The state’s emergency savings account, a final bulwark against extreme cuts to state services if the economy goes sour, is less than half the size it was before the last recession.
Despite an economy on the upswing in recent years, Beacon Hill leaders have repeatedly taken money out of the state’s rainy day fund to paper over big holes in the state budget. As a result, the account, also known as the stabilization fund, stands at $1.1 billion, certainly a sizable sum, but a far smaller percentage of state spending than in the past.
And now, with economic storm clouds on the horizon, from China’s slipping economy to a volatile American stock market to slowing national job growth, top analysts are increasingly concerned that the fund won’t be big enough if there is a true fiscal emergency.
“There’s going to be an economic downturn. Due to the cyclical nature of our economy, it’s not a question of if, it’s when. And if the downturn were to occur in the short-term, we’re inadequately prepared,” said Eileen McAnneny, president of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a top fiscal watchdog.
Analysts say lawmakers have repeatedly drained the fund to avoid making tough choices — raising taxes or cutting services — to balance the budget.
Lawmakers need to rein in the practice of spending more than the state takes in, McAnneny said, which has led to drawing down or diverting money from the rainy day account not because of economic catastrophe, but to balance the books in relatively good times.
“We have to live within our means,” she said.
The Legislature is poised to this month send Governor Charlie Baker a budget bill adding money to the fund in an effort to build up its bottom line.
In the summer of 2007, before the massive recession began, the rainy day fund had $2.3 billion — a cushion of about 7.8 percent of total state spending, according to the Taxpayers Foundation. This summer, the rainy day balance stood at $1.1 billion — about 2.7 percent of total state spending, a fraction small enough to raise a red flag for analysts.
Noah Berger, president of the liberal-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the diminished size of the fund and the state’s propensity to drain it worries him.
If Massachusetts hasn’t built up enough of a reserve for the next recession, he said, “the state will have to cut deeply into funding for important things like K-12, higher education, aid to cities and towns, and transportation” — or raise taxes.
In the fiscal year that ran through June 2013, for example, the state used more than $500 million from rainy day fund reserves to balance its budget. The next year, to balance the budget, Massachusetts used more than $350 million from the fund and diverted more than $400 million that was meant for it .
And last fiscal year, the numbers for which are still subject to change, the state relied on more than $140 million from the account, as well as diverting more than $600 million meant for it, to keep the budget in balance.
The current fiscal year’s budget, which began on July 1, was, depending on how the numbers are sliced, the first since 2011 that did not rely on directly draining the rainy day fund. Still, unlike 2011, this year’s budget is balanced by using $300 million that would normally land in the fund.
Of course, all that money goes to support state services — from health care for the poor to public safety to protecting the environment — but it’s money that won’t be there in a pinch.
Top bond-rating agencies see the state as being on very solid financial footing, but some of their analysts said they were watching the balance of the rainy day fund with concern.
The state’s “stabilization fund has been drawn down recently and that is a concern,” said David Hitchcock, senior director with Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services, but its total level remains “substantial” compared to other states.
“In our view, the purpose of a stabilization fund is to build up money in the good times to save up for the bad times. These are relatively good times and they are the appropriate times to set money aside,” he said.
Hitchcock was among those who said they were concerned that Beacon Hill leaders have taken money out of the fund or diverted money meant to replenish it, even as the economy has hummed along.
At the same time, he and analysts from other bond-rating agencies lauded the state’s broader commitment to fiscal stability. Hitchcock said the state’s good bond rating maintains a stable outlook.
The state’s bond rating, currently the second from the highest and reaffirmed by three big rating agencies this year, helps it borrow money at lower rates. Fear of losing it can prompt action, and Beacon Hill leaders say they are focused on beefing up the account.
“We are worried about the rainy day fund,” said Senator Karen E. Spilka, the chairwoman of the chamber’s budget-writing committee. “Very concerned about the need to replenish it.”
On Wednesday, the House passed a budget bill closing the books on the last fiscal year that included a $75 million deposit in the rainy day fund. The Senate is expected to take up the legislation this week and also put aside money for the fund.
Representative Brian S. Dempsey, chairman of the House’s budget committee, said the chamber’s action “indicates that we are strongly committed to replenishing the fund as much as possible.”
He also emphasized that fiscal responsibility extends beyond just keeping the major savings account well stocked. Dempsey said the state has, in recent years, been putting more money aside to reduce Massachusetts’ unfunded pension liability.
Baker’s top budget official, Kristen Lepore, said rebuilding the emergency account back up is definitely a goal, but “we first have to put the state on sound financial footing.” That, she said, means aligning spending with the money that comes in from taxes, fees, and the federal government.
And Berger, the head of the Budget and Policy Center, said it is always tough to make “the hard choices of reducing spending or raising revenue,” a euphemism for raising taxes, something Baker has repeatedly ruled out.
“It’s easier to identify temporary revenue sources,” such as the rainy day fund, he said, “to patch over gaps in the budget.”
But that, Berger emphasized, has a longer-term cost that is only truly felt when, economically, it starts to rain.
Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.