Starting Up Stalled State Economies: Experts Give Some Do’s and Don’ts

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With the election of a new president, officials in many states are hoping a renewed federal/state partnership will jumpstart the troubled economy. Until the new president takes office, however, falling revenues have prompted some states to take actions that are counter-productive rather than counter-cyclical.

States are in a tough spot. For example, Illinois officials predict a revenue hole this fiscal year of $800 million or more. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) projects state budget shortfalls across the nation will total $100 billion in fiscal year 2010.

Since every state but one must balance its budget, without federal support lawmakers must raise taxes, cut services, or both. (Outright fiscal irresponsibility—e.g., failing to pay Medicaid bills, underfunding state employee pension funds—is another option: Illinois’ unpaid bills could top $5 billion by early 2009.)

New York Governor David Paterson has just proposed school and health care funding cuts of $3.2 billion over two years, similar to those that have already occured in other states. But CBPP economist Nicholas Johnson argues cutting services and income supports makes the economy contract even more as the purchasing power of struggling families falls.

Johnson cites the work of noted economists Joseph Stiglitz and Peter Orzag. They argue tax increases, by reducing savings and not just consumption, are less harmful to a depressed economy, especially when they fall mainly on wealthier taxpayers.

While some states have enacted such tax increases or closed loopholes, others have instead considered tax cuts. Yet tax cuts are the least effective way to stimulate state economies in a recession. They can lead to further spending cuts while reducing the buying power of public employees. Fortunately, voters in several states have recently rejected the tax cut mantra.

States would be better off strengthening consumer demand by extending unemployment insurance, preserving healthcare coverage, preventing foreclosures, and speeding up already scheduled public works projects. The federal government could help by providing grants, paying a larger share of Medicaid costs, and rescinding (or actually funding) burdensome, federally-imposed unfunded mandates that cost states nearly $34 billion in the last fiscal year.

States can help themselves by better tracking, targeting or terminating largely unmonitored business incentives and tax giveaways like Single Sales Factor. They could adopt comprehensive unified economic development budgets (UDB), like the excellent UDB proposed for Kentucky. While more federal support is needed, states can use the recession to make their own economic development spending less wasteful and more productive.

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