Flood of Federal Money Is Not a Free Pass for a Spending Binge
A version of this commentary appeared in the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Jefferson City is awash in taxpayer cash. Missouri’s state government is slated to receive $2.7 billion in federal stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan Act along with $9 billion from the “bipartisan” infrastructure bill. In addition, the state expects to bring in nearly $2 billion more in net revenues compared to just before the pandemic. What is disconcerting is how quickly some lawmakers—including self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives—have shed sound economic principles in their rush to find ways to spend the money, forgetting the wise words of Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”
The simple, alluring, and false logic is as follows: either Jefferson City spends the money or the funds get sent back to the federal government to misspend on other boondoggles. But Missouri does not have to choose whether Jefferson City or the federal government gets the privilege of misspending taxpayer money. There is another way—one in which state lawmakers apply a strict cost–benefit test to all proposed spending and in which Missouri taxpayers are the beneficiaries of direct fiscal relief from any unused funds that fail to pass such a test.
To begin, it is crucial that lawmakers be aware that misspent money today—even if it has the false appearance of being “free”—can saddle Missouri with fiscal obligations, a weaker economy, or both, in the future. Because the funds are a one-time injection rather than a reliable stream of future revenue, Jefferson City must avoid engaging in spending that creates long-term future commitments (for example, in the form of unfunded maintenance). Lawmakers should also be wary of any government investment that crowds out private-sector investment. Infrastructure spending ought to enhance the private sector, not compete with it.
The other obstacle to sound cost–benefit analysis is the mistaken belief that the cost of the stimulus and infrastructure funds is zero because Washington, D.C., will both supply the money and reclaim any unspent funds. After all, the message to lawmakers has been that states cannot use the money to offset tax cuts. But this is an oversimplification of the options available to state officials. For starters, as long as state revenues stay above their inflation-adjusted 2019 level, the American Rescue Plan Act provides a safe harbor that deems states to be in compliance with the restriction against using stimulus funds for state tax cuts. That inflation-adjusted revenue threshold is likely to be around $10.8 billion in 2023, which is $600 million less than the $11.4 billion in revenues the state is projected to take in. Thus, state lawmakers immediately start out with a cushion of $600 million that they can provide in tax relief without risking stimulus funds.
Second, the American Rescue Plan Act only prohibits state governments—not local governments—from using stimulus funds to offset tax cuts. Moreover, it explicitly allows the state to transfer some of its funds to localities. Nothing in principle stops Jefferson City from distributing money to localities on the condition that they use the money to enact temporary local sales or property tax cuts. When using such transferred funds, localities must abide by any restrictions that apply to the state, but the American Rescue Plan Act does not impose any restrictions on local tax cuts. To create an even more secure legal hedge, Jefferson City could come to an agreement with localities that they use much of their own $1.2 billion in earmarked local stimulus funds for tax cuts, and the state could transfer some of its funds to localities to put toward sound public investments. This way the funds allocated originally to Jefferson City would be used on public investments, while localities would focus on tax relief.
Lastly, the American Rescue Plan Act allows state and local governments to apply stimulus funds toward mitigating the negative economic consequences of the pandemic, chief among which is the decades-high inflation that Americans are suffering through. Seven percent inflation in 2021 caused real wages to drop 2.3 percent, which amounts to an almost $900 “inflation tax” on the average worker. Jefferson City could simply opt to send direct fiscal relief to Missouri workers to offset this tax.
With coffers flush with cash, it is true that state lawmakers have a rare opportunity to make pivotal public investments to improve private-sector productivity. However, they would be wrong to view the money as “free” or the cost of spending the funds as zero. Instead, they should apply the same cost–benefit test that they would use for spending financed from state tax dollars with the knowledge that any unspent money need not go back to Washington, DC—it can end up directly in the pockets of struggling Missouri families.