Steven Depolo / Creative Commons
Steven Depolo / Creative Commons
State Budgets

The Worst State Budget Gimmicks of 2013

State Budget Solutions has been keeping an eye on the bag of tricks employed by legislators and other budget officials. These budget gimmicks hide the true cost of government and set up states for fiscal calamity down the road. In 2013, not much has changed, though some states have attempted to fix gimmicks they employed in the past. Here are a few of the most “popular” gimmicks (and even some solutions to the gimmicks) that we’ve come across in 2013.

Underfunding pension contributions
An underfunded state pension plan has more liabilities than assets. By continually underfunding pensions, pension accounts become less stable, and there is less assurance that the state can effectively cover distribution amounts when pension benefits become due.

  • California has a newfound “surplus” thanks to outrageous budget gimmicks that simply ignore state debt. Rather than making the necessary payments into the state pension fund, California, as well as many other states, skip this step and claim to have a balanced budget. Manhattan Institute: Public Sector Inc., May 30, 2013.
  • New York’s state budget deal includes a minimum wage hike, $350 rebates for middle class families and pension gimmicks. Governor Cuomo said his plan to offer local government the choice to finance future pension payments would be a part of the budget, with Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s support. DiNapoli had expressed reservations about the plan, which allows cities and other governments to pay lower pension payments in the short-term in exchange for making higher payments more than a decade from now. Post-Standard, March 21, 2013.
  • New York Comptroller criticizes Governor’s plan to cut pension costs because of its potential impact on the funding levels of the state pension system. Governor Cuomo proposed allowing municipal governments to defer a portion of their pension costs by choosing a fixed contribution rate below the current rate. The plan comes on top of another pension deferment plan approved in 2010 (backed by the Comptroller) that allows municipalities to borrow from the pension fund to pay their pension costs. New York Times, January 28, 2013.

Moving money from dedicated funds: “fund shifts”
“Fund shifts” occur when lawmakers sweep money from one internal state fund and use it in another fund, often in an attempt to demonstrate a more balanced budget.

  • A Louisiana state judge ruled that the governor and legislature should not have taken funds from the probation and parole officers’ retirement fund in order to balance the state’s general operating budget. Some state officials fear that if the ruling is upheld, other groups that have been subject to these “fund sweeps” will also pursue legal action against the state to regain the lost money. Baton Rouge Advocate, November 13, 2013.
  • The administration of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal moved funding from ongoing construction projects to fund new projects—even though the budget did not consider these new projects priorities based on the funding allocations., November 13, 2013.
  • Money collected by Texas to fund the 911 emergency system is not being spent inappropriately, it just is not being spent at all. By never spending these funds, but still counting them towards the total state budget, it allows the state budget to look balanced. KXAN, October 25, 2013.
  • The Texas Legislature passed House Bill 7, which ends the practice of shifting Dedicated Funds into the General Budget and will instead return unused fees to the taxpayers. Texas Public Policy Foundation, May 21, 2013.

Delaying payments until the upcoming fiscal year
Delayed payments effectively shift the burden of debt from one fiscal year until the next, to postpone payment of the debt (and potential political backlash). In the past, states delayed issuing state employee paychecks by one day, which shifted payroll costs to the next year, or postponed sales tax payments.

  • California’s current budget is attempting to close a major gap in public school funding created by a decade-plus-long practice of delaying funds into the next fiscal year. Charter schools have been disproportionately affected by this scheme, as they have been forced to take out bridge loans, and in turn, incurring larger interest payments. Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2013-2014 budget proposes repaying $1.8 billion in deferrals-but from 2009-2011, the state added $6.3 billion in delayed payments. The program began with a $1.1 billion deferrals in 2001-2002. Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2013.
  • Illinois has stopped paying its bills on time, and even non-profit groups are feeling the pain. The Illinois Comptroller established committee that aims to help non-profits that have to deal with delayed payments. Journal Star, August 11, 2013.
  • Minnesota state schools are finally receiving funding that was already allocated but was delayed, a budget gimmick that helped the state legislature balance the budget. Minnesota’s surplus allowed the state to send the catch-up payments, and a state law passed in June made it a priority for schools to be paid back for the delays. Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 17, 2013.
  • Texas tries transparency, for a change, and the reform process exposed some major problems, including $4 billion in underfunding Medicaid and a practice of “backfilling” funds years after a budget has been approved. Texas Public Policy Foundation, August 19, 2013.

Borrowing money to balance the budget
States borrow money for the same reasons that individuals borrow money. Typically, when a state borrows money, it is through the issuance of bonds that are backed by the full faith and credit of the state issuer. In exchange for the loan, the state agrees to pay an annual interest rate. It is possible for the state to pay off the bond before it matures (and the interest becomes due), pursuant to a each bond agreement, but typically, a state must pay at least five years of interest on a bond before the option to pay face value owed is viable. Bond sales are closely tied to bond ratings.

  • Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy’s “Budget Deficit Roadmap” borrows $10 million to pay this year’s installment in the $100 million, ten-year Stem Cell Initiative, and will put the $10 million it saves by borrowing into the General Fund to cover the deficitWait, What? (blog), December 10, 2012.
  • Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal squeezed extra spending out of state revenue in part by shifting funding from special accounts-such as a tax collected on housing transactions and earmarked for environmental work-to the state’s general fund. Again, he proposed funding some of those projects with borrowed bond money, to be repaid over the next 15 years. The FY2013 budget year beginning in July will mark the first time under O’Malley that the state must dip into the general fund revenue to pay for debt service on increased borrowingWashington Post, January 16, 2013.

Inflating revenue assumptions or savings projections
When developing the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, state lawmakers must make assumptions about revenue and expenditures. To demonstrate a balanced budget and justify increasing expenditures, lawmakers will inflate revenue assumptions by projecting overly optimistic revenue growth and rate of return on pension fund assets, and by assuming a lower rate of inflation than is realistic. The parallel accounting trick to accelerating and inflating revenue is inflating savings projections. State lawmakers will assume savings in contract negotiations, on infrastructure costs and repairs, and by predicting no student growth to effectively decrease the amount of expenditures. These savings are unrealistic and rarely mirror projections. Lawmakers may also advertise a reallocation of funds from one agency to another as a “spending cut” to the former agency, leading to projections of greater savings than actually result.

  • The budget shell game continues in Sacramento, where Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators have heralded their plans to keep more conservative revenue estimates in this year’s budget—only to shift other funding predictions. Those include estimating greater receipts from property taxes ($300 million); lower estimates on implementing the Affordable Care Act ($80 million); and reducing the amount that will be repaid to schools by $650 million. Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2013.
  • Gov. Mark Dayton was forced to reduce his advertised “spending cuts” by $58 million when state lawmakers determined that those funds were merely reallocated to other state agencies or programs. Actual spending reductions amount to only $167 million. Associated Press, January 28, 2013.

One-time sale of assets or other non-recurring funds
A one-time sale of state-owned assets helps to close budget gaps, but the expenditures including the sale do not decrease in following fiscal years despite the absence of the sale of the asset, effectively creating larger future deficits. Other types of non-recurring funding may include money from legal victories or settlements or the refinancing of state bonds.

  • California taxpayers may be paying even more for a budget gimmick gone wrong. In order to make up for a budget shortfall, the state contracted to sell 11 buildings to a private group, and then have the group lease back the buildings for continued government use. But Governor Jerry Brown canceled the deal when he came into office, citing the cost to taxpayers. A judge has now allowed a lawsuit by the private group against the state to go forward. Press-Enterprise, July 28, 2013.
  • The administration of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal presented a $24.7 billion spending plan to legislators on February 22, 2013. Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said the budget relies on more than $400 million in non-recurring funding, which she said would prevent a 19 percent drop in funding for the state’s public colleges and universities. The one-time money sources include refinancing the state’s tobacco bonds, pharmaceutical company settlements, federal dollars, and unspecified property sales. The use of the money is certain to trigger opposition from a faction of Republican house members who want to limit the use of one-time, or non-recurring, money in the state budget for the 2013 FY. The Advocate, February 25, 2013.

Inadequately funding other state programs
State lawmakers will underfund programs such as education and Medicaid, justified by failing to include realistic projections for costs (such as increased student enrollment) or revenues (from Medicaid-related provider taxes or fees).

  • The New Hampshire House Ways and Means Committee, with approval from both parties, estimated a two percent increase in revenue from the Medicaid Enhancement Tax (MET) over the next two bienniums. These funds are currently used, in order, for provider payments, then uncompensated care, and the surplus is left for the general fund. But the budget bill changes that. The House Finance Committee projected a 17 percent increase in the first biennium and an eight percent increase in the following biennium for MET revenue, while also rearranging the order of payment priorities so that the general fund payments come before paying hospitals for uncompensated care. Finally, Republicans contest that revenue estimates are too high. Seacoast Online, April 23, 2013.

Improper use of mortgage settlement funds
As part of the National Mortgage Settlement in February 2012, the states split $2.5 billion intended to provide a measure of restitution on behalf of homeowners who lost equity in the market collapse or lost their homes in the “robo-signing” foreclosure scandal. Six states – Missouri, California, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and New Jersey – ignored the agreed-upon uses for the money entirely by directing nothing for housing-related activities. Fourteen others, including Idaho and Illinois, are using less than half of their funds for the intended purposes.

  • Arizona is applying settlement funds from a mortgage lawsuit support the general fund. The money was intended to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Phoenix Business Journal , September 24, 2013.

Improper use of tobacco settlement funds 46 states entered into the Tobacco Settlement Master Agreement in 1998 with some of the nation’s largest tobacco companies after the states sued to recover tax dollars spent dealing with tobacco related health costs. The tobacco companies agreed to pay the states nearly $200 billion over a 20-year period. Since then, states have issued billions in tobacco settlement backed debt. They frequently shift yearly payments between funds, along with forward and backward in the fiscal calendar, to meet their annual budgetary needs.

  • Over 300 dedicated funds have been targeted for funds shifts into the general fund in New Hampshire. Tobacco settlement funds, due on April 17, have been put into the next biennium budget, rather than being put towards the rainy-day fund for FY2013. The latter is proper because of the expected payment of the fund and the relative uncertainty of payment. Seacoast Online, April 23, 2013.
  • Please also read the State Budget Solutions special report “Tobacco Settlement Fund Gimmicks Alive and Well.”

The best of the worst
We came across a few unique gimmicks this year that deserved their own category.

  • Governor Chris Christie has not shied away from budget gimmicks in his first term, despite his criticisms of his predecessor for doing the same. These gimmicks include diverting funds to balance the budget or to fund projects that the money was not originally allocated to support; delaying property tax rebates; relying on one-time payments; and increased borrowing. New York Times, October 29, 2013.
  • “Over the last twelve years, just 59 percent of deficits have been tackled directly through expenditure reductions or revenue increases. Temporary gimmicks have instead addressed the remaining 41 percent. These include increased debt (16 percent), fund shifts or transfers (12 percent), accelerated revenues (4 percent), expenditure deferrals (4 percent), federal stimulus funds (4 percent), and accounting changes (4 percent).” California State Auditor, October 7, 2013.
  • In order to raise the state’s spending cap, Gov. Dannel Malloy could have gotten the required three-fifths majority vote in the legislature to do so. Instead, the budget circumvents the cap by moving the funding out of the budget that will be reimbursed by the federal government for Medicaid. Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2013.

In Depth: State Budgets

Smart budgeting is vital to a state’s financial health. The ALEC State Budget Reform Toolkit offers more than 20 policy ideas for addressing today’s shortfalls in a forthright manner, without resorting to budget gimmicks or damaging tax increases. One way to stabilize budgets over time is to embrace…

+ State Budgets In Depth