For the past nine quarters, state revenue collections have been increasing and are now approaching 2008 levels after adjusting for inflation. Many state policymakers are no longer facing the near-ubiquitous budget gaps of fiscal year 2012, but at the moment those memories seem to remain fresh in their minds.
Many states are looking to rainy day funds as a tool to avoid the revenue shortfalls they have experienced since the recession. In Wisconsin, for example, Governor Walker recently made headlines by building up the states’ fund to $125.4 million. In Texas, the state’s significant Rainy Day Fund has reached over $8 billion, behind only Alaska’s fund that holds over $18 billion.
A June report from the Tax Foundation shows Texas and Alaska are the only states with funds that are significant enough to protect states from budget stress in future business cycle downturns. As the Tax Foundation analysis explains, state rainy day funds can be a useful to smooth spending over the business cycle. Research that Matt Mitchell and Nick Tuszynski cite demonstrates that rainy day funds governed by strict rules about when they may be tapped do achieve modest success in smoothing revenue volatility. Because most states have balanced budget requirements, when tax revenues fall during business cycle downturns, states must respond by raising taxes or cutting spending, both pro-cyclical options. If states are required to contribute to rainy day funds when they have revenue surpluses and then are able to draw on these savings during downturns in order to avoid tax increases or spending cuts, this pro-cyclical trend can be avoided.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation points out some of the benefits of large rainy day funds:
Maintaining large “rainy day” funds benefits Texas and Alaska in three ways:
1) These states do not rely on large pots of one-time funding to pay for ongoing expenses, but rather balance their books by bringing spending in line with revenues;
2) These states have reserves on hand to deal with emergencies; and
3) Having a large “rainy day” fund improves the states’ bond rating which means lower interest rates for borrowing.
However, even as more states begin making significant contributions to their rainy day funds, they have not fulfilled their pension obligations. According to states’ own estimates of their pension liabilities, states’ unfunded pension liabilities total about $1 billion. However using private sector accounting methods, states are actually on the hook for over $3 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities. Because states do not use the risk-free discount rate to value these liabilities, the surpluses they think they have to contribute to rainy day funds are illusions.
Even if states were already contributing appropriately to their pension funds and systematically contributed to rainy day funds during revenue upswings, it’s not clear that rainy day funds are a path toward fiscal discipline. Because of the perpetual tendency for government to grow, it’s unlikely that state policymakers will take any steps to reduce the growth of government during times of economic growth. If states successfully save tax revenues in rainy day funds to avoid having to make spending cuts during recessions, states will not have to decrease spending at any point during the business cycle. States’ balanced budget requirements can provide a mechanism that helps states cut spending in some areas when revenues drop off, but rainy day funds obviate this requirement. Successful use of rainy day funds could contribute to the trend of states’ spending growing fast than GDP.
Supporters of substantial rainy day funds should acknowledge that these cushions — which on the one hand may provide significant benefits to taxpayers — come at the expense of cyclical opportunities to cut the size of state governments to bring them in line with tax revenues. Without the necessity of cutting spending at some point, state budgets might grow more rapidly that they already are, hindering economic growth in the long run. Whether or not rainy day funds increase the growth rate is an empirical question that advocates should research before recommending this strategy, and this possible drawback should be weighed against their potential to reduce revenue volatility.