The Backdoor Bailouts

The Washington Post reports:

States that have borrowed billions of dollars from the federal government to cover the soaring cost of unemployment benefits would get immediate relief from the Obama administration under a plan to suspend interest payments for the next two years.

According to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, the President’s proposal, “prevents future state bailouts, because in the future, states are going to have to rationalize what they offer and how they pay for it.” I’m not convinced.

First, a little background:

The unemployment system is jointly administered by the states and the federal government. To finance the program, both states and the feds tax the first $7,000 of wages paid to each worker, while some states choose to tax income earned beyond that first $7,000.

As the Post reports:

In tough times, states routinely borrow from the federal government to pay benefits. But when states have an outstanding balance for at least two years, federal law triggers an automatic increase in the federal tax to repay the loan. Such tax hikes already have taken effect or are imminent in Michigan, Indiana and South Carolina.

What the Post doesn’t mention (but Bloomberg does), is: “From 2009 until this year, the loans had been interest-free under a provision of the economic-stimulus program.”

Now the President wants to go further, suspending any interest payments the states owe to the federal government for the next two years. In 2014, he would then change the tax base so that instead of taxing the first $7,000 of wages, the feds and the states would each tax the first $15,000. 

It is this aspect of the proposal that the press secretary, evidently, believes “prevents future state bailouts.” This might be true if we assume that policy makers won’t respond to the extra tax revenue by increasing spending. But more fundamentally, it seems to me that the press secretary is glossing over the fact that the first part of the plan—suspension of interest payments—is a bailout.

For historical context, I turned to Robert Inman. In the first chapter of Fiscal Decentralization and the Challenge of Hard Budget Constraints, he writes (p. 57):

The first major wave of lower government defaults occurred during the 1840s, when eight states (Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania) and the Territory of Florida defaulted.

Maryland Representative William Cost Johnson (you can’t make that name up!) led the effort. As Inman explains, the rest of Congress didn’t agree with Mr. Cost; they refused to bail out the states (p. 57):

Importantly, opponents of a bailout stressed the strategic implications of such a policy; bailouts would signal an accommodating central government and encourage future deficits, defaults, and ultimately inefficient local governments. Congress said no, and there have been no state defaults since.

This marked a turning point in federal-state relations: through recessions, depressions and countless state fiscal crises, the strong no-bailout rule has survived nearly two centuries.

This made the US federal system unique. Unlike local governments in other countries, US states could not run up huge bills and export the costs to their neighbors. As Inman explains, other countries are not so fortunate to have such a strong no-bailout rule (p. 35):

The recent financial crises in Argentina and Brazil, largely precipitated by excessive local government borrowing, are prominent recent examples of how a fiscally irresponsible local sector can impose significant economic costs on a national economy.

The strong no-bailout rule in the US, however, has not prevented the federal government from increasing its role in state finance. Over the years, federal grants to state governments have steadily grown. Now, there are over 1,120 federal programs that are designed to aid the states. Today, federal funding now pays for nearly 1/3rd of all state spending.

What I find particularly alarming, however, is the recent growth in ad hoc state aid programs that are designed to offset short-term fiscal crunches. To me, these look an awful lot like bailouts. Consider the $135 billion in state aid in the stimulus which included:

  • A state fiscal stabilization fund designed to shore up deficits
  • A temporary increase in the federal Medicaid matching formula (FMAP)
  • Grants for various local projects from teachers to firefighters to police
  • The aforementioned interest-free loans for unemployment insurance
  • And much more

On top of that, the President successfully lobbied for an extension of the “temporary” FMAP increase and an extension of the federal-state unemployment insurance program (he was less-successful in last summer’s attempt to wrangle another $50 billion in state and local aid).

If somehow they could see this, I suspect that the senators and representatives who stopped a state bailout over 170 years ago might wonder if their “no bailout” stance really still stands.