News coverage of state budget surpluses skews perspective

State budget surpluses were a rare phenomenon until recently. But now they are front-page news locally and nationally, including recent above-the-fold headlines in USA Today and The NY Times. The reports are misleading at best, describing revenue growth as “robust” and “sharp.” The reality is that growth is modest and follows years of lean public budgets at the state level. In fact, analysis by Pew led their researchers to conclude the following:squeezed budget

An examination of 50-state data by The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Fiscal 50: State Trends and Analysis, a new online resource, shows that the recovery has been fragile and varies widely from state to state. Tax revenue, employment rates, and reserve funds still are lower in a majority of states than they were before they plunged during the recession.

The stories are potentially harmful in that they consistently reinforce negative stereotypes about government. The Times headline describes the upcoming “battle” in states – triggering the dominant thinking that government is mostly an operation of bickering, self-serving politicians. Further down, these articles offer some helpful information about the pros and cons of potential uses for the funds (education, rainy day funds, infrastructure or tax cuts, etc.) but the headlines and the first few paragraphs do a disservice to the national debate about government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *