A new GAO report suggests that the short and long-term future for state and local revenues may be more difficult that currently anticipated, despite the economy recovering in many places. For most of the 1990s and the mid 2000s, many states and local governments operated with surpluses, or could have. Many elected officials, like those in Florida (or Congress in 2001), chose to reduce tax rates to balance the budget as opposed to restocking reserve funds. When property values plummented and tourism and consumer buying diminished, the taxes related to all three plummented as well. None have yet returned to their pre-2008 levels. In fact, the property values lag so badly, it may be 10-20 years in many jurisdictions before they return to their former selves. In South Florida’s suddenly “hot” real estate market, local officials are raving about the 28% increase in property values in 2012/2013. Sounds great until you realize that they need to increase 100% to return to pre-2008 levels. Even in a hot market it may be over 5 years to recover. So property values are not a short-term problem. Some communities may never recover. So much for saving for that rainy day.
It should be plain to all of us that the failure of those in power to stockpile reserves caused many governments to spend down what limited reserves they had in the past 5 years as a means to avoid the hard and unpopular decision – raising taxes to collect the same revenues as before the mid-2000s cuts. Now the lack of reserves creates an issue going forward – as costs increase faster than revenues, there are no reserves to tap into. It is a problem that just keeps on giving. The failure to address the root cause – the failure to set revenues collections at an appropriate level and accumulate surpluses when you are lucky enough to get them. Unfortunately the political discussion keeps going back to keeping costs down, but cuts in costs means cuts in services. Sounds great to cut the Plantation trolley because of budget needs, but what about those citizens that rely on the trolley? Or the businesses it serves. Cutting Meals on Wheels which primarily serves shut-ins is a great idea in Broward County with a hue population of elderly that find it difficult to get out of the condo? And does it really make much impact on the overall budget? Not really. There are cosmetic issues. There a more symptomatic issue here?
GAO points to health care as a cost increasing faster than the rate of increase in revenues, but the latest data seems to indicate that the rate of growth may be less than projected by those opposed to the new Health Care laws. Underfunded pensions are also a potential area of concern, but cutting employees is not the solution for that as outlined in a prior blog. Cutting employees cuts the funding for pensions which guarantees future problems. So that idea actually works against the goal of shoring up the problem. So, no that is not the answer. We are clearly paying for the sins of 15 years ago when we were awash with funds, but decided to cut or public “income.” Who does that anyway?!?!
I never like Chicken Little, because he never had a solution for the problem. Part 2 will outline some thoughts…