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From the Archives: Will 2011 state election voters feel enough pain to solve state budget crises?

Will 2011 state election voters feel enough pain to solve state budget crises?
December 4, 2010 1:22 PM MST

Eileen Norcross GMU Mercatus Center economist
At the annual holiday dinner hosted by the Mercatus Center on December 1, economist Eileen Norcross spoke to the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner about the impending crisis in state budgets. Norcross is a senior research fellow at Mercatus and co-founder of the web site

Norcross answered questions about state budget shortfalls and the “fiscal evasion” tricks that state governments play to create the appearance of balanced budgets. Most states, she explained, are facing serious consequences as a result of distended pension obligations and growing expenditures.

Some better than others
Still, she said, “there are a few states that are not in terrible shape,” such as South Dakota and Wyoming.

Some states are doing better because they “are simply smaller” and “don’t have as big of a public sector workforce. They don’t have the same pension obligations that some of the mismanaged states like Illinois and California do.”

Even so, Norcross warned, “all states are facing one crisis, and that is in Medicaid and rising health care costs. That is a feature of all state budgets.” Another universal feature, she added, is education spending, which “has been baked into the cake.”

Stimulus problems
Referring to research that shows that the federal stimulus money of the past couple of years may lead to budget problems for state governments in the future, Norcross cited research conducted for the Mercatus Center by Russell Sobel and George Crowley on the effects of intergovernmental transfers.

Sobel and Crowley “found that for every dollar of federal money that’s transferred to the state government, that raises future taxes by 40 cents,” Norcross reported.

Why is that?

“Once you undertake a public works project and the stimulus money goes away, you still have to finish that project. You have to pay for those workers [and] you might have to issue bonds to complete the project. In other words, they may have expanded commitments that they now have to fund themselves.”

2011 state elections
Eileen Norcross economist GMU Mercatus Center
Eileen Norcross
In 2011, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Virginia will be holding state legislative elections, and these budgetary issues may have an effect on their outcomes but, Norcross cautioned, “that’s going to depend on the pain that the electorate feels.”

She said the case of New Jersey is “interesting,” because recently “when property taxes got so onerous on the average homeowner, [voters] actually turned out in force during the school budget election and they voted down a lot of school budgets in New Jersey.”

The number of school budgets rejected was “the greatest number since 1976,” she said, “because they were really voting against a tax hike.”

The results of next year’s elections, Norcross concluded, is “really going to depend on the extent to which the electorate is feeling the pain today or whether legislators are engaging in that kind of fiscal evasion, trying to buy more time, [and] pushing that debt onto future taxpayers.”

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on December 4, 2010. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

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