A budget-balancing proposal even your state can learn

Few legislators run for office to say no to their constituents. But after years of saying yes to new programs and expansion of old ones, state legislators in 49 states must now cut spending, raise revenue, or both. The panic of the immediate budget crisis and painful recession should not undermine an opportunity to have a real debate about what state governments need to be doing, and how to pay for it.

It is true that the recession is the immediate cause of the crisis, but it would be dishonest to ignore the fact that when times were good, states used booming tax revenues to ratchet up spending commitments. Social services were expanded, already generous pensions for government workers were made more generous, state payrolls grew, and subsidies and tax incentives were lavished on politically favored industries.

Enabling this spending free-for-all was overreliance on revenue sources that soared in the boom but plummeted in the bust, like taxes on high-income earners, capital gains, and corporate profits. States became locked into spending growth that they could not sustain. Much of this was sold as a free lunch, as in Maryland where new programs were supposedly to be paid for by slots revenue and a tax on millionaires. (The slots have yet to happen and millionaires have begun vanishing along with their tax dollars.)

Nationwide, after growing at twice the rate of inflation and population growth during the boom, state revenues skidded 12 percent last year leaving budgets awash in red ink. States spent 2009 hitting up smokers for more taxes, holding tax amnesties, or adopting one-time gimmicks. Some started the year engaging in wishful thinking about tax revenues, even though tax collections historically recover only after the general economic recovery. As reality confronts the projections, budget gaps will reopen. Others will engage in accounting trickery or one-time gimmicks like California.

There are other options to put states on sounder legal footing. Here are five ideas for states to help both short-term and long-term fiscal woes:

  • Prioritize appropriations. When the majority-Democratic Arkansas Legislature votes to appropriate money, the money isn’t immediately spent. Instead, each appropriation goes to a legislative committee that ranks them in order of priority. Items are funded only to the extent money is available, forcing debate about how best to allocate limited resources while permitting a wish list if revenue exceeds expectations.
  • Review tax incentive programs. Although many states recognize they have burdensome tax systems, they use targeted incentives for particular industries rather than reducing burdens for everyone. Besides dumping a higher tax burden on everyone else, the jobs created are dependent on the handouts and often vanish when the incentives end. Tax incentive programs also often escape oversight and cost-benefit analysis. Iowa recently recommended elimination of several ineffective tax incentives after a review. Other states should do the same.
  • Broaden sales taxes and use the revenue to lower tax rates. A good sales tax applies to all final goods once and only once. Exempting clothing and groceries may seem like a good idea, but doing so causes year-to-year revenue instability and drives up the rate on everything else. Gross receipts taxes and taxes on business inputs cause distortions that harm economic growth. Adopting a sales tax base of all final products and services would enable both lower rates and more predictable revenue.