In the U.S., Crisis in the Statehouses

Schools, health services, libraries — and the salaries that go with them — are all on the chopping block as states and cities face their worst cash squeeze since the Great Depression

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Ellen Weinstein for TIME

In New Jersey, taxes are high, the budget's a mess, government is inefficiently organized, and the public pension fund is blown to kingdom come. Which makes New Jersey a lot like most other states in 2010. What makes the state unusual is its rookie governor, a human bulldozer named Chris Christie, who vowed to lead like a one-termer and is keeping his promise with brio. He has proposed chopping $11 billion from the state's budget — more than a quarter of the total — for fiscal year 2011 (which starts July 1). He's backing a constitutional cap on property taxes in hopes of pushing the state's myriad villages and townships to merge into more efficient units. He's locked in an ultimate cage match with the New Jersey teachers' union. It may be the bitterest political fight in the country — and that's saying something this year. A union official recently circulated a humorous prayer with a punch line asking God to kill Christie. You know, New Jersey humor. And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Christie didn't talk about the possibility that his fiscal initiatives might be compromised or defeated; he pictured himself "lying dead on State Street in Trenton," the state capital. Presumably that was a figure of speech.

The tone of the New Jersey budget battle may be distinctive, but many of the same notes can be heard in state capitals across the country. From Hartford to Honolulu, once sturdy state governments are approaching the brink of fiscal calamity, as the crash of 2008 and its persistent aftermath have led to the reckoning of 2010. Squeezed by the end of federal stimulus money on one hand and desperate local governments on the other, states are facing the third straight year of staggering budget deficits, and the necessary cuts will cost jobs, limit services and touch the lives of millions of Americans. Government workers have been laid off in half the states plus Puerto Rico. Twenty-two states have instituted unpaid furloughs. At least 28 states have ordered across-the-board budget cuts, with many of them adding deeper cuts in targeted agencies. And massive shortfalls in public pension plans loom as well.

Almost no one — and no place — is exempt. Nearly everywhere, tax revenue plummeted as property values tanked, incomes dwindled and consumers stopped shopping. Falling prices for stocks and real estate have made mincemeat of often underfunded public pension plans. Unemployed workers have swelled the demand for welfare and Medicaid services. Governments that were frugal in the past are just squeaking by. Governments that were lavish in the good times, building their budgets on optimism and best-case scenarios, now risk being wrecked like a shantytown in an earthquake.

How the Money Ran Out

For the first time in four decades of collecting data, the National Governors Association (NGA) reports that total state spending has dropped for two years in a row. In hard-hit Arizona, for example, the state budget has sagged to 2004 levels, despite blistering growth in population and demand for government services. Starting with the 2008 fiscal year, state governments have closed more than $300 billion in cumulative budget gaps, with another $125 billion already projected for the coming years, says Corina Eckl, fiscal-program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Similar figures aren't collected for the nation's counties, villages and towns, but when the National League of Cities surveyed mayors recently, three-fourths of them described worsening economic conditions.

Accustomed to the ups and downs of the ordinary economic cycle, elected officials and budget planners are facing something none of them have experienced before: year after year of shortfalls, steadily compounding. Ordinarily, deficits are resolved mostly through budgetary hocus-pocus. But the length and depth of the recession are forcing governments to go beyond sleight of hand to genuine cuts. And that makes lawmakers gloomy in all but a handful of states. (It's a swell time to be North Dakota.) According to an NCSL survey, worry or outright pessimism is the reigning mood in the vast majority of capitals.

Many taxpayers might say that it's about time spending dropped. But then they start hearing the specifics. Government budgets contain a lot of fixed costs and herds of sacred cows. K-12 education absorbs nearly a third of all spending from state general funds. Add medical expenses, primarily Medicaid, and it's over half. Prisons must be maintained, colleges and universities kept open, interest on bonds and other loans paid. Real cuts provoke loud howls, and you can hear them rising in every corner of the country. College students have marched in California, firefighters have protested in Florida, and on June 10, Minnesota saw the largest one-day strike of nurses — some 12,000 — in U.S. history.

And don't count on the shaky economic recovery for relief. After plunging in 2009, tax receipts are stabilizing in many places — but the next big shoe is fixing to drop. Having poured billions of dollars into state coffers through the stimulus act of 2009, the federal government is poised to close the tap. President Obama made an unusual Saturday night request to Congress last week for $50 billion in emergency aid to the states to stave off layoffs of teachers, firefighters and police. But it's an election year, and there is scant appetite among vulnerable Democrats in Washington for more zeros at the end of the federal deficit. (Only the federal government is allowed to run deficits; states and cities must balance their budgets or face default.) Already, 11 states are projecting major budget gaps — greater than 10% of general-fund spending — well into 2013. Such persistent budget woes are unprecedented in the era of modern American government. You'd have to go back to the 1930s to find a parallel.

Crisis in the Statehouses

On the grand scale, this fiscal fiasco is playing out in California and New York. Both states boast economies far larger than that of Greece, which so disturbed the world economy this spring. And both are paralyzed by structural deficits far larger than their politicians seem able to grasp. The impasse in California between Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrats controlling the legislature appears set in concrete. Last year, the Golden State was reduced to issuing IOUs; this year's budget, some $19 billion in the hole, is once again a shambles. In New York, Democrats control all the levers, but they can't find a cost-cutting deal acceptable to the public-employee unions that helped elect them. The deficit in Albany is $9.2 billion.

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