Surprise! The states are out of money again.

Louis Uichetelle writes that the states are about to be in trouble:

State and city governments have yet to shrink the economy; indeed, they have even managed to prop it up. They have quietly maintained their spending at pre-crisis levels even as they warn of numerous cutbacks forced on them by declining tax revenues. The cutbacks, however, are written into budgets for a fiscal year that begins on July 1, a month away. In the meantime the states and cities, often drawing on rainy-day savings, have carried their share of the load for the national economy.

That share is gigantic. At $1.8 trillion annually in a $14 trillion economy, the states and municipalities spend almost twice as much as the federal government, including the cost of the Iraq war. When librarians, lifeguards, teachers, transit workers, road repair crews and health care workers disappear, or airport and school construction is halted, the economy trembles. None of that, or very little, has happened so far, not even in California, despite a significant decline in tax revenue.

“We are looking at a $4 billion cut to public schools and deep cuts that will result in thousands of Californians losing their health care,” said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, offering a preview of coming hardships. “But the reality is we have not pulled money off the streets yet.”

Quite the opposite, the states and municipalities have increased their spending in recent quarters, bolstering the nation’s meager economic growth. Over the past year, they have added $40 billion to their outlays, even allowing for scattered spending freezes and a few cutbacks in advance of July 1. Total employment has also risen. But when the current fiscal year ends in 30 days (or in the fall for many municipalities), state and city spending will fall, along with employment — slowly at first and then quite noticeably after the next president takes office.

This story is not exactly an evergreen--more of a counter-cyclic perennial that blooms every time the economy slows down. At each turn, the news that tax revenues fall during recessions is greeted first with surprise, and then with indignation. This is perhaps why no one has expected the states to anticipate this bewildering state of affairs by building up their reserves to levels adequate to weather the really rather moderate financial storms that beset them during lean times.

Too, these articles rarely see fit to mention the other ways in which these wounds have been self-inflicted--the habit of making ever more lavish pension promises to the public sector unions, for example. Public pension funds are now officially a disaster. Politicians promised benefits without funding them. The befuddled fund managers seem to have mistaken beta for alpha, pouring their assets into riskier asset classes because they couldn't make up the deficit on a safe, modest appreciation every year. If these were private companies, most of those managers and their bosses would be under indictment. The problem is about to get worse, of course, because when do pension funds need the most topping up? During downturns, when asset values decline.

The pension funds illustrate why, contra the opinion of most of those journalists, states should have to balance their budgets. If they could borrow during lean times, they would never get their financial houses in order.

In a weird way, state governments are like banks: they have a fundamental and inevitable duration mismatch. Banks loan money long and borrow short (a demand deposit, aka your bank account, acts in crises like a renewable daily loan); under the right (wrong) conditions, the short lenders flee and the bank collapses.

This is not a perfect analogy with state governments of course. But they make long promises with only short funds, and when long and short durations collide, disaster can occur--just ask John Lindsay. Plus both have an implicit guarantee from the Federal government that allows them to be less fiscally responsible than they ought.