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.

Historically poor commitment to schools

The only “historic” note in the latest school-aid deal is the defiance of Iowa’s tradition of commitment to education.

To put the House-Senate agreement on school aid in perspective, take a step back for a better view.

The legislative agreement is for 2.3 percent Supplemental State Aid (SSA), or growth in the per-pupil spending figure that Iowa school districts use to build their budgets, which are based on enrollment.

As the graph below shows, for the decade of FY2002 through FY2011, that per-pupil figure fluctuated some but rose by an average of 3.1 percent per year (shaded area, left side of graph).

For the next decade, from FY2012 to the FY2021 SSA agreed to this week, the plan will provide average growth of only 1.8 percent per year (shaded area, right side of graph).

Iowa’s commitment to public education in the 10 years from 2002 to 2011 stands in stark contrast to that of the most recent 10 years.
Notably, that earlier period provided more sustainable funding despite the deepest recession in the United States since the 1930s.Also notably, one reason for that was the state’s wise decision to use one-time funding from the federal Recovery Act — known to many as “stimulus” — to hold schools harmless as much as possible, bridging the recessionary gaps in revenues that would have forced slower growth or even cuts in per-pupil funding.

The contrast in SSA over time puts in perspective the political chatter around school funding from those who have held education lower than what is necessary for schools to keep up with costs, let alone to tap students’ potential to reach for greater achievement.

As for “historic” levels of funding — of course even a $1 increase provides a new record. You don’t have to see an actual cut to know you are being underfunded. If growth isn’t enough to keep up with costs, and it has not been for many years now, the only “historic” note is the defiance of Iowa’s tradition of commitment to education.
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. He served on the West Branch Community School Board from 2006-2017.
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org