Category Archives: State & Local Finance

U.S. State and Local Shortfall Update: December 2020

Source: Dan White, Emily Mandel, and Colin Seitz, Moody’s, December 17, 2020
(subscription required)

Will the money come from taxpayers over time funding federal debt or more immediately in tax hikes and austerity measures?

  • Without additional federal assistance we project states and local governments will be forced to raise taxes or cut spending by between $171 billion and $301 billion over the next year and a half.
  • Though nearly every state will see significant fiscal stress this year and next, the consequences of these shortfalls will vary even more than usual from one state to another.
  • How federal policymakers choose to react to these shortfalls will have significant implications for the economic outlook.

Fiscal Effects of COVID-19

Source: Alan Auerbach, Bill Gale, Byron Lutz, Louise Sheiner, The Brookings Institution, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, BPEA Conference Drafts, September 24, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated policy responses have had a significant impact on government budgets. Federal spending has skyrocketed. State and local governments, almost all of which face some form of annual balanced budget rule, confront fiscalshocks on both the revenue and spending sides that threaten to make the recession deeper and slow the recovery. This paper examines the impact of COVID on the fiscal status of the federal government and the states.

Section II provides new projections ofthe federal budget outlook, with five main results. First, we document that the pandemic and the policy responses to it rapidly and substantially raised federal deficits, but only on a temporary basis. Spending and revenue are projected to return to pre-COVID baseline values relatively quickly. Second, the long-term fiscal outlook through 2050 has deteriorated somewhat. Under the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO 2020f) assumptions for GDP growth and interest rates, we project that the debt-to-GDP ratio, currently 98 percent, will rise to 190 percent in 2050 under current law, compared to a pre-COVID baseline projection of 180 percent. CBO (2020f) obtains a similar projection – 195 percent –using a slightly different set of assumptions.

Third, although the economic downturn and COVID-related legislation raise debt permanently, sharply lower projections of interest rates for the next dozen years help moderate future debt accumulation. Nevertheless, even during the period when interest rates are projected to be low, the projected debt-to-GDP ratio rises steadily due to substantial and rising primary deficits, driven largely by rising outlays on health-related programs and Social Security. As the economy grows and debt accumulates, interest rates are projected to rise and to exceed the nominal GDP growth rate by increasing amounts starting in the early 2040s.

Fourth, under a “current policy” projection that allows temporary tax provisions –such as those in the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 –to be made permanent, the debt-to-GDP ratio would rise to 222 percent by 2050 and would continuing rising thereafter. Fifth, the long-term projections are sensitive to interest rates. If interest rates remain low (that is, at their projected level for 2025), rather than rising as in the CBO projections, the debt-to-GDP ratio would equal157percent in 2050 under current policy.

We discuss several aspects of these results – including how the current episode compares to past debt changes, the role of historically low interest rates, and recent Federal Reserve Board policies. Because of the macro-stabilization effects of fiscal tightening, and because low interest rates create “breathing room” for fiscal policy, we do not see the large, short-run debt accumulation resulting from the current pandemic as necessitating any immediate offsetting response. But the long-term projections show that significant fiscal imbalances remain and will eventually require attention.

Section III discuss the effects on state and local governments. We examine several recent estimates of the effects of the pandemic on state and local budgets — some of which find relatively modest effects and others which find effects that dwarf those experienced during the Great Recession. We note that the very unusual nature of the current recession meansthat relying on the historical relationships between the state of the economy and state and local tax revenues may produce misleading results. We instead attempt to calculate the impact on state and local government using a “bottom-up” approach that accounts for the geographic variation in the distribution of unemployment and consumption declines, the fact that low-wage workers have been particularly hard hit this recession while higher-income workers have been much less affected, and the fact that the stock market has not responded to the economic downturn as it has in the past.

Our findings suggest that this pandemic is indeed having very unusual effects on state and local revenues. We estimate far smaller income tax losses than would have been expected on the basis of historical experience, which we attribute to the fact that employment losses have been unusually concentrated on low-wage workers, the unprecedented increases and expansions of unemployment insurance benefits and business loans, which will shore up taxable income in 2020, and the fact that the stock market has held up so far, unlike most of the prior economic downturns. On the other hand, our estimates of the losses in sales and other taxes and fees are much larger than one would have expected—the decline in use of transportation services alone seems likely to depress revenues by over $45 billion this year. In aggregate, we estimate that state and local own source revenues, excluding fees to public hospitals and institution of higher education — which we view as somewhat distinct —will decline $155 billion in 2020, $167 billion in 2021, and $145 billion in 2022. Including lower fees to hospitals and higher ed would bring these totals to $188 billion, $189 billion, and $167 billion.

We then turn to a discussion of federal aid. We estimate that the legislation enacted last spring provides about $212 billion in aid to state and local governments, excluding aid to public hospitals and higher ed, and $250 billion including that aid. While this appears to be larger than the total revenue declines expected thisyear, that doesn’t mean that the aid has been sufficient to preclude tough budget choices and poor macroeconomic outcomes. First, should the economy remain below its pre-COVID baseline for many years, as the CBO projections suggest, these governments will face significant shortfalls in coming years. Knowing that, they are likely to restrain spending somewhat this year, and make additional cuts in coming years. Second, the pandemic itself has likely increased the demands on state and local governments—for public health spending, virtual schooling, help for the elderly, etc. Simply maintaining pre-COVID levels of spending may not be enough to assure that necessary services aren’t cut. Finally, our analysis shows that smaller states got much more generous aid relative to their losses, and that states like New York and California will likely be facing budget shortfalls in the current year even without consideration of the spending demands brought on by COVID-19.

Section IV provides concluding remarks.

Related:
State and Local Fiscal Conditions and COVID-19: Lessons from the Great Recession and Current Projections
Source: Congressional Research Service, CRS INSIGHT, IN11394, Updated July 8, 2020

Without Another Massive Federal Stimulus, State and Local Governments Will Face Brutal Austerity
Source: Colin Gordon, Jacobin, November 10, 2020

States Grappling With Hit to Tax Collections
Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, November 6, 2020

How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Transforming State Budgets

Source: Urban Institute, December 11, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession have dramatically reshaped state economies and budgets. But the severity of the pandemic and economic downturn varies significantly across states, creating unique economic and political pressures. We collected health, economic, and fiscal data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia to show how each individual state has changed during this crisis and suggest what might be needed for recovery.

Learning From the Joneses: The Professional Learning Effect of Regional Councils of Government on Municipal Fiscal Slack in Suburban Chicago

Source: David Mitchell, Whitney Davis, Rebecca Hendrick, Public Budgeting and Finance, Advance Articles, First published: October 30, 2020 (subscription required)

From the abstract:
Fiscal slack scholars have sought to identify the primary generators of unreserved fund balance (UFB) within local governments, including economic, organizational, demographic, institutional, and political factors. Guo and Wang (2017) extend this endeavor spatially; however, geography may mask the professional learning impact of subregional councils of governments (COGs). This study examines 265 Chicago suburban municipalities to reveal through a pairing approach that municipalities who belong to the same subregional COG generally have more similar UFB levels, independent of geographical proximity. Policymakers can therefore utilize COGs when making decisions regarding a municipality’s most vital resource for strategic investments and fiscal stress.

Helping America’s distressed communities recover from the COVID-19 recession and achieve long-term prosperity

Source: Timothy J. Bartik, Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, September 2020

From the summary:
Even before the COVID-19 recession, distressed communities across the United States lacked sufficient jobs. The pandemic’s effects will further damage these local areas, while pushing even more places into economic distress. Without intervention, even a robust national recovery may leave many communities behind. Communities’ responses will be hindered by a lack of resources, and their residents will suffer from lower earnings and increased social problems.

As a solution, this paper proposes a new federal block grant to create or retain good jobs in distressed communities and help residents access these jobs. The block grant would provide long-term flexible assistance to increase local earnings and ensure those gains are broadly shared.

How Public Officials Can Use Data and Evidence to Make Strategic Budget Cuts

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts, Issue Brief, September 2020

From the overview:
Targeted spending reductions can help state, county leaders respond to shifting priorities amid pandemic. …. This issue brief provides a look at selected reforms officials made in the past, 10 years of revenue expansion that can be repurposed for more challenging fiscal conditions. The COVID-19 recession gives policymakers an opportunity to use these tools as they decide what services and programs to deliver and where to cut the budget in a more strategic way. ….

State and Local Government Pension Funding on the Eve of the COVID-19 Recession

Source: John G. Kilgour, Compensation & Benefits Review, OnlineFirst, August 5, 2020
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
This article examines the funding of public pension plans through 2019. Particular attention is paid to the impact of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board’s Standard No. 68. It addressed (1) discount rates, (2) amortization periods, (3) asset valuation and smoothing, and (4) the actuarial cost method used. The combined effect of these measures has been to increase the amount of public pension underfunding significantly. The actuarial funded ratio of the 126 plans in the Public Plans Database went from 101.9 in 2001 to 71.9 in 2019, on the eve of the COVID-19 recession. It will no doubt continue to worsen in the years ahead. The extent of that likely worsening is also explored.

The Economic Impact of Losing the Full Deductibility of State and Local Taxes in New York State

Source: Rockefeller Institute of Government and New York State Division of the Budget, May 14, 2020

From the summary:
Key findings are as follows:

  • The enactment of the cap on the SALT deduction reduces income available to New Yorkers. Each $1 reduction in personal income reduced total economic output in the state by $1.17.
  • If the 2017 SALT cap were eliminated, New York State’s economy would support 107,000 additional full-time jobs annually, on average, in the first seven years (2018–24). Most of the additional jobs would have been created in New York City (55,000) and the greater New York City metro area (45,000) compared with the rest of the state (8,000).
  • The employment losses are largest in the services, construction, and trade (wholesale and retail) sectors.
  • New York’s population would be 104,000 higher, on average, if the SALT cap were eliminated.
  • Total economic activity lost as a result of the SALT cap ranges from $14.4 billion to $24.5 billion annually depending on the methodological approach used for analysis.
  • Because housing prices and incomes are higher in New York City and the greater New York City metro area, these areas pay more in property and state income taxes, and take higher itemized deductions on their Federal taxes. As a result of the SALT cap, housing prices decline by 0.9 percent in New York City, 1.5 percent in the greater New York City metro area, and 0.2 percent in the rest of state on average in the first seven years.
  • The states that are most affected by the limit of the SALT deduction are those that annually contribute more to the Federal budget than they receive in program expenditures.
  • In 2018, New York ranked worst in the nation for its balance of payments, and bears the second largest increased burden as a result of the SALT deduction.