States React to Economic Turmoil


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Many states are in a fiscal crunch and the number of states facing budget shortfalls may be growing. This week the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a state fiscal update saying that, "At least twenty-five states, including several of the nation's largest, face budget shortfalls in fiscal year 2009." A sluggish economy, bursting housing bubble, and the decline of tax revenues have all had a significant impact on states and their ability to keep budgets balanced.

It's not always clear that states can act as effectively as the federal government to kick start a sluggish economy, but that doesn't stop them from trying. For any legislation to be effective as a stimulus to counteract a recession, it must be "temporary, timely and targeted," as argued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some of the stimulus initiatives being proposed on the state level meet these goals better than others. Tax cuts that are not temporary can do more harm to states in the long-run, and provisions that will not have any benefit until after a recession has passed are useless as a stimulus. Most importantly, those tax cuts not targeted towards low- and middle-income people are not likely to result in new spending that immediately spurs the economy, but will go largely towards savings, which takes much longer to have a positive effect.

Stimulus Plans in the States: Connecticut, Iowa, Georgia, and Ohio

In Connecticut, Governor Jodi Rell has asked legislators to reconsider their economic stimulus proposals, arguing that there is no money available to pay for tax cuts. Senate Democrats there proposed increasing the state's property tax credit by $250 and House Republicans proposed offering tax credits to offset medical and energy costs. It's certainly not obvious that an increased property tax credit is well-targeted, since property-owners tend to have higher incomes than everyone else. Depending on how it's implemented, it may not be timely either.

Policymakers in Georgia have proposed legislation to expand the state's personal exemptions temporarily. The legislation is targeted to the degree that it benefits middle-income people, but it doesn't reach those too poor to pay state income taxes. It's also flawed because it's not entirely timely. A lot of people won't benefit until next year.

Some Iowa lawmakers have adopted a completely different approach to providing economic stimulus by proposing a five-year property tax break for Iowans who improve their homes. According to one state senator, the tax break "really rewards all homeowners that have pursued the American dream of owning their own home." But a five-year tax break does not qualify as temporary, at least for the purpose of responding to a recession. It's also hard to believe that it would be targeted to those who need help and will spend the extra money right away, and it's not clear that any home improvements that result will happen quickly enough to qualify this as timely. Another idea being tossed around is a proposal that would expand the state's sales tax holiday to include all items subject to the sales tax. ITEP has long argued that sales tax holidays are not good policy. In this context it's worth noting that they are usually not targeted well at all, since the benefits go to everyone who shops during the sales tax holiday and because people who need help the most are less capable of shifting the timing of their consumption to take advantage of it.

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland isn't proposing increased tax credits. Instead, his plan includes borrowing $1.7 billion in an attempt to stimulate the state's economy and create 80,000 jobs. If approved by voters, more money would be available for transportation, renewable energy technologies, and local infrastructure projects. Borrowing to fund important investments makes sense in some contexts, but as a stimulus it's unclear whether these investments will give a timely boost to the economy to counteract a recession that is occurring now.

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