The recession of 2008 pulled the mask off of state budget pathologies that had been identified as institutional weaknesses in the decades leading to the crisis.
The “new normal” for state and local governments does not look like the booming 1980s and 1990s but in fact is riddled with many fiscal challenges. Revenues aren’t what they were before 2008 though they are expected to reach pre-recession levels in FY 2013. The Medicaid and employee benefits bill is rising. The stimulus pushed forward budgetary reforms. These are some of the findings of the Ravitch-Volker Report, an effort of the State Budget Crisis Task Force which assembled in 2010-2012 to diagnose the major problems facing six states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia.
Much of the analysis is non-controversial: Medicaid is eating up budgets, as are pensions costs and health care benefits.
Medicaid, currently at 24 percent of state spending, will continue to increase as enrollment, medical inflation and the increasing caseloads that come with higher unemployment increase costs. This is not a surprise. What is new is that the federal government is making it harder for cost-saving measure to be enacted, and “entrenched provider groups in each state resist reductions in Medicaid provider rates….” I do not believe this is the intention of the authors of the report but the diagnosis of Medicaid’s future highlights the dysfunctional aspects of this federal-state pact which has led to the creation of special interests that benefit from inflating costs.
On the pension front the Ravitch-Volker report points to the the role discount rates have played in the pension funding problems facing the state and local governments, in particular in New Jersey. And they also note the reliance on budgetary gimmicks that may even result in a kind of budgetary “cynicism.” A point I have made in the past.
But the report also makes a few assumptions about the interplay of federal, state and local spending that I think could benefit from an expanded debate. The authors warn that cuts in federal discretionary spending will doom subsidiary governments. On the surface, that’s true. Cuts in aid mean less money in state coffers for education, transportation and other areas. But the larger question is what are the fiscal effects of grants-in-aid between governments? There is the public choice literature to consider on the role of fiscal illusion in finances. And further, does the current model of delivering these services actually work as intended?
Their recommendations are largely sound. Many of them have been made before: more transparent accounting, a tightening of rainy day fund rules (see our recent paper on Illinois), broad-based tax systems should replace narrow ones, the re-establishment of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR). Abolished in 1995 ACIR was concerned with evaluating the fiscal impact of federal policies in the states. Further the commission recommends the federal government work with the states to help control Medicaid costs, and the re-evaluation by states of their own local needs including municipal finances and infrastructure spending.
The report is timely, contains good information and brings many challenges to the fore. But this discussion can also benefit from a larger debate over the current federal-state-local spending model which dates largely to the middle of last century. This debate is not merely about how books are balanced but how citizens are governed in our federalist system. The Ravitch-Volker report is sober but cautious in this regard. The report sketches out the fiscal picture of the U.S. in broad strokes and offers general principles for states to follow and it is sure to create discussion among policymakers in the coming months.