States Prepare as Supercommittee Targets $500 Billion in U.S. Federal Aid
In statehouses across the U.S., a budget-cutting congressional supercommittee and the sputtering economy threaten a fledgling recovery from the worst fiscal crisis in more than 70 years.
Stalled job growth, eroding consumer confidence and a stock market that has lost more than $2 trillion since April may cut into tax collections that have yet to fully rebound from the recession. At the same time, Washington policy makers are moving to slash federal spending, a potential threat to dozens of programs -- from Medicaid and school-lunch subsidies to defense contracts and law-enforcement grants -- that nourish state budgets and local economies.
“We need money,” California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, told reporters in Sacramento this month. “The state is facing a national economy that may go into another recession, a great retraction, and the people in Washington are cutting back even more.”
With the debt-cutting supercommittee debating ways to shave $1.5 trillion from U.S. spending over the next decade and some in Washington calling for cuts of even more, states are dealing with an added source of concern: Just how much of the approximately $500 billion they receive from the federal government each year may disappear?
President Barack Obama has added to that concern with his $447 billion plan to stoke the economy and his recommendations to the supercommittee today. While offering funds for states and localities to stem job cuts, Obama has also proposed scaling back a tax exemption for municipal-bond interest -- something that could raise borrowing costs.
Obama also proposed changes to Medicaid, the jointly funded health-care program for the poor. Among them is a step to cut federal spending by $26.3 billion over 10 years by limiting a tax technique states use to reduce their share of the costs.
Public officials are trying to figure out how to prepare for federal cuts or a recessionary relapse.
In Virginia, Republican Governor Robert McDonnell is moving to set aside cash to cushion the impact of budget cuts in his military-heavy state. Tennessee agencies are readying plans to cope with losing as much as 30 percent of their federal funds. And in California, Brown, 73, says the stalled economy could force deeper cuts to cash-strapped schools.
Wall Street Watching
On Wall Street, analysts are also watching for any strains that could affect the value of state and local government bonds, a $2.9 trillion market.
“The weakening of the economy is going to have a more immediate hit, but I think the focus of the market is what the 12-person panel does over the next few months,” said Chris Mauro, a municipal-debt investment strategist for RBC Capital Markets in New York. “Investors shouldn’t think the worst is behind us.”
For now, states are reporting rising income-tax receipts, and the trend may continue if concerns that growth will stall prove unwarranted. Helped by the economy, state budget gaps are expected to drop to $32 billion in the next fiscal year, about a third of the level for the current one, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. Any congressional moves also may spare states immediate pain.
Still, only three months into fiscal 2012 for most states, there are signs of worry. “They all would say close to the same thing, which is, ‘We’re concerned and we have to watch,’” said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers in Washington.
State tax collections lag behind the overall economy, so any shift wouldn’t show up for months. State receipts peaked during the height of the financial panic in September 2008, about 10 months after the recession began, and didn’t begin rising again until the first quarter of 2010, some six months after its official end, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Even with gains since 2010, helped in part by tax increases, state revenue has yet to climb back to its peak.
On Sept. 9, the chief economist for Florida’s Legislature said the state’s recovery will be “significantly” slower than forecast, raising the prospect that budget deficits will reemerge. The same day, California Controller John Chiang said state revenue trailed budget estimates by about $404 million two months into the fiscal year.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’s administration this month said that it expects slowing economic growth to cut several hundred million dollars from projected state receipts during the next two years. In neighboring Ohio, Governor John Kasich has said he’s ready to cut spending again if revenue slows. Washington state, reliant on sales taxes, last week cut $1.4 billion from its revenue forecast through fiscal 2013.
“Global economic uncertainty, new data on national output and the stalemate in Washington, D.C., have slowed the outlook for economic activity significantly since our last forecast,” Arun Raha, the chief revenue forecaster for Washington state, said in a statement. “Our reduced revenue estimates today are troubling, but not surprising.”
States with economies closely tied to the U.S. government, through military bases, direct employment, or large numbers on federal assistance, may face added strain.
In July, Moody’s Investors Service told Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee and New Mexico that they may lose their Aaa general-obligation debt ratings because of the fiscal turmoil in the nation’s capital. Today, Moody’s said it is keeping a negative outlook on the credit ratings of U.S. states as a whole, citing the twin challenges posed by the economy and a debt-averse federal government.
‘No One’ Spared
“No one can be spared from the pain of the overspending, over-borrowing and overtaxing by our government under Republicans and Democrats,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, told reporters this month. “Am I concerned? I’ll deal with whatever comes. I would be much more concerned if they didn’t deal with this problem because that is going to be more destructive for my children and grandchildren.”
Congress is moving toward cutting as much as $2.4 trillion over the next decade, a result of the comprise Obama struck with Republicans in exchange for allowing the federal government to borrow more money. The initial phase, which will save $917 billion by limiting spending growth, spared states by holding spending nearly steady in 2012. How that is to be done, and how it bears on dozens of state and local programs, hasn’t been specified.
The congressional supercommittee of 12 lawmakers, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, has a broader mandate for finding $1.5 trillion more through any mix of spending cuts and revenue change they can agree upon. If they can’t agree on at least $1.2 trillion in savings, automatic cuts of that amount would be triggered, and half would come from defense.
Some states have reason to root for that outcome. If no agreement is reached, some $364 billion headed their way would be exempt from such cuts, including money for Medicaid, some roadwork and cash assistance for the poor, according to Federal Funds Information for States, a service of the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures. About $133 billion in other aid could be cut, including cash for education programs, rent support for the poor and homeland security grants, according to the service.
There’s no way to say precisely how deep the effects will be, though cuts are inevitable, said Michael Bird, a Washington lobbyist for the legislatures group.
Bracing for Pain
“There’s no way to prevent this,” he said. “It’s going to happen.”
Few places have more at stake than Representative Scott Rigell’s district in Virginia Beach. Nearly half of the economy in the coastal region known as Hampton Roads, which spans the state’s southeast, is generated by military bases and contracts, making it vulnerable should the stalemate in Congress prevail.
Nevertheless, Rigell, a Republican who was first elected last year, said the threat of a national fiscal crisis from the spiraling debt was a greater concern.
“It’s putting the foundation of our country at risk,” he said. “If each and every person brings to Washington a parochial mindset that never, never in my district should we experience any pain, then we’re in for a very difficult time.”
States are facing their own difficult times, even without additional stress from the nation’s capital. They’ve cut 130,000 jobs since state employment peaked in August 2008. Since the last three months of that year, when revenue began sliding, budget-cutting state and local governments have exerted a drag on the economy in all but two quarters.
In Illinois, the cuts aren’t over. This month, Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, said the state will dismiss 1,900 state employees to avoid a partial government shutdown early next year. The state is short of cash even though it raised its personal income-tax rate by 67 percent in January.
In Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper also sees no easing to the pressure on his state.
“We know we’re going to have a difficult budget year,” he told reporters this month. “We’re not looking for a bailout from the federal government. We’re not going to buy our way out of this recession. We’re going to have to grow our way out.”
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