Try taking $9 billion out of this, and see what happens. Image source: Department of Planning and Budget
The United States is enjoying 112 months of uninterrupted economic expansion. We’re basking in one of the longest business cycles in American history — the average expansion since World War II has lasted 58 months. Unless someone has repealed the laws of economics, sooner or later, we’ll experience another recession.
There is a widespread belief among economists that the longer and stronger an expansion lasts, the more complacent people get about the chances of anything going wrong. They take greater financial risks, misallocating capital and seeding the next financial crisis and recession. Compound inevitable investor greed and folly with years of highly stimulative central banking policies in the U.S., Europe, and Japan that expressly encouraged people to take more risk — resulting in unprecedented borrowing and debt accumulation around the world — and the global economy could be cruising for a major bruising. When the next recession comes, it could be a doozy.
How would another 2008-scale recession impact state government finances here in Virginia? Someone asked that question of Virginia Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne, and he gave an answer at an Oct. 25 hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. (You can hear his remarks here. Go to the 23-minute mark.)
Layne emphasized that he knows of no mainstream economist who is predicting such an event, at least not in the next 24 months. But the fiscal consequences would be cataclysmic. Virginia’s General Fund budget would experience three years of what Layne, in his understated manner, described as “fairly significant” declines in revenues:
Year 1 — $2.6 billion
Year 2 — $3.7 billion
Year 3 — $3 billion
Those numbers are cumulative. The declines would total $9.3 billion over the three years. As a point of comparison, the FY 2019 General Fund budget is a bit more than $20 billion. That wouldn’t be a mere budget crunch. It wouldn’t cause routine pain and hardship. It would mark the end of state government as we know it. It would unravel the social fabric.
As Layne noted, Virginia has limited policy “levers” to pull to counteract such a drastic revenue fall. The Commonwealth is prohibited from running deficits, and it can’t print money. The state has about $1 billion in reserves — that would get wiped out in the first year.
Broadly speaking (this is my analysis, not Layne’s), Virginia has three options: raise taxes, cut spending, or engage in fiscal sleight-of-hand. Higher taxes would reduce the state’s long-term economic competitiveness, crippling the state in the long run. As for cutting spending, many argue that the state is already under-investing in key areas such as K-12, higher education, mental health… and the list goes on. So-called “unmet needs” are limitless.
That leaves fiscal sleight of hand. Remarkably, Virginia has retained one of the gimmicks it adopted during the last recession — the “accelerated sales tax,” in which the state compels large retailers to accelerate payment of the sales tax by a month. That created a significant bump of revenue in 2010 when the state needed it most. But budget makers never fully unwound the measure. Lawmakers, suggested Layne, might consider reverting to the traditional way of collecting the tax. (Total state sales tax revenue this year is projected to be around $3.5 billion. Unwinding the accelerated payment, I presume, would entail foregoing about 1/12th of that sum, about $300 million.)
The state also could do what it did from the last recession, short-changing payments to the Virginia Retirement System and paying back the balance over time. But this time around, we’d be ten years closer to actually needing the money to pay for the pensions and healthcare benefits promised to the latest wave of retiring state employees. Borrowing from the VRS at this point would be reckless in the extreme. Without getting into specifics, Layne suggested that legislators might want instead to “look at” the retirement benefit plan obligations.
One other option would be to refrain from issuing long-term debt. Virginia tends to borrow up to the limit of its bonding capacity. (To preserve the state’s AAA bond rating, bipartisan policy dictates that debt payments not exceed 5% of General Fund revenue). Exercising self-restraint now would preserve the state’s debt-issuing capacity in the event of a major revenue downturn.
The Northam administration is preparing its budget recommendations for the next fiscal year, and legislators will have a lot of their own ideas on how to modify it. Virginia will benefit from windfall revenues from a variety of sources, and likely run a budget surplus, too. This may be one of Virginia’s few remaining opportunities to put its fiscal house in order before another recession. Failure to prepare for the inevitable downturn would be unforgivable.