Trickle Down Uncertainty
States Seize Opportunities Amidst Federal Instability
By Jennifer Burnett, CSG Program Manager, Fiscal and Economic Policy
When the federal government shut down last October, 850,000 federal workers were furloughed for an unprecedented 6.6 million combined days. Forecasters estimated the shutdown cost the economy between $2 billion and $6 billion in lost output.
The short-term fix passed by Congress, called the continuing resolution, left the door open that the same situation could occur once again. The continuing resolution funded the government through Jan. 15, 2014, while the debt limit agreement lasts until Feb. 7, 2014.
“The chances of another shutdown fluctuated every day, depending on the overall political climate,” said JC Hendrickson, director of legislative affairs in The Council of State Governments’ Washington, D.C., office. Public opinion soured immediately following the October 2013 shutdown and a repeat at first seemed unlikely.
Since the continuing resolution passed, however, the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act insurance marketplace website, HealthCare.gov, and the cancellation of health plans have pulled public attention away from the shutdown.
“The health law’s rollout issues usurped the public discontent with the shutdown, potentially increasing the chances of another shutdown,” said Hendrickson.
That left states facing another potential economy buster even as they dealt with the impacts from the last shutdown, the continuing political turmoil in Washington and the pending cuts from what has come to be known as sequestration combined with an anemic recovery from the Great Recession.
States responded to the funding gap caused by the shutdown very differently, according to Melissa Loeb, a senior policy analyst with Federal Funds Information for States, a service that tracks and reports on the fiscal impact of federal budget and policy decisions on state budgets and programs.
“States backfilled federal funding gaps depending on their individual budgetary situations,” she said. “Some used reserves, others used carryover funds.”
For example, during the federal government shutdown, Arizona, New York, South Dakota, Colorado and Tennessee faced the closure of national parks that bring in significant tourism dollars. To mitigate the economic damage of those closures, each state paid the federal government to keep the parks open.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo worked out an agreement with the federal government to keep the Liberty Island National Park open during the shutdown at a daily cost of $61,600. Cuomo touted the importance of keeping the Statue of Liberty open in a press release in October.
“The Statue of Liberty is one of this country’s most recognizable landmarks, attracting millions of visitors to the state every year, and its closure these last 11 days has had a terrible impact on the local economy and tourism industry,” said Cuomo. “Every day that Liberty Island is closed means we are losing visitors who would otherwise be spending at our local businesses—not to mention the employees who maintain the park and have been forced out of work.”
He blamed the political stalemate in Washington for the negative impact the shutdown had on his state.
“As the shutdown continues, we cannot afford to lose the thousands of visits to the park each day. So while the dysfunction and gridlock in Washington, D.C., has failed to keep this important state asset open, New York is stepping up to take over this responsibility,” said Cuomo.
Unfortunately, stepping up like New York did to keep state economies moving could come at a cost to state coffers.
Loeb said the continuing resolution Congress passed includes a provision that allows for reimbursement to states.
“However, the national parks were outside of the scope and were considered donations to the federal government,” she said. That means states that kept national parks open could end up eating the costs.
Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to repay the states, but its chances of success are uncertain.
The rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act—and the shifting requirements for compliance—has been a major contributor to both political turmoil in Washington and uncertainty for states.
Absent a solution to the political gridlock, states and the anemic economic recovery will pay the price.
“The clock started ticking for Congress to reach a budget deal before the continuing resolution expired,” said Hendrickson. “For states, having to plan for two very different fiscal scenarios—both another shutdown and a budget deal with unknown details—has been a very difficult position.”
That comes at a time when states are seeing some revenue growth brought by a recovering economy, but the unsteady situation in Washington could cripple that recovery.
Utah, for instance, is anticipating total revenue growth of 3.8 percent for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2014, said Juliette Tennert, budget director and chief economist in the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. Gov. Gary Herbert will use that forecast, which was released in November, to form his budget. Tennert said the forecast is in line with the state’s long-term averages.
“Utah has been really well positioned during the expansion, so we are seeing this level of growth even with all of these additional pressures,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean what’s happening in Washington is not affecting Utah.
“I think the impact of sequestration, the federal shutdown and the uncertainty in the national economy are all weighing on Utah’s revenue forecast,” Tennert said.
Federal funding contributes about 27 percent of Utah’s total annual spending, but Tennert said federal spending cuts—like those from sequestration—aren’t the biggest concern for her state. She pointed out many of the state’s big mandatory programs, like Medicaid and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, are exempt from sequestration cuts.
“So on that level, cuts in federal spending on the direct budget are relatively small,” said Tennert.
“Where the impacts are really coming into play for Utah are the indirect economic impacts, including less federal spending in the national economy as a whole. The uncertainty in federal spending coupled with things like the 2013 payroll tax increase means that Utah families and families across the nation have less money in their paychecks to spend in the national economy,” she said. “It’s all of these things that are dragging on our economy and dragging on our revenue forecast.”
Sequestration and Anemic Recovery
Sequestration is a mechanism put into place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 as a way to encourage Congress to compromise on deficit reduction efforts. The act put into place limits on discretionary spending for the 2012 through 2021 fiscal years. When Congress couldn’t agree on a budget by the deadline set in the act, mandatory cuts took effect in early 2013.
According to Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sequestration covers discretionary spending, which is divided into two categories—defense and non-defense spending.
How exactly sequestration will work in 2014 is still up in the air, depending on what actions Congress takes.
“It’s not clear how it will play out, whether those cuts will be across the board again or if Congress will leave to appropriators the decisions on how to reach cut levels,” Leachman said.
Regardless of how sequestration plays out in the coming years, federal spending cuts are already having an impact on states.
“State aid has already been cut significantly as a result of sequestration and other deficit reduction measures that Congress has taken,” said Leachman. “So even before sequestration was implemented, Congress had cut nondefense discretionary spending levels to low levels compared to where they have been historically.”
Federal cuts have been particularly hard on education funding, especially when combined with state and local funding cuts.
“In addition to federal spending cuts, state funding for education has fallen. We have 35 states where state funding for K-12 schools is down since the recession hit,” said Leachman. “At the local level, it’s hard to make up for those cuts, which in turn has an impact on property tax revenues, which are still down compared to where they were.”
While state revenues are beginning to recover, the recovery hasn’t been strong enough to keep up with the increasing demands on states.
“It’s taken a really long time, but in the meantime, needs have gone up. The recession hit almost six years ago, and getting revenues back up just adjusting for general inflation, doesn’t really account for the increased needs since then,” said Leachman.
Those increased needs include more students to educate because of population growth, an uptick in the number of people qualifying for Medicaid and still heightened unemployment levels. Additional federal cuts could make it difficult for states to climb out of the fiscal hole the recession caused.
“Most states have a backlog of highway repairs and building that they need to do, and during the recession they cut very deeply into their spending on courts and child welfare systems,” said Leachman. “So states have a whole backlog of needs that adds to the difficulty of absorbing additional federal cuts.”
In general, states have two ways to fill funding gaps: raise revenue or shift funding around, which would lead to cuts in some programs.
“Raising new revenue is always a challenge, so in many cases it is likely that we will see additional service cuts,” said Leachman.
More cuts to education in particular could affect a state’s ability to thrive in the future.
“In the case of schools, those service cuts come on top of significant cuts that have already been made that drives up class sizes, shortens school years and leads to teachers being laid off,” said Leachman. “Those cuts have long-term impacts on a state’s economy by reducing the quality of education that kids receive.”
During healthy economic times, states might have more options to plug budget holes, but in the post-recession slow recovery, those choices are limited.
“Under other circumstances, states and localities might be in a better place to absorb further federal cuts, but there is just nowhere else to turn,” said Leachman.
CSG Federalism Task Force
Increasing political and fiscal instability at the federal level—and the effect that instability is having on states—are some of the reasons The Council of State Governments formed the Focus on Federalism Task Force. The group met for a second time in October, where the impact of federal action on state budgets was front and center during the discussion.
Nebraska Sen. Beau McCoy, a member of the task force and the 2014 chair of CSG Midwest, explained that federal instability is affecting states’ abilities to plan for their own fiscal future.
“We’re struggling to balance budgets at the state level in the midst of a lot of turmoil in Washington,” McCoy said.
Not knowing just how federal budget decisions will play out in the coming months and years—and how much spending cuts will be shifted onto states—leaves state leaders in a difficult spot.
“It makes it harder for states to plan when it is not clear how much federal aid is coming,” said Leachman.
Light at the End of the Tunnel—A Budget Deal
On Dec. 17, Congress passed a two-year budget deal, which rolled back some of the hardest-hitting sequester cuts for 2014 and 2015 and provided some certainty that there will not be another government shutdown, at least in the near future.
“The budget deal makes it certain that there will not be another shutdown before the midterm elections,” said Hendrickson. “But we won’t know the details until the appropriators decide how to implement the budget framework, or what will happen when we hit the debt ceiling in February. The shutdown crisis should be over, but the fiscal crisis may not be.”