Press Box

Pity the Poor, Penniless Governors

Or let the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney do it for you.

Pity the poor, penniless governors—or at least 45 of them—whose states are facing down $50 billion in tax revenue shortfalls. But if you’re too busy to extend your mercy to such free spenders as Engler, Dean, Huckabee, Siegelman, and the rest who met over the weekend in Boise, Idaho, for the National Governors Association confab, let commiserative New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney do it for you.

In the Times’ Page One lead story today, “In Sharp Change, Governors Share Woes on Budgets,” Nagourney captures the “atmosphere of deepening concern” at the conference by passing the moist hankie from one destitute governor to the next. The governors sob to Nagourney about the state budget money troubles caused by the economic turndown. Sales tax revenues are down. Capital gains revenues are down. Corporate and personal tax revenues are down. The rainy-day funds set aside by Michigan, New York, and other states during the booming ‘90s are starting to dry up. Medicaid costs are up by 13 percent. And not only is the federal government refusing to bail the governors out, it’s forcing them to pay for federally mandated programs, such as anti-terrorism initiatives, thereby exacerbating the budgetary shortfalls.

Nagourney finds the governors to be victims of the economy, victims of the federal government—victims of every budgetary happenstance except for their own profligacy during the boom years. As documented by the nonpartisan National Association of State Budget Officers in a May 2002 report, the states recklessly hitched their spending purses to the rising star of the economy in 1994 and expanded their budgets every year until the slowdown announced itself. Even now, in comparatively bad times, they’re increasing their budgets in real terms.

State Nominal and Real Annual Budget
Increases, State General Fund 
Fiscal YearNominal Budget Increase %Real Budget Increase %
*Denotes estimate.
(Source: Page 15 of the May 2002 Fiscal Survey of States by the National Association of State Budget Officers.)

Feeling sorry for the states that must now live within their means by tightening their budgets is like grieving for the chump down the street who took advantage of the economic boom to move up from his Camaro to a Porsche and now drives a used Toyota Corolla. If an economic downturn requires Mr. Camaro to balance his books, and maybe even roll back expenses to circa 1994 to remain solvent, then why shouldn’t the states be forced to do the same thing?

Nagourney’s sympathetic and gullible treatment of the govs upholds a long-standing tradition among political reporters. Nearly to a one, they swoon like oversexed teenyboppers at an ‘N Sync concert when they rub up against state government officials. (David “The Dean” Broder, for instance, has probably never met a state official he didn’t want to ask out on a date.) But reporters aren’t the only ones with blind spots for the states. Liberals adore the states because they imagine them to be “laboratories of democracy.” As for conservatives, most of them never saw a federal program that they wouldn’t rather see the states run … that is, until the slowdown arrives and the true bill comes due.