State Lawmakers Expect Further Fiscal Problems, Survey Shows
By Gene Gibbons, Managing Editor
State legislators overwhelmingly expect at least two more years of dire budget problems and most believe additional cuts in state services are somewhat or very likely as a result, a comprehensive national survey of state legislators shows.
The survey canvassed 771 state lawmakers throughout the country about 10 percent of the overall number. It also showed that most state senators and house members are reluctant to consider all but the least painful or least obvious revenue raising measures, such as higher "sin" taxes on tobacco and alcohol and increased fees, to address the crisis.
The lawmakers identified social services including health care programs, prisons and corrections and transportation projects as the most likely targets of spending cuts.
"This survey gives an extraordinary insight into the difficult decisions legislators face during this trying budget year. Unlike their counterparts in Washington, D.C., state lawmakers are unable to run budget deficits, magnifying each and every spending cut and tax increase," said Ed Fouhy, executive director of the Pew Center on the States, which commissioned the study.
The Center, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization funded in full by the Pew Charitable Trusts, is the parent organization of Stateline.org.
States face collective budget deficits approaching $80 billion for fiscal year 2004, which begins July 1, 2003, for most states. This is the third straight year of widespread deficits in the states, with the three-year red ink swell topping $200 billion. Most states have tackled their deficits by cutting programs and tapping reserve funds. Others have raised taxes.
The survey found that more than eight in 10 state legislators (85 percent) believe that further cuts in social services are at least somewhat likely and close to half (45 percent) believe they are very likely. It showed that 71 percent of the lawmakers polled expect more cuts in health care, 62 percent believe prisons and corrections will take more budget hits and 61 percent view transportation as a likely victim of the budget axe.
Lawmakers in the nation's largest states those with populations above six million paint the darkest picture of the the state of the economy and the fiscal situation facing the states. Three quarters of these legislators said their states had lost ground in creating jobs and opportunity in the last two years. Sixty-six percent who serve in medium-sized states expressed similar views, while the number dropped to 52 percent in smaller states.
Every state except Vermont is constitutionally required to balance its budget, making cuts in services all but inevitable in lean economic times. But the Pew survey found that fewer than half of the lawmakers polled favor broad-based tax hikes. However, 71 percent said they would be willing to consider raising taxes on tobacco and alcohol, and sixty-six percent regarded increasing user fees as an acceptable option.
The survey found that as a group, state legislators are typically older than the general population, mostly male and predominantly white. While the number of women in state legislatures has grown over the last thirty years, men still outnumber women by a margin of about three to one.
Among other highlights:
- Public education was the one policy bright spot in the lawmakers' otherwise grim outlook. Forty nine percent of those polled said their state was moving ahead in this area, while only twenty nine percent believed things were getting worse.
- Democrats were much more willing to consider tax hikes to fix budget shortfalls than Republicans. (The number of Republicans and Democrats serving in state legislatures is virtually even nationwide). Sixty-three percent of the Democrats polled said they were open to considering tax increases, while only 17 percent of Republicans were.
- Term limits are widely unpopular among state legislators.
- And the legislators said lobbyists exert powerful influence on their decisions. But they said their constituents and their legislative leaders have even more clout on how they vote.