A recent study by The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities revealed that 41 states are facing severe budget shortfalls for 2009. Some states are worse off than others, with California ($31.7 billion) and Florida ($5.1 billion) leading the deficit pack. In all, the 41 states are currently facing a $71.9 billion budget shortfall. The key word here is “currently,” since a similar study was conducted by the same group only three months earlier, at which time “only” 29 states were predicted to face shortfalls of a “mere” $48 billion. As the recession deepens, so will the state’s budget problems, turning this “budget crisis” into a humanitarian disaster. Projections have already been made for a $200 billion shortfall by 2010.
These deficits have already transcended the computer screen of the statistician into real suffering of the most vulnerable sections of society. In dozens of states across the country, vital services are being cut to the elderly, disabled, the poor, and recently unemployed. Teachers are being cut from schools and tuitions are rising. Workers from state construction sites are being laid off, while social service employees suffer a similar fate. Non profits are closing their doors.
Most likely, these pains only mark the beginning. Many states have a “rainy day fund” of some kind that they use to plan for such crises. These funds are already depleted, or certain to dry up quickly, with “hard decisions” now having to be made. This is especially troubling when one considers that, in many cases, state cutbacks made from the 2001 recession remained in place. Not to mention that successive presidents have successfully plundered federal social programs. The new, extraordinary state budgets that are being drawn up to address the current deficit crisis will essentially destroy the social safety net for millions of people, including access to daycare, food stamps, welfare, and basic medical services. The fact that the federal budget is in even worse shape, and will likely choose to follow a similar route of massive cuts, makes future predictions of social calamity all but certain.
The options available to states to respond to budget crises are limited since states are not allowed to run deficits; they must solve their budget problems immediately. Nearly every state government is reacting to the crisis in essentially the same way: by cutting essential services and raising “secondary” taxes (alcohol, cigarettes, gas, etc). In reality, after spending their reserve funds, states have only two viable options: cutting spending and raising taxes.