State Budgets

State Budget Solutions’ Third Annual State Debt Report Shows Total State Debt Over $4 Trillion

For the third consecutive year, State Budget Solutions examined state debt and calculated the total amount of debt that each state faces. This year’s report shows that aggregate debt across the 50 states amounted to $4.17 trillion. State debt calculations include a state’s regular debt, the fiscal year 2013 budget gap, outstanding unemployment trust fund loans, unfunded other post employment benefit liabilities, and the state’s unfunded pension liabilities.  View the data spreadsheet here, and scroll down for data on all 50 states.

The best and the worst

California again trumped other states with a $617 billion debt. California’s debt is more than twice the size of New York’s state debt, and New York has the second largest total debt burden in the nation. Texas, Illinois, and New Jersey rounded out the top five states with the most debt. Although New York and Texas moved up one and two spots, respectively, the states with the five largest debts remained unchanged from last year’s report.

Vermont has the least amount of debt of all fifty states with a $5.8 billion state debt. North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska follow Vermont with the smallest debt burdens in the country.

States Highest Total State Debt (in thousands) States Lowest Total State Debt (in thousands)
California $617,620,709 Vermont $5,846,189
New York $300,066,114 North Dakota $6,116,162
Texas $286,999,196 South Dakota $6,536,680
Illinois $271,111,148 Wyoming $6,927,767
New Jersey $258,034,922 Nebraska $7,829,117

Overall, total state debt fell slightly when compared to last year’s report, from $4.24 trillion to $4.17 trillion. The decrease is attributable to reductions in unemployment trust fund loans and fiscal year budget gap totals. Fiscal year budget gaps alone fell by more than half. The lack of a subsequent, sizable drop in total state debt, however, shows that the cause of state debt is a systemic one requiring far more than annual budget balancing to eliminate.

Unfunded pension liabilities

Market-valued unfunded public pension liabilities make up more than half of all state debt, accounting for $2.8 trillion of the total. These market-valued pension liabilities provide a realistic view of the money owed to public pension systems as a result of years of skipped payments, borrowed funds, and inaccurate discount rate assumptions.

In comparison to market-valued liabilities, traditionally calculated unfunded pension liabilities hide the true enormity of state debt obligations. Unfunded liability figures from the Pew Center on the States rely on much of the same data that states use to continually underfund their pension systems. While market-valued liabilities total $2.8 trillion, the latest traditionally calculated figures total only $760 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Total state debt using these figures is still over $2 trillion, but a comprehensive view of state debt without accurately assessed public pension liabilities disguises the problem to the tune of as much as $2.1 trillion.

States and other sources have not yet released market value pension liability figures for fiscal year 2011. Therefore, this year’s report uses the same market-valued pension liability figures first published in 2010 and used in the previous year’s report. Even so, growth in traditionally calculated unfunded pension liability totals indicates that were updated numbers available, aggregate state debt would have continued to increase.

Other causes of state debt

Outstanding debt and other post employment benefit liabilities each contribute approximately $600 billion to total debt. Outstanding debt includes bonds, leases, and other regularly assessed components of primary government debt. Post employment benefits include health care and other non-pension benefit guarantees owed to public employees.

The final two items included in the total state debt calculation are outstanding unemployment trust fund loans and fiscal year 2013 budget gaps. Unemployment trust fund loans represent payments due to the federal government, often to cover rising unemployment costs as a result of the recent economic downturn. The fiscal year 2013 budget gap is the gap between revenues and expenditures in each state’s most recent budget year. Both of these figures declined from last year’s report; the budget gap total decreased by more than half. However, these totals failed to make a sizable impact on state debt; their totals are dramatically overshadowed by pension liabilities, OPEB liabilities, and outstanding debt.

Taken together, these five figures provide a comprehensive assessment of a state’s debt.

Debt Factor State Total (in thousands)
Outstanding Debt $607,000,027
Unemployment Trust Fund Loans $24,617,078
FY 2013 Total Budget Gap $54,983,000
OPEB UAAL $627,234,633
AEI Pension UAAL $2,860,967,581
Total State Debt $4,174,802,320

View the data spreadsheet here.


Outstanding debt figures were obtained from the “Ratio of outstanding debt by type” section of each state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Figures were taken from the most recent fiscal year’s CAFR (2011). Unemployment trust fund loan figures are available from the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides annual fiscal year budget gap details. Other Post Employment Benefit liabilities and Pew pension liabilities come from “The Widening Gap Update,” published by the Pew Center on the States in June 2012. The American Enterprise Institute’s pension liability figures were drawn from “The Market Value of Public-Sector Pension Deficits” by Andrew G. Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute released in April 2010.

*The report has been updated to reflect a change in New Jersey’s outstanding debt total. The figure originally reported included a combined $24,358,719 that the state lists as Net Other Post Employment Benefit Obligations and Net Pension Obligations. That total may already be included as OPEB UAAL and Pension UAAL in this report. The updated report reads $40,690,769 for New Jersey’s outstanding debt as posted in the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

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