Colorado reserves wouldn’t last long in a recession

Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018 7:13 PM
A group of school-aged children begin their tour inside the Capitol on the first floor.

Colorado ranks slightly better than average among the states in how long the state could run on its “rainy day” reserves in a major recession. That’s not long, says a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The report says Colorado state government could run for 21.5 days on its rainy-day funds alone if another major recession caused problems like the ones the state faced during the 2008 Great Recession and in the years afterward. That compares to the 50-state average of 20.5 days.

Still, Pew says that is progress for Colorado, which is one of 26 states that could “cover a bigger share of spending with rainy-day funds” than they could before the Great Recession.

But the report adds that Colorado is also among the states that have a “thinner cushion against budget shortfalls” when rainy-day reserves are added to general fund dollars left over at the end of a budget year.

The Pew report doesn’t take into account any changes made to the general fund reserve in the last fiscal year that ended on June 30.

Both Gov. John Hickenlooper and the General Assembly have made efforts to boost the reserve from its statutorily required 6 percent to around 7.25 percent of appropriations.

While that may sound like good news, four years ago, a study from George Mason University estimated Colorado’s government would need about $790 million in reserve to weather an average recession.

A particularly bad one, like 2008, would require about $2 billion in reserves to avoid substantial budget cuts or raising taxes.

The last recession resulted in a $1 billion cut to K-12 education, and that tab is still open. Other agencies, such as the state’s public colleges and universities, also wound up with big cuts to their general fund support, which they covered with 9 percent (on average) annual tuition increases.

Colorado and Oregon both were cited in the report for having the second-highest growth in rainy-day funds since the pre-recession peaks.

However, the report noted that both states have constitutional limits on tax revenue growth – Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in Colorado – that could trigger refunds to taxpayers if those gains continue.

That mirrors forecasts from the Legislative Council and the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting. Economists said in June that taxpayer refunds that would go to seniors and disabled veterans to cover half of their property taxes, for example, are likely in the coming year.

The states with the most cash-on-hand to cover a recession include Alaska, which could fund its government for more than a year without any change at all (376 days); Wyoming, at 366 days; Texas, with 70 days, and West Virginia at 56 days.

The Pew report said there is more general fund dollars in reserve, $54.7 billion among the 50 states, than ever before.

That could cover a median of 20.5 days, or 5.6 percent of general fund spending, the report said.

The possibility of another recession is not just an academic exercise.

Many economists believe the nation is already overdue for its next recession, predicting one could take place as soon as next year.

Colorado economists have cited both a tight labor market, made worse by immigration issues, and the president’s trade war as factors that could trigger a downturn and a recession after that.