Thinking Strategically About a Post-Balanced Budget Future
Paul Krugman has a good column today about how state balanced budget needs lead to perverse outcomes during an economic crisis that demands fiscal stimulus.
But even as Washington tries to rescue the economy, the nation will be reeling from the actions of 50 Herbert Hoovers — state governors who are slashing spending in a time of recession, often at the expense both of their most vulnerable constituents and of the nation’s economic future.
These state-level cutbacks range from small acts of cruelty to giant acts of panic — from cuts in South Carolina’s juvenile justice program, which will force young offenders out of group homes and into prison, to the decision by a committee that manages California state spending to halt all construction outlays for six months.
As Krugman notes, it's crazy to cut public spending at the same time that private spending is drying up. It's a recipe for a Hoover-esque depression with no investment or economic activity, and no way to increase consumer spending or create jobs.
Krugman acknowledges that balanced-budget rules are only a part of this problem in the states.
The answer, of course, is that state and local government revenues are plunging along with the economy — and unlike the federal government, lower-level governments can’t borrow their way through the crisis. Partly that’s because these governments, unlike the feds, are subject to balanced-budget rules. But even if they weren’t, running temporary deficits would be difficult. Investors, driven by fear, are refusing to buy anything except federal debt, and those states that can borrow at all are being forced to pay punitive interest rates.
Are governors responsible for their own predicament? To some extent. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in particular, deserves some jeers. He became governor in the first place because voters were outraged over his predecessor’s budget problems, but he did nothing to secure the state’s fiscal future — and he now faces a projected budget deficit bigger than the one that did in Gray Davis.
That's absolutely true. And the suffocating 2/3 requirement is most of the problem here. But once we get out of this crisis, hopefully with some assistance from the federal government for Medicaid and public works, we need to think a little more creatively about how to reduce the risk of a state's fiscal trap on the greater economy. One idea is allowing state governments the ability to deficit spend, perhaps through the creation of some federal Stimulus fund that states facing certain deficits can tap. This is the framework behind the National Infrastructure Bank proposed by Sens. Dodd and Hagel last year, but I would broaden it out. There's also the option of federal guarantees for state bond markets to increase investor confidence, or allowing states in a fiscal emergency to borrow at lower federal rates in the short term. These are steps similar to those being used to bail out banks, with the Fed intervening in the commercial paper market, and they should be tools for the states as well.
With structures like this in place, just maybe we can phase out the balanced budget amendments that force these bad choices on the states. Ultimately, California can't ask for help until they help themselves. The bond market will simply not improve until investors are assured that the state can manage its own affairs. But after the failed Schwarzenegger Administration, the next governor should think seriously about giving the state flexibility in an economic downturn, rather than going along with the necessary steps to making things measurably worse.