The Impact of Federal Cutbacks

During my college days, I had the opportunity to interview a local government official tasked with conducting various disaster response programs. North Dakota had, at the time, been dealing with severe flood issues for nearly a decade, and the interviewee had vast experience dealing with the ins and outs of working within the system to find mitigation solutions. Asked about the challenges of having to deal with a multitude of state and federal agencies, he informed me that the most vital contacts he had were at the federal level. His reasoning?

"That's where the money is."

Given the current political winds blowing from D.C., the conditions that spurred that view might be about to change in substantial ways.

With the recent failure of the "Super Committee" to find a deal on potential budget cuts and tax reforms, states may soon find themselves faced with a set of federal spending cuts to programs and services that undergird large parts of their economy. These automatic cuts, triggered in 2013 by the committee's failure, will total nearly $1.2 Trillion and be between domestic and defense expenditures. While many may laud such cuts as a way to help bring the federal budget back towards a semblance of order, it is worth noting that the impact on state economies moving forward could be substantial.

Federal spending, be it on defense, salaries for federal workers, infrastructure, or procurement makes up a sometimes major part of state economic activity. As outlined in a recent piece at, some states have far greater exposure than others. In New Mexico, home to several major federal research institutions, over 12% of Gross State Product (GSP) is attributable to federal government spending. Virginia and Maryland, home to so many federal workers and contractors are even more economically dependent on federal spending, with 13.5% (MD) and 18.5% (VA) of their economies being due to federal activity. The spillover of cuts at the federal level can't help but impact on the overall economic health of such states. The impact will likely be felt throughout the nation as federal agencies find themselves forced to tighten their belts.

Scholars of federalism often refer to the period since the late 1970's as the era of "New Federalism." Beginning under President Carter, and embraced fully by the conservative movement during the 1980's, New Federalism was marked by increasing devolution of powers and responsibility to state governments and calls for states to be given more control over the reins when spending allotted federal dollars.

While states continue to play an important role in the system, actions taken over the past few years under the Bush and Obama administrations seemed to hearken back to the earlier, cooperative model of federalism, with the federal government taking on a more assertive role in working with and through state and local governments to provide stimulus, reform healthcare, and implement post 9/11 security initiatives. While state leaders might have chafed at the strings tied to certain lines of funding, the dollars provided offered states a way to backfill budget shortfalls during a time of economic stress.

With the demise of the Super Committee, continued calls for deeper spending cuts and gridlock over raising revenues are setting the table for a changed federal-state relationship. As federal agencies strike their tents on various programs and initiatives, states will find themselves receiving less direct federal largess and facing lower economic activity as federal dollars working their way through the local economy are reduced. Budget austerity may lead the federal government to increasingly leave the states to their own means- devolution by force, instead of by choice.