A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities highlights the increasingly precarious fiscal situation faced by state governments confronting the ongoing economic downturn. According to CBPP, "at least 44 states faced or are facing shortfalls in their budgets for this and/or next year, and severe fiscal problems are highly likely to continue into the following year as well."
The scope of these emerging deficits varies greatly. Mississippi currently has a budget deficit of around $33 million, which "could reach as high as $70 million-$80 million by the end of the fiscal year." On the high end of the spectrum, California faces the daunting prospect of a $15 Billion deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, with the potential for "another $25-billion-plus for the next fiscal year," if nothing is done to bring the shortfall under control.
The process of bringing budgets into balance should be the source of much political turmoil over the next year. In Minnesota, which has a predicted two-year deficit of $6 Billion, legislators are beginning to spar over the potential tax increases and budget cuts. On Dec. 26, Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced $271 million in "emergency cuts," with a large share coming from aid payments to local governments. Legally required to have a balanced budget, as are many states, legislative leaders in Minnesota face the prospect of a challenge "so ugly that a special summer session will be needed to finish the budget." In New York, which faces the "largest deficit in state history," Governor David Patterson recently presented an "austerity budget," calling for cuts in state aid to local governments, education funding, and property tax rebate programs. Looking at all potential options to fill the gap, Patterson has also "appointed a commission to look into leasing state assets," including bridges, roads, and parks. The privatization of state assets and infrastructure as a means to raise funds is also being considered in Minnesota and Massachusetts, which faces a FY2009 deficit of over $2 billion.
With states potentially facing a combined deficit of $350 billion through FY2011, the pressure to make difficult policy decisions is sure to increase, as are requests for outside aid. Already, there are calls for the federal government to step into the fray, with governments across the nation "lining up to ask President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress for hundreds of billions of dollars to plug holes in their budgets". Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, facing a two-year deficit of $7.3 billion, is "preparing a pitch for three chunks of money," to be delivered to the states to support education, infrastructure, and aid to the poor. CBPP also argues that there is a need for federal assistance, in order to "lessen the extent to which states take pro-cyclical actions that can further harm the economy." Facing an increasingly challenging economic situation which may limit the options at their disposal, it appears that states will look to the incoming Obama administration to find ways to stop "the bleeding."