporary, and the expiration of those revenues will inevitably produce a hole in the budget.
That said, as I wrote in the commentary, we don’t live in a perfect world. Hence, it’s reasonable to spend a limited portion of one-time revenues on near-term budget relief in the middle of a fiscal crisis as a means of avoiding tax hikes or more bonded debt, both of which would dig the hole deeper in one way or another.
In revising its outlook on various Chicago tax revenue, general obligation and fuel tax revenue bonds, ratings agency Fitch amplifies this idea:
Fitch has long noted the city’s use of non-recurring funding sources, primarily a portion of proceeds from fixed asset sales and long-term leases, for near and intermediate-term budget relief. Fitch will monitor management’s ability to fund its largely inflexible spending requirements once sizable non-recurring funding sources are exhausted. Currently, the city maintains $900 million in long-term reserves, boosting its available resources. Although the city’s corporate fund balance is effectively nil, reserves equaled about 20% of spending including medium- and long-term reserves for fiscal 2008. In 2009, the parking meter lease proceeds bolstered the city’s financial position as long-term reserves climbed to over $1.5 billion when available long- and mid-term funds are included. While Fitch views negatively any use of proceeds derived from long-term asset leases for near-term budget relief, the planned spending of these sources through 2012 provides the city with time to develop long-term budget measures to better match recurring spending with revenue.
In other words, if you’re against the wall and in a position where you need to use one-time proceeds to backfill current spending, then at least use it to buy some time to make the more difficult spending cuts.