Governors around US plan tough budget cuts

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post / February 9, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Faced with the most severe budget crisis since the Great Depression, governors across the ideological spectrum are embracing the politics of austerity in a desperate effort to balance the books.

Democratic and Republican governors alike are sounding similar themes.

Some of the deepest and most politically painful cuts have been proposed by Democratic governors in traditionally liberal states. With federal stimulus money being phased out and state tax receipts only beginning to recover from the downturn, these governors say they have been left with little choice.

Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States, said, “Governors do not have the luxury of being ideological, particularly when they have huge budget gaps to close.’’

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, recently called his state “functionally bankrupt’’ as he proposed closing most of a $10 billion budget gap by reducing both education funding and Medicaid.

In California, new Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has proposed closing a $25 billion budget gap by cutting salaries for nonunion state employees by 10 percent and slashing funding for higher education by as much as 20 percent. He also has threatened to cut K-12 education unless voters approve extending a series of temporary tax increases.

Brown and Cuomo are among 29 new governors who have taken office as states face a collective budget deficit of $175 billion through 2013. Many analysts say state tax revenues will not fully recover until the nation returns to full employment, which is not likely for several years.

Beyond their short-term fiscal crises, many states face pension and health care costs that some say are unsustainable in the long run. Some governors already are curtailing pension benefits for new employees.

At times, Democratic and Republican governors have sounded strikingly similar refrains as they vowed to shrink the size of their governments.

In New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie told voters in his State of the State message last month that one of his top priorities is “to reverse the pattern of increased spending and taxing.’’

He talked about his ability to close an $11 billion budget gap without raising taxes, but by slashing state government.