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Report: 10 states face looming budget disasters

The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 11, 2009 9:21 PM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In Arizona, the budget has grown so gloomy that lawmakers are considering mortgaging Capitol buildings. In Michigan, state officials dealing with the nation's highest unemployment rate are slashing spending on schools and health care.

Drastic financial remedies are no longer limited to California, where a historic budget crisis earlier this year grew so bad that state agencies issued IOUs to pay bills.

A study released Wednesday warned that at least nine other big states are also barreling toward economic disaster, raising the likelihood of higher taxes, more government layoffs and deep cuts in services.

The report by the Pew Center on the States found that Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin are also at grave risk, although Wisconsin officials disputed the findings. Double-digit budget gaps, rising unemployment, high foreclosure rates and built-in budget constraints are the key reasons.

"While California often takes the spotlight, other states are facing hardships just as daunting," said Susan Urahn, managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based center. "Decisions these states make as they try to navigate the recession will play a role in how quickly the entire nation recovers."

The analysis, "Beyond California: States in Fiscal Peril," urged lawmakers and governors in those states to take quick action to head off a wider catastrophe. The 10 states account for more than one-third of the nation's population and economic output, according to the report.

Historically, states have their worst tax revenue year soon after a national recession ends. At the same time, higher joblessness and underemployment mean more people need government-sponsored health care and social safety-net programs, further taxing state services.

California leads the most vulnerable states identified by the report, which describes it as having poor money-management practices. Since February, California has made nearly $60 billion in budget adjustments in the form of cuts to education and social service programs, temporary tax hikes, one-time gimmicks and stimulus spending, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.

Many of those fixes are not expected to last. The state's temporary tax increases will begin to expire at the end of 2010, while federal stimulus spending will begin to run out a year after that.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger estimates California will run a deficit of $12.4 billion to $14.4 billion when he releases his next spending plan in January. The governor warned that the toughest cuts are ahead.

"I think that we are not out of the woods yet," Schwarzenegger said this week.

At the same time, the Legislature is hamstrung by requirements that budget bills and tax increases be passed with a two-thirds majority, a mandate that the report labeled "a recipe for gridlock."

The Pew report was based on data available as of July 31 and scored all 50 states based on revenue changes, unemployment, foreclosures and budget requirements. It also gave them grades. California and Rhode Island scored worst with D-pluses, then New Jersey and Illinois with C-minuses.

In reviewing why some states are suffering more than others, Pew found that the 10 states tend to rely heavily on one type of industry, have a history of persistent budget shortfalls or face legal constraints making it extra difficult to implement major changes, such as tax increases.

Many require a supermajority vote for passing tax increases or budget bills.

Wisconsin officials issued a statement late Wednesday saying the Pew report was inaccurate. Wisconsin Department of Administration Secretary Michael Morgan said the state has balanced its budget by cutting spending and raising revenue. It projects a $270 million budget surplus for the period ending July 1, 2011, Morgan said in his statement.

Several state legislatures have been unable to enact long-term fixes. Instead, they asked voters or governors to make the call, or used accounting gimmicks to put off the hard choices until later.

For example:

- Arizona lawmakers relied on one-time fixes to balance recent budgets as the state's home foreclosure rate surpassed California's and the nationwide average. Among the many ideas being explored by the state are a plan to mortgage state buildings, then rent the property until the state regains ownership at the end of the contract.

- Michigan, where two of the Detroit Three automakers filed for bankruptcy protection this year, continues to offer tax incentives even as they take a toll on the state's pocketbook, leading to declining tax revenue. According to the Pew study, Michigan offered $6.3 billion more in total tax exemptions, credits and deductions than it actually collected in taxes in 2008.

- Illinois, which has run deficits every year since 2001, is facing an $11.7 billion budget gap for its next fiscal year, beginning in July, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Pew's Government Performance Project ranked Illinois behind only California and Rhode Island for its lack of fiscal management on paying medical bills and pension liabilities.

- With Florida facing a shrinking population for the first time since World War II, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and the GOP-controlled Legislature balanced a $5.9 billion shortfall with cuts, federal stimulus money and tax hikes, including a $1-a-pack tax increase on cigarettes. But the future remains uncertain.

"Florida continues to face the same challenges as last year, including a very austere budgetary environment," said Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who chairs both of the Florida House's two appropriations councils.


Associated Press writers Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., and Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.


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