State and Local Governments:

Knowledge of Past Recessions Can Inform Future Federal Fiscal Assistance

GAO-11-401: Published: Mar 31, 2011. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 2011.

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The most recent recession, which started in December 2007, is generally believed to be the worst economic downturn the country has experienced since the Great Depression. In response to this recession, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act), which provided state and local governments with about $282 billion in fiscal assistance. The Recovery Act requires GAO to evaluate how national economic downturns have affected states since 1974. In this report, GAO (1) analyzes how state and local government budgets are affected during national recessions and (2) identifies strategies to provide fiscal assistance to state and local governments and indicators policymakers could use to time and target such assistance. This report is being released in conjunction with a companion report on Medicaid and economic downturns to respond to a related statutory requirement in the Recovery Act. GAO analyzed economic data and states' general fund budget data; reviewed past federal fiscal assistance and related evaluations; and interviewed analysts at key associations and think tanks. GAO shared relevant findings with policy research organizations and associations representing state and local officials, who generally agreed with our conclusions. We incorporated technical comments from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. GAO identifies strategies for Congress to consider but does not make recommendations in this report.

Understanding state and local government revenue and expenditure patterns can help policymakers determine whether, when, where, and how they provide federal fiscal assistance to state and local governments in response to future national recessions. In general, state and local governments' revenues increase during economic expansions and decline during national recessions (relative to long-run trends). State and local revenue declines have varied during each recession, and the declines have been more severe during recent recessions. Additionally, revenue fluctuations vary substantially across states, due in part to states' differing tax structures, economic conditions, and industrial bases. State and local government spending also tends to increase during economic expansions, but spending on safety net programs, such as health and hospitals and public welfare, appears to decrease during economic expansions and increase during national recessions, relative to long-run trends. These trends can exacerbate the fiscal conditions of state and local governments given that demand for health and other safety net programs increases during recessions, and these programs now consume larger shares of state budgets relative to prior decades. This implies that, during recessions, state and local governments may have difficulties providing services. To mitigate the effect on services from declining revenues, state and local governments take actions including raising taxes and fees, tapping reserves, and using other budget measures to maintain balanced budgets. Although every recession reflects varied economic circumstances at the national level and among the states, knowledge of prior federal responses to national recessions provides guideposts for policymakers to consider as they design strategies to respond to future recessions. Considerations include (1) Timing assistance so that the aid begins to flow as the economy is contracting, although assistance that continues for some period beyond the recession's end may help these governments avoid actions that slow economic recovery; (2) Targeting assistance based on the magnitude of the recession's effects on individual states' economic distress; and (3) Temporarily increasing federal funding (by specifying the conditions for ending or halting the state and local assistance when states' economic conditions sufficiently improve). Policymakers also balance their decision to provide state and local assistance with other federal policy considerations such as competing demands for federal resources. Policymakers can select indicators to identify when the federal government should start and stop providing aid, as well as how much aid should be allocated. Timely indicators are capable of distinguishing states' economic downturns from economic expansions. Indicators selected for targeting assistance are capable of identifying states' individual circumstances in a recession. In general, timely indicators capable of targeting assistance to states can be found primarily in labor market data. Indicators such as employment, unemployment, hourly earnings, and wages and salaries also offer the advantage of providing information on economic conditions rather than reflecting states' policy choices (a limitation of data on state revenue trends). In some cases, it may be appropriate for policymakers to select multiple indicators or select indicators to reflect their policy goals specific to a particular recession. States have been affected differently during each of these recessions. For example, unemployment rates, entry into, and exit out of economic downturns have varied across states during past recessions. Federal responses to prior recessions have included various forms of federal fiscal assistance to these governments as well as decisions not to provide direct fiscal assistance to these governments.