Friday, August 1, 2008

Tough choices for states during budget crisis

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is laying off as many as 22,000 state employees. New York's governor is raising the possibility of selling — or more accurately, leasing — the Brooklyn Bridge. Nevada is burning through its rainy-day fund like a gambler on a losing streak. And Maryland is pinning its hopes on slot machines.

With the economy in a slide and the housing market in crisis, states are collectively rolling up tens of billions of dollars in budget deficits in one of the worst financial crunches in the U.S. since the 1970s.

The startlingly rapid drop-off in tax revenue is forcing many states to make some hard decisions: Raise taxes? Cut programs and jobs? Dip into reserves? Borrow money? Lease or sell state assets?

"They're all terrible choices," Nevada Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said of the cuts her state made in a special session last month. "I believe we should never have to make these kinds of choices ever again."

Red ink to get deeper
Worse, economists say the red ink is only going to get deeper later in the fiscal year when 2008 tax returns start coming in.

"The big question is when will states hit the bottom? We don't know," said Arturo Perez, a fiscal analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Colorado.

As of June, more than 30 states faced deficits totaling a projected $40 billion, or more than triple the gap of the previous year, according to the NCSL.

California, which still does not have a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, is looking at a $15.2 billion deficit, an amount that dwarfs that of all other states. The next highest at the start of the fiscal year was New York's, at $5.2 billion.

California lawmakers are at odds over how to deal with the problem. The Democrats are proposing a combination of spending cuts and $8.2 billion in higher taxes. The Republicans oppose any new taxes but haven't come up with the spending cuts to close the gap.