With over $20 trillion in amassed debt, the United States federal government is no stranger to running budget deficits. It’s essentially common and expected practice now. For college students my age, the knowledge that there used to be a balanced budget in the US comes as a surprise that almost doesn’t seem real.
But for most state and local governments across the country, balanced budgets aren’t just the norm, but the rule. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 43 states require their governor to propose a balanced budget, 39 require the legislature to pass one, and 37 require the budget to continue to be balanced at the end of the fiscal year. In California, the constitution requires the governor to propose a balanced budget and prohibits the passage of a budget in which General Fund expenditures from exceeding General Fund revenues. In cases like California’s, it’s hard for states to even attempt to carry a deficit because their constitutions prevent them from selling bonds to pay for it.
California’s constitution was ratified in 1879. That’s 138 years (ideally) of balanced budgets. So why can’t the federal government do the same?
Spending only as much money as you get is definitely sound fiscal policy to ensure the solvency of the state government, but it does limit what legislatures can do in times of crisis. States and local governments are reliant on taxes on sales, income, and property — revenues that fall in economic recession when people lose their jobs, lose their property, and/or don’t buy as much. At the same time, reliance on safety net welfare programs increases, putting the state in a budget crunch.
Just as in the federal government, a great deal of state spending essentially runs on autopilot and is difficult to control. States take in — and then spend — a lot of money from federal grants or reimbursements, and the way that money is spent is typically determined by the federal government. Other revenues are specifically earmarked by law, such as money from lottery sales or gas taxes. And in other cases, like Proposition 98 in California, the state is required to spend a certain amount of money on specific departments. (Proposition 98 requires California to spend increasing amounts on education based on economic and enrollment growth).
A lack of flexibility can lead to desperate actions when the economy falters. Governments freeze hiring, stop maintaining buildings, cut back services, furlough employees, or renegotiate pension agreements. In 2009, Arizona was so desperate to balance its budget that it sold public buildings as a way to get money fast — including the Capitol, the state fairgrounds, and some prisons. These cuts can have further impacts on what we typically perceive as economic recovery, since state and local government spending makes up about 12 percent of GDP.
Whether this is good or bad depends in many ways on ideology. If state and local governments were allowed to follow the Keynesian model and spend their way out of an economic downturn, that would allow for even more powerful economic recovery efforts. But followers of Friedrich Hayek’s thinking would say that cutting state budgets in times of crisis keeps us rooted in the reality of the services our government gives us — and what they’re worth.