The Center's work on 'Budgets' Issues


Kansas’ Troubles Highlight Need for “Rainy Day” Reserve Fund

September 24, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Kansas these days offers a host of lessons of what not to do when managing state finances.  We’ve already noted one:  don’t enact unaffordable tax cuts.  Kansas’ massive income tax cuts have left it on the verge of a major fiscal emergency, as a Washington Post editorial pointed out.  Here’s another:  don’t go without a formal “rainy day” reserve fund.  Kansas is one of only four states without one, which helps explain its current troubles.

Kansas’ tax cuts caused a revenue decline so severe that the state, in order to pay for this year’s spending, drew on fund balances intended to provide a temporary financial cushion during economic downturns or other unexpected events.  That’s highly imprudent.  When the next downturn hits, Kansas will have little or no cushion to draw on, forcing tax increases or deeper cuts to schools and other public services — on top of the major cuts Kansas imposed due to the recession — when the state economy already is weakened.

If those balances had been held in a well-designed rainy day fund, with specific rules on when the state must make deposits and when (and for what purposes) it can make withdrawals, the fiscal irresponsibility of using these one-time funds to pay for permanent tax cuts would have been more apparent.  Lawmakers might have faced up to the tax cuts’ likely fiscal damage much earlier, by suspending them or even by not enacting them in the first place.

To be sure, Kansas law does require the annual budget to include a cushion equal to 7.5 percent of spending. But that’s not the same as a rainy day fund. Lawmakers have often suspended that requirement in recent years, including this year.  Even when in effect, that cushion is too small; the average state needs a fund of 15 percent or more to weather a moderate recession.

Other states can learn these lessons about reserve funds from the Kansas experience:

  • If you don’t have a rainy day fund, create one.  A rainy day fund moderates the need for large tax increases or spending cuts during economic downturns.  Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, and Montana are the only states without a formal one.
  • Build up reserves in good times.  As the economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession, this is a good time to replenish reserves before the next downturn.  In Kansas, year-end balances grew from 2010 until 2013 but have since plunged as the state drew on them to offset the revenue lost through tax cuts (see chart).  Kansas expects to have a balance near zero by next June (the end of fiscal year 2015) — and, in reality, it likely will reach zero well before then.  This will leave the state unprepared for unanticipated revenue declines or spending increases.  In contrast, states with formal rainy day funds are restocking them.  State year-end balances have doubled since 2010, on average.
  • Use rainy day funds only for temporary, unexpected revenue declines or expenses.  A rainy day fund is designed to fill in short-term budget holes.  Using one-time funds like balances from prior budgets for ongoing spending or tax cuts creates a future imbalance between revenues and spending.  In Kansas, whose tax cuts will permanently reduce state revenues, the current budget is $326 million larger than the state forecasts it will collect in revenues — and the revenue forecast is optimistic, so the real problem likely is even larger.

Child Poverty Remains High, But States Can Make a Difference

September 19, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Update, September 22:  We’ve corrected the map in this post. 

More than half of the states plus the District of Columbia had child poverty rates of 20 percent or higher last year (see map), new data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show, and in some states — like New Mexico and Mississippi — poverty affected as many as one in three kids.  Such extensive child poverty unnecessarily damages the prospects of millions of children.

Relative to their better-off peers, poor children have poorer health, do less well in school, and complete fewer years of education.  Over the long term, they are more likely to have chronic bad health and to work fewer hours and earn less as adults, which can contribute to a vicious cycle of poverty.

In addition, the stress of hunger, unsafe neighborhoods, and unstable housing, among other hardships that many poor families face, can have harmful physiological effects on children’s still-developing brains.  This “toxic stress” can impede their social and emotional development and ability to learn.

States have a range of effective tools to reduce child poverty and the associated hardships. They can, for instance:

  • Raise the state minimum wage in conjunction with creating or improving the state’s earned income tax credit.
  • Provide quality early childhood education to help boost the future prospects of children in poor families while allowing their parents to work and build a better future for them.
  • Connect more poor children to a full range of federal supports, including nutrition, housing, and health care.

Poverty Above Pre-Recession Levels in 47 States, New Census Data Show

September 18, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Poverty remained above pre-recession levels last year in 47 states plus the District of Columbia, our analysis of Census data issued this morning shows (see chart).  In some states, the increase was substantial — in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, and Nevada, poverty rates were four to five percentage points higher in 2013 than in 2007.  The stubbornness of high poverty rates in the wake of the Great Recession underscores the need for states to do more to help working families make ends meet.

Poverty rates in the states not still above pre-recession levels, Alaska and the Dakotas, weren’t statistically different from 2007.

Unequal wage growth and rising income inequality have played key roles in preventing more substantial improvements in poverty.  For workers earning low pay, wages are right where they were 40 years ago after adjusting for inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute.  And since the recession’s official end in 2009, most workers’ wages have fallen, while workers at the top have seen some growth.

States have tools to help to address low wages and rising income inequality.  They can create or improve state earned income tax credits (EITCs), which promote work and reduce poverty and can improve low-income children’s chances of success both in school and, later, in the workforce.  States can also raise their minimum wage — the federal minimum wage is 22 percent below its peak value in 1968, after adjusting for inflation — and index it to inflation.  Improvements in these two areas are complementary for reasons we explain here, reaching a broader population than the EITC or minimum wage alone and keeping many more families out of poverty.

More Evidence That State Income Taxes Have Little Impact on Interstate Migration

August 26, 2014 at 1:00 pm

The New York Times’ Upshot blog has published a fascinating set of graphs of Census Bureau data on interstate migration patterns since 1900, bolstering our argument that state income taxes don’t have a significant impact on people’s decisions about where to live.

We plotted the same Census data, which shows which states do the best job of retaining their native-born populations, on the chart below, also noting which states have (or don’t have) a state income tax.  Our chart shows that taxes have little to do with the extent to which native-born people leave their states of origin.

If Heritage Foundation economist Stephen Moore’s claim (which other tax-cut advocates often repeat) that “taxes are indisputably a major factor in determining where . . . families locate” were true, states without income taxes would see below-average shares of their native-born populations leaving at some point in their lifetime, while states with relatively high income taxes would see the opposite.  But the graph shows no such pattern:

  • Three of the nine no-income-tax states perform very poorly in holding on to native-born residents.  Wyoming, Alaska, and South Dakota have three of the nation’s four highest shares of native-born residents who left the state.
  • Four other no-income-tax states are closer to the middle of the pack.  Nevada is almost exactly in the middle of the state rankings, while New Hampshire and Tennessee fall almost equally below and above Nevada; Washington falls within that interval as well.  New Hampshire does no better in retaining its native born than its high-tax neighbor, Vermont.  Tennessee’s neighbor, North Carolina, has had the highest income tax rates among southern states for the past 20 years but outperformed nearly all of them in retaining its native born, tying for second nationally.
  • Only two of the nine no-income-tax states are top performers in retaining their native born.  Threeof the five states that retain the largest shares of their natives — California, Georgia, and North Carolina — have income taxes, and California and North Carolina in particular have had higher income taxes than their neighbors.  Texas and Florida are the only no-income-tax states that rank highly for retention.  

A Deserved Downgrade of Kansas’ Bonds

August 11, 2014 at 9:41 am

The meaning of Standard & Poor’s recent downgrade of Kansas’ credit rating, in which it cited Kansas’ “structurally unbalanced budget,” is clear:  Kansas’ budget is a train heading off a cliff.

Here are the details:

  • Kansas’ massive tax cuts have sharply cut state tax revenues.  Since Kansas’ massive tax cuts took effect a year and a half ago, revenues have nosedived.  Revenues were down about $700 million in the last fiscal year.  That’s much more of a drop-off than the state’s official forecasters expected.
  • There’s not enough revenue coming in this year to cover the state’s budget.  Hoping the tax cuts would produce more economic growth and wanting to avoid additional spending cuts, Kansas lawmakers approved a budget for this fiscal year that’s $326 million larger than the state forecasts it will collect in revenue.  In reality, the imbalance is even worse, because the budget is based on overly optimistic revenue projections.  The state assumes revenues will surge over the next year — even though more tax cuts will kick in in January.  That’s why Duane Goossen, the state’s former budget director, recently wrote, “[t]he Kansas budget appears to be teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff, but that’s an illusion.  We’ve already gone over the edge.”
  • Kansas is avoiding immediate budget cuts only by drawing down its operating reserves.  The state isn’t in emergency mode already because it’s using its only operating reserves to cover the cost of state services.  (Kansas is one of only four states with no formal “rainy day fund,” so its operating reserves are not well protected and can be used in this imprudent way.)
  • The reserves likely will run dry sometime in the next few months, creating a budgetary emergency.  Once the reserves are gone, Kansas will be forced to make emergency cuts to state services, or to raise new revenue.  And any cuts would come on top of deep cuts the state has already made in recent years to its schools and other services.
  • The future looks even worse.  The new tax cuts taking effect at the beginning of 2015 will be followed by even more income tax rate cuts in each of the subsequent three years.  The additional cuts in 2016 alone will reduce revenues by about another $113 million.  So when the legislature comes back in session next January to write the state budget for 2016, lawmakers will have even less revenue to work with, making it even harder for Kansas to fund its schools and other services.

It’s no wonder that Standard & Poor’s downgraded Kansas’ credit rating, or that another major credit rating agency — Moody’s — did so earlier this year.  The rating agencies rightly understand that Kansas’ fiscal policy is a disaster.