Monday, December 04, 2017

From the Archives: Balanced-budget gimmickry hides states' fiscal crises, says Eileen Norcross

Balanced-budget gimmickry hides states' fiscal crises, says Eileen Norcross
December 4, 2010 12:58 PM MST

Eileen Norcross Mercatus Center GMU
Economist Eileen Norcross, who specializes in state and local budgetary policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, spoke to the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner on December 1 about the impending crisis in state budgets.

She explained that states are experiencing persistent budget deficits, often as the result of ballooning pension obligations.

She noted that these budgetary shortfalls are taking place even though most states have a constitutional requirement to balance their budgets.

Balanced-budget 'gimmickry'
This happens, Norcross explained, because “it’s possible to have a balanced budget yet to grow spending every year.” There are different answers to the question, “What does budgetary balance mean?”

Norcross pointed out that “while on the books they can claim budgetary balance, they also engage in a lot of gimmickry, what I call ‘fiscal evasion.’”

Eileen Norcross economist Mercatus Center GMU
Eileen Norcross
She explained:

“For years, states have been finding ways to balance their books without having to raise taxes directly, so they take on more debt, they dump trust funds into the general fund, they defer their pension obligations: That’s how some of these states have been balancing their books. It gives them the temporary illusion that they’ve met their commitments yet they really haven’t. That’s revealing a structural instability in these revenue streams.”

Noting that “Virginia is doing relatively well compared to the other states,” Norcross added that “there are a few things that concern me.”

For one thing, the Virginia state government “deferred [its] pension payment this year. It’s not a good practice.”

This is not unique, she said.

Pension obligations
“All the states have undervalued the size of the obligation that they owe to their public sector employees by an order of magnitude. What they claim on their books looks bad, but what they actually owe is far greater.”

In Virginia and other states, Norcross continued, “what concerns me is when [they] defer their pension obligations, they’re basically passing the buck [or] kicking the can down the road, but that’s not going anywhere. They’re going to owe those public sector workers” eventually.

In the third part of this interview, Norcross looks at which states are doing a better job, and whether fiscal matters will affect the behavior of voters in 2011 state legislative elections.

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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