Steve Chapman

Everywhere you look, states are being crunched by fiscal emergencies that range from painful to excruciating. California, which has been paying bills with IOUs, is now preparing to close state parks and furlough state employees -- which is what you have to do when your budget deficit is bigger than the entire budget of some states.

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It's not alone. "At least 39 states have imposed cuts that hurt vulnerable residents," trumpeted a recent report from the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. California, New York and Delaware have approved income-tax increases, and Pennsylvania and Illinois are considering doing likewise.

We all know the reason for the squeeze: An unexpected, severe national recession has dried up revenues just when states need funds to help out-of-work citizens. That's true: You would expect the worst downturn in decades to have a negative effect on tax collections. But it's a long way from the whole truth.

The crisis in state budgets is not an accident, and it wasn't unforeseeable. For years, most states have spent like there's no tomorrow, and now tomorrow is here. They bring to mind the lament of Mickey Mantle, who said, "If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."

If they had known the revenue flood wasn't a permanent fact of life, governors and legislators might have prepared for drought. Instead, like overstretched homeowners, they took on obligations they could meet only in the best-case scenario -- which is not what has come to pass.

Over the last decade, state budgets have expanded rapidly. We have had good times and bad times, including a recession in 2001, but according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, this will be the first year since 1983 that total state outlays have not increased.

The days of wine and roses have been affordable due to a cascade of tax revenue. In state after state, the government's take has ballooned. Overall, the average person's state tax burden has risen by 42 percent since 1999 -- nearly 50 percent beyond what the state would have needed just to keep spending constant, with allowances for inflation.

Even low-tax states like Texas and Nevada have followed the same course. No one has been inclined to say, "Taxpayers don't need to send us more money. We've got plenty."


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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