In 26 states, revenues today are lower than they were at their early-recession peak, according to a new Pew analysis. That report underscores a few important facts about states in the years since the recession:
1. The rebound has been incredibly uneven, a fact masked by aggregate figures.
Total state revenues look good. Tax collections have been climbing for 16 straight quarters, surpassing their inflation-adjusted 2008 peak in the second quarter of last year.
But, individually, there has been wide variation. Collections in the last quarter of 2013 compared to their earlier peak ranged from being up 119 percent in North Dakota to being down 60 percent in Alaska. North Dakota was far and away the leader, eclipsing second-ranked Illinois where revenues were up just more than 23 percent. Alaska’s decline was so severe because its 2008 peak was abnormally high, thanks to a new oil tax and record oil prices.
2. But revenues are not a proxy for recovery.
It might be tempting to see the revenue rebound as an indicator of progress, but things aren’t quite so simple. Even among states that have recovered in terms of revenues, policy may have played a role. More than half of those 24 states collecting more revenue than at the inflation-adjusted peak had also hiked taxes since the recession. Revenues are higher than in 2008, but that may be simply because they’re taxing residents more.
3. It signifies the resources available.
But that doesn’t mean that revenues are a useless measure. Revenues can serve as a proxy for something else: resources. Tracking inflation-adjusted revenues reveals the relative amount of money states have to spend on their recovering economies, especially in light of federal cuts, increased debt, population growth and other factors that can stress state resources. A shrinking—or stagnant—pool of resources means lawmakers will have to make tough choices among competing and growing demands.