Lesson from the Recovery Act

The 2009 Recovery Act offered a good example of how state fiscal relief, in addition to the temporary boost in Medicaid funding, can aid in recovery from economic problems caused by the current health emergency in the United States.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of a larger report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), “Immediate and Robust Policy Response Needed in Face of Grave Risks to the Economy.” It points to lessons policy makers can take regarding state fiscal relief in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, enacted to move recovery from the Great Recession. For the full CBPP report, click here.

Providing Additional Needed State Fiscal Relief

Given the severe threat to the economy — and the resulting threat to state finances — states will likely need additional fiscal relief beyond what (a temporary increase in the share of Medicaid costs borne by the federal government, or FMAP) … would provide. During the last recession, states faced budget shortfalls totaling about $600 billion. The Recovery Act’s FMAP provisions provided roughly $100 billion in fiscal relief — a big help, but well short of what it would have taken for states to avoid laying off teachers and other workers and cutting services in other ways that deepened the recession. Increasing the FMAP is the single most important way to get fiscal relief efficiently to states, but Congress should also enact additional emergency fiscal aid to states. We recommend that this added fiscal relief take a similar form to the Recovery Act’s State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF), which provided roughly $60 billion in fiscal aid to states.

Given the wide range of fiscal challenges states are facing, they should have significant flexibility over how to spend this aid. The SFSF required states to spend 82 percent of the aid on education, including both K-12 and higher education. A new version of the SFSF should allow states to spend a smaller percentage of the aid on education, so that states are free to best respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and its economic fallout, but still require that a substantial share be used to support state education systems. While many schools and universities will likely be closed in the next few weeks, teachers still need to be paid (to avoid hardship and further drag on the economy). And if revenues decline as sharply as expected, states will face serious difficulties in adequately supporting their schools in the coming fiscal year, when schools will be trying to make up for lost class time. Education accounts for roughly 40 percent of state spending, the single largest part of state budgets, making it very difficult for states to avoid cutting educational services when revenues decline sharply.

As under the Recovery Act, states would be required to distribute funding to schools using their existing funding formulas, which favor low-income districts, or by distributing funding directly to Title I schools (schools that serve a large number of disadvantaged students). States should also be encouraged to use the funding to increase college tuition assistance for low-income people facing a tough job market and students whose families’ ability to help pay for school has diminished. Targeting state fiscal aid to protect education systems in the coming year would benefit the nation’s economy in the longer term by improving the educational outcomes of students, many of whom are now missing weeks of school. And requiring states to distribute a substantial share of this aid to schools would help protect against some states accepting the aid and then using it instead to cut taxes. As under the Recovery Act, this new version of the SFSF should include a maintenance-of-effort provision that requires states to maintain their own education spending at current levels.

Finally, Congress should also consider certain forms of direct aid to localities, whose own budgets will also be deeply harmed. For example, Congress should consider direct aid to public transit systems, whether buses or subways, which stand to lose much of their fare revenue in coming weeks — losses that many of these systems will likely have difficulty recovering from on their own and that will further strain local budgets, risking cuts in other needed public services.

This excerpt is one small section of a CBPP report by Sharon Parrott, Aviva Aron-Dine, Michael Leachman, Chad Stone, Dottie Rosenbaum, LaDonna Pavetti, Ph.D., Peggy Bailey, Chuck Marr, and Kathleen Romig. We share it on the Iowa Policy Project blog as an example of one approach that research and experience have shown will be needed as states and local governments attempt to contribute to recovery from the current health emergency.

The bridge to recovery

The stimulus, or Recovery Act, clearly succeeded in bridging the gap in revenues caused by the recession.

There’s a whole lot of politickin’ going on these days and one of the targets is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, or the “stimulus.”

One of the points we made at the Iowa Fiscal Partnership during and after the adoption of the Recovery Act was its use as a “bridge” for state services. As we note on our IFP website, “economic stimulus measures need to be targeted, timely and temporary, to act as a bridge across the economic and fiscal valley of a recession.”

Recall that some in the Legislature, and some folks during the 2010 campaign season, complained that such use of “one-time funds” was a bad idea for ongoing services — that it would create a “cliff” in funding that, once exhausted, would leave the state on the hook for new responsibilities it might not be able to afford.

Late last week, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency shed new light on this discussion with a simple bar graph on the front page of one of its “Issue Review” reports, this one about Iowa state appropriations over time.

Iowa appropriations graph
Source: Iowa Legislative Services Agency, August 2012

Note the green portion of the bars, representing where ARRA funds filled in for lower state revenues caused by the Great Recession. No cliff emerged following the use of ARRA funds as state revenues (the red portions of the bars) rose. But note from FY2009 to FY2010 how state resources might have fallen without the ARRA funds. That potential cliff would have threatened state funding of education and health services that Iowans depend upon.

Clearly, the folks promoting one-time-fund orthodoxy were wrong, and the “bridge” analogy was spot-on.

The stimulus successfully bridged the gap in revenues to stop the critical loss of state services, and maintain the benefit of those services to the state’s economy.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Unreasonable fear about ‘one-time’ money

Using stimulus funds bridged a gap in revenues and kept Iowa out of a race to the bottom.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

You hear about it whenever some Iowa politicians get near a microphone to talk about the budget.

Heard above much wailing and gnashing of teeth is a common complaint that Iowa used “one-time money” to deal with recession-driven budget challenges.

Well, thank goodness for (1) that one-time money and (2) the willingness of state leaders at the time, including then-Governor Chet Culver, to spend it.

The Des Moines Register gets it, and isn’t afraid to say so in today’s editorial:

Yes, Iowa did it by shifting money set aside in savings accounts for other purposes, and it used one-time federal stimulus money. That was the right thing to do. The alternative would have been to lay off police officers, teachers and state workers, making the recession even worse in Iowa.

The state is in better shape financially now. It has the money to pay for essential services it has committed to provide to Iowans. The Legislature and the governor should pay to carry out those commitments.

The Iowa Fiscal Partnership (IFP) has pointed out that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, (ARRA), the economic stimulus program passed in 2009, was designed to provide targeted, timely and temporary assistance to Americans in the recession. As IPP’s Andrew Cannon noted in a recent IFP report, “Catching Up: Context for 2012 Budget Decisions in Iowa”:

Andrew Cannon
Andrew Cannon

While there is certainly merit in reducing the use of one-time money for the continuing expenses of the state, one-time-fund critics sometimes let strict adherence to that concept get the best of them. For instance, Recovery Act dollars were used precisely as intended: targeted, timely and temporary relief so that states could continue funding critical services, such as K-12 education and health services to individuals and families. State revenues declined precipitously during the worst of the recession; the Recovery Act bridged that drop-off in revenues until a time when revenues improved as the economy regained strength. The same can be said for use of $38.7 million from one of the rainy-day funds since high unemployment and reduced revenues during the year must constitute the rainy revenue day that the fund was designed to cover.

Had the Legislature and Governor Culver chosen not to use the ARRA funds, it is reasonable to assume that the holes created in recession would be left unfilled in better times. This is because one of the priority pieces of legislation passed in 2011 was the creation of a “Taxpayers Trust Fund” to pay for new tax breaks, the fund to be built from revenues coming in at a faster pace than expected. The priority was not to sustain or restore services, let alone enhance them, but to restrain use of new revenues.

Using the ARRA money when it came, for its intended purpose to bridge a revenue gap caused by recession, kept critical services in place when they were most needed, and kept us off the pace of a race to the bottom. Thank you to The Des Moines Register for reminding its readers of that smart public policy.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Budgeting in context

The budgeting decisions of last year ought to be viewed in context.

Andrew Cannon
Andrew Cannon

Following last year’s prolonged legislative session, legislators and the governor congratulated themselves for a budget that fully funded programs and reduced reliance on what they called “one-time funds.”

It is true that state services, systems and structures were funded to a large degree through a stable source, the General Fund (where income and sales taxes are pooled). And funding levels increased generally, especially in comparison to the recession-affected budgets of FY10 and FY11, when many state services and programs took severe cuts.

But the budgeting decisions of last year ought to be viewed in context, as we do in a new report.

First, the use of “one-time funds” proved to be the right choice at the time. Because of the recession, state revenues declined precipitously, which led to a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut. One-time funds now derided by some were used precisely as intended. State “rainy day” funds, reserved for economic emergencies, and the federal Recovery Act (ARRA) combined to fill budget gaps and save services. ARRA provided billions of dollars to Iowa to finance K-12 education, higher education, and health care programs for children, the elderly, Iowans with disabilities and low-income Iowans who had no other access to health insurance.

Second, consider how funding for state services and programs compares to pre-recession funding levels. Even as revenues have bounced back, and funding for many services has stabilized, it is unclear if present levels are adequate to met needs. For instance, state funding for community colleges in FY12 will reach about $164 million, up from FY10 and FY11 levels, but still remain below pre-recession levels. At the same time, community colleges are serving more Iowans than ever, with enrollment reaching 106,000 in FY11, up from 88,000 students in FY08.

Iowa’s other public higher education system, the Board of Regents, this year is working under a 3 percent reduction in funding from FY11. Even with the governor’s proposed FY13 increase, Regents funding would still be below recession levels, to say nothing of pre-recession levels. Students pay the price, with continually increasing tuition costs.

Other programs, such as the Early Childhood Iowa initiative, which provides preschool tuition subsidies and parental education; Child Care Assistance, which helps low-income working parents cover the cost of child care; and the Family Investment Program, which helps the lowest-income families meet basic needs and prepare for employment, all have seen large cuts in funding since before the recession. Even into economic recovery, some programs are still being reduced.

Improving upon last year or the year before is good, but the long-term question asks if we are adequately funding programs to meet Iowans’ needs and to adequately invest in Iowa’s future. Judicious use of public funds is not as simple as cutting services to bring down expenses, but taking a balanced approach that assures adequate funding for services that position Iowa for the future.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate