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Most states reporting big budget surpluses

WASHINGTON -- It's tantamount to finding a wad of cash buried in the pocket of an old jacket -- utter euphoria at the windfall, mad money to splurge on a one-time extravagance.

Only this find is breathtakingly huge.

For first time since Sept. 11, 2001, the vast majority of states reported that they saved an average of 10 percent of their budgets, one of the highest percentages of unspent money in decades. The $57 billion in unexpected revenue has afforded states an opportunity to find all sorts of creative ways to spend and save their cash, according to a report released last week by the National Conference of State Legislators.

All but five states -- Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin -- reported surpluses this year.

New Mexico has undoubtedly targeted the most unconventional project upon which to lavish money: a launchpad for future space travel by commuters.

Nationally, the states' surplus money is a 25 percent increase from the previous fiscal year and a welcomed boost after a five-year slump. The report notes that year-end balances are ``widely considered one of best indicators of state fiscal health."

``It's sort of a breather . . . like the eye of the storm, before a lot of serious needs kick in," said Corina Eckl, coauthor of the report for the conference . ``Overall revenues are not keeping up with spending, and these states are still in need of a lot of resources for items such as funding No Child Left Behind and aging prison facilities."

Some states have earmarked the money for one-time expenditures, or they are using it to bolster reserves and rainy-day funds. Across the board, education is the largest recipient, with 24 states sending money to kindergarten-through-12th-grade education and 20 spending on higher education, the report said.

Alaska invested $300 million in its Public Education Fund and had another $300 million to place in a new reserve fund. Wyoming used its surplus for natural resources, putting $200 million toward its Permanent Mineral Trust Fund.

The study suggested that revenues had been projected to grow by only 2.7 percent in the last budget year, but they grew by nearly 7.7 percent.

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