Times were good. Few cared about or paid attention to the expansion of state government. I was among the few voices in the wilderness crying out for austerity and preparation. Such voices were drowned out in the raucous revelry over how to dispose of billions of extra (taxpayer) dollars that had found their way into state coffers. Others were crying out for preparation as well. But these voices repeatedly called for more spending, which they conveniently labeled “investment.”
Hardly anybody seemed to care that all economic boom cycles must go bust. And those that did care were busy trying to nail down their share of the money while it was easy to come by. It was a good time to be a politician. It is so much more enjoyable saying yes to pleas for more funding than saying no, “And by the way, we’re going to have to take back some of what we previously gave you.”
Nowadays nervous state politicians try to find ways to scrimp just enough to keep the state solvent, hoping that the bust will soon return to a boom so that they can get back to business as usual. There’s only one problem. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels thinks that what we’re seeing today is the new normal.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, Daniels said, “What we are being hit by isn't a tropical storm that will come and go, with sunshine soon to follow. It's much more likely that we're facing a near permanent reduction in state tax revenues that will require us to reduce the size and scope of our state governments. And the time to prepare for this new reality is already at hand.”
Daniels notes that states, like their citizens, lived pretty high on the hog for the decade preceding the recession, when states increased their spending “by an average of 6% per year, gusting to 8% during 2007-08.” Although Utah continues to rank very well among states by fiscal measures, that’s like saying that you’re the best of the dregs, given that most state governments, as Daniels puts it, are being kept afloat only by “an emergency infusion of printed federal funny money.”
During the same time that Indiana cut spending 1.4% annually and reduced state staffing by 5,000, Utah joined most other states in growing spending and the number of government employees. Why did Indiana buck the trend? While Utah started out 2005 flush with cash, Indiana was teetering on bankruptcy. Hence its drive for governmental austerity while other state governments (including Utah’s) were growing by leaps and bounds.
While many politicians hunker down hopeful of a brighter economy just around the corner, Daniels lays out a grim picture of why they hope in vain.
- Much of the spending that fueled the revenues of the boom years was based on borrowing that will not soon be repeated.
- Loans have tightened significantly for businesses. This will continue to be the case for quite a while.
- The home equity that was the basis of borrowing that fueled consumer spending is gone. Today’s realistic home prices aren’t going to rocket back to unsustainable levels anytime soon, so that source of revenue is kaput.
- Even if the market roars back to life, it will take years before investors overcome their losses and have to start paying capital gains taxes.
- Soak-the-rich taxes are producing far less revenue. Not only are there fewer rich to soak, the ones that are left have options to relocate to more tax advantaged settings.
I find it interesting that so many are in denial about the path that state governments must take. As states come to grips with the reality of much lower revenues, the usual members of the dependent class will be seen shrieking at every possible instance. Eventually, however, there simply won’t be other options.
While state governments must contemplate actual reductions, the federal government is going the exact opposite direction at hyper speed, seemingly heedless of any limitation whatsoever. Daniels opines that this kind of extreme denial will only continue “for a while longer” and “as long as our Chinese lenders enable it.”
I find Daniels’ call to responsibility intriguing. He writes, “The time to plan and debate is now. This is a test of our adulthood as a democracy.” This is where I think Daniels got it wrong. I will elaborate on that in my next post.