Mitchell’s Musings 7-18-16: Cash on hand

17 Jul 2016 3:13 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 7-18-16: Cash on hand

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

At the moment, unemployment is low. We can debate about the state of the economy and whether unemployment or non-employment (or non-participation) is the best indicator of labor market slack. What we can say, however, is that when the Great Recession hit, one of the major casualties was the budgetary condition of state and local governments. And currently, with some exceptions, a calm in the state and local fiscal situation prevails. So it’s a good time to look back and see what can be said about how such budgets get into trouble. There will someday be another downturn so now is a good time to learn about their fiscal implications.

Of course, in the simplest terms, the trouble for state and local budgets during recession results from a reduction in tax revenue; as the economy declines, taxes – which are largely based on economic activity – also decline. Budgets are pushed into the “red.” But deficit budgets by themselves are not crises. If sufficient reserves are available, temporary deficits can occur without a crisis, at least until the reserves are exhausted.

The State of California was particularly hard hit by the Great Recession. It had a disproportionate share of the flaky mortgage bubble and bust. Its revenue base was (and is) heavily tilted toward the personal income tax. And its personal income tax is highly progressive, with a large share of revenue coming from a narrow stratum of high income tax payers whose taxable income reflects capital gains and losses. In the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, California had one of the highest unemployment rates of any state in the nation.

California state government by the summer of 2009 was unable to pay all its bills and instead began to issue registered warrants (IOUs) to some suppliers and taxpayers owed refunds. Most of the focus in the news media was on the General Fund budget, the operating budget of the state. In principle, the state is supposed to produce a “balanced” General Fund budget by July 1 of each year. But, at the time, budgetary rules in the state’s constitution required a two-thirds vote for a budget enactment and the result was lengthy delays beyond July 1.[1]

The General Fund is operated as a kind of household checking account. So it may have a positive working balance which is a kind of reserve just as the balance in your checking account is available to cover checks.[2] But beyond what is in the official reserve is a hidden reserve of cash possessed by the state. That hidden reserve results from the fact that there are “special funds” outside the General Fund, which are typically earmarked with particular revenue sources to be used for designated purposes. The largest of these funds deal with transportation and receive revenue from the gasoline tax and other motor vehicle-related sources. But there are many other special funds created by the legislature, some quite small.

California’s constitution forbids borrowing for current operations, but there are two exceptions. Court decisions have allowed short term borrowing within a fiscal year on the grounds that such borrowing is really just a technique for handling the seasonal ups and downs of revenue. (Examples: Income taxes are due in April. Sales taxes bump up during Christmas sales.) So the state can issue Revenue Anticipation Notes (RANS) – external borrowing - within a fiscal year to cover short periods while awaiting for taxes to arrive. But it can also engage in internal borrowing, effectively putting IOUs into the special funds and taking the cash there to cover expenses in the General Fund.

As the chart above shows, California issues monthly reports on a concept known as “unused borrowable reserves."[3] Borrowable reserves are essentially the cash available from special funds from which the state controller is allowed to borrow for General Fund purposes. Unused reserves are those which either haven’t been directly borrowed or which are covering short-term external borrowing from financial markets. The chart depicts unused borrowable reserves in 2009-10, the worst of the budget years that followed the Great Recession, and the just completed 2015-16 fiscal year.

In 2009-10 – the crisis year – the ratio of unused borrowable reserves fell twice below 5% of the level of disbursements (spending) for that year. The first time was in July, the month in which IOUs began to be issued. Essentially, despite the ability to dip into special funds to cover General Fund operating expenses, there just wasn’t enough cash around to cover all bills which had to be paid. In contrast, in 2015-16 even the biggest dips left the ratio above the peaks of the crisis year.

Using the special funds as an ersatz reserve for operating spending has drawbacks, of course. If the special funds are loaded up with internal IOUs rather than cash, their ability to fulfill their earmarked purposes is constrained. Presumably, the legislature viewed carrying out those purposes was necessary or it wouldn’t have created those funds. But if you are looking at sources of cash to deal with immediate budget crises, the special funds are part of the picture, even if potentially interfering with their designated purposes is a Bad Thing to do.

It’s also important to note that although there was a tendency to view California’s issuance of IOUs to external creditors as a kind of bankruptcy, as a technical matter states have no legal ability to declare bankruptcy. And if you think of de facto bankruptcy as an inability to cover contracted bond-related debt service, there was little danger of that kind of default occurring, even at the peak of the post-Great Recession crisis. At present, the ratio of General Fund debt service to revenue is around 7% and it wasn’t much different in the crisis year of 2009-10.  So there is always enough revenue around to cover debt service; you can always divert seven percent of revenue to cover debt service.

Other states will have different revenue bases, different institutions, and different spending priorities and politics. But one suspects in broad terms the stories will be similar. The use of a General Fund for operating expenses and special funds for designated purposes is common to state and local governments. If you are looking at how state and local entities manage their finances during recessions and budget crises, you have to look beyond their general funds to see what sources and cash reserves are available.


[1]Partly as a result of the problems caused by budget delays, voters have since amended the constitution to require only a simple majority, and delays no longer occur. We are leaving aside troublesome problems related to budgetary language and accounting methodology.

[2]California now operates with a separate “rainy day” reserve, separate from the General Fund, so the two reserves must be summed together to evaluate the state of the official budget.

[3]The monthly reports are available from the state controller:

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