Legislators from around the country said Wednesday that unrealistic public expectations are one of the challenges they face as states’ budget troubles continue.
Many people’s eyes glaze over when there’s talk of state budget complexities, said Pennsylvania Rep. Dwight Evans. “The problem with the budget is that the people want (what) they’re not willing to pay for. It’s as simple as that.”
Cash-short states have already cut spending, but lawmakers said it’s not clear if the public will go along with more service cuts.
The state leaders spoke at a meeting of approximately 60 legislators and state fiscal officials that was held in conjunction with the National Conference of State Legislatures gathering in Phoenix. The NCSL released a report Wednesday on a 50-state survey that found improving economies are producing small increases in revenue.
But most states face projected budget gaps in the next fiscal year and many for years to come, the report said.
Long-term service reductions are “the new economic reality” but it could take time for the public to accept that, said Oregon state Sen. Richard Devlin, who recently stepped down as that state’s Senate majority leader.
Utah state Rep. Ron Bigelow said there are years of budget cleanup work to do but only a short “window of opportunity” for lawmakers to trim more spending and consider tax increases before the public balks.
“They’re going to say, ‘Why can’t you fix it?,'” Bigelow said.
Kansas Sen. John Vratil said his state’s revenue was finally starting to rebound after three years of declines but that did not eliminate the need for more cuts.
“We’re really faced with a dilemma in having to act against what we know is the position of the public because they also will violently oppose a tax increase,” Vratil said. “And when you get right down to it, the time is going to have to come when the public realizes there’s no free lunch and if you want services, you’ve got to pay for it.”
A South Carolina legislator said the public’s patience with budget cuts will wear thin and could even turn in a surprising direction.
If continued cuts pack classrooms with students and block admissions to nursing homes, “I’m predicting … that the public will be lined up to my door demanding that we raise taxes,” said state Sen. Hugh Leatherman.
Several lawmakers said it could be a decade before states’ finances recover, with Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh saying that state’s revenue could recover in about five years but will need more time to repay the massive debt it’s incurring.
Arizona lost a third of its revenue during the Great Recession.
“The public is not going to be happy because everybody want to have great schools, police all over the place and beautiful parks and buildings, but you can’t pay for it,” he said. “We may be a decade away from the good times.”