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What is happening to the state’s rainy day fund?

The Massachusetts State House.David L Ryan / Globe Staff

If Massachusetts doesn't get its finances in order, the state may lose its cherished AA+ bond rating. That was the warning issued two weeks ago by the S&P rating agency, which expressed special concern about the state's beleaguered rainy day fund.

In recent years, the rainy day fund has become an all-purpose tool for filling budget gaps, rather than the emergency account it is meant to be. That itself is troubling, but the bigger issue is this: There are always new gaps to fill.

Year after year, the state seems to come up short, without enough tax revenue to cover the cost of core government programs. And as long as that continues, ongoing raids on the rainy day fund will be hard to avoid, continuing the erosion that has eaten away 25 percent of the fund since 2012.


Before you apportion blame to past and present governors, or various legislative leaders, don't forget the part played by voters. Perhaps the biggest single cause of the state's ongoing budgetary woes is the massive income tax cut that voters passed as part of a 2000 ballot initiative.

How bad are Massachusetts' finances?

It could be worse. Some states are facing truly urgent fiscal crises. Kansas has so little money for schools that teachers are flocking across the border to Missouri. Politicians in Illinois still haven't agreed on a budget for the current fiscal year, which is nearly half over.

Massachusetts is in good shape, by comparison.

Still, there is the ongoing deficit problem. For nine years running, lawmakers have had to scramble to secure enough money to pay for government programs — things like schools and roads, police and the courts, child protection and public health. And shortfalls regularly top $1 billion.

This isn't supposed to be happening, not during an economic recovery. By this point, deficits should have turned to surpluses, with enough extra money to refill the depleted rainy day fund.


Instead, the state is flirting with a full-on fiscal crisis. If a new recession hit tomorrow, the already large annual deficits might become wholly unmanageable, with the rainy day fund inadequate to keep programs running and pay existing debts.

This is the scenario that worries rating agencies.

Who's to blame for this budgetary mess?

Talk of a bond rating downgrade set off a heated round of "blame-the-other-governor," with Charlie Baker's team faulting his predecessor, Deval Patrick, in CommonWealth Magazine, and a Patrick aide returning the accusation.

But neither charge really sticks.

It's true that Baker hasn't yet solved the state's budget problems, but he's been in office less than a year. And Patrick, for his part, tried to right the budget with a tax proposal that would have raised an additional $2 billion each year — only to watch it die in the Legislature.

For that matter, legislative leaders certainly deserve some share of the responsibility. Not because they rejected Patrick's approach — that's certainly within their purview — but because they have consistently opted for half-measures and temporary fixes.

Ultimately, though, it was voters who created this budget problem and bequeathed it to politicians, by approving a ballot initiative in 2000 that set the income tax rate on a downward course from 5.95 to 5 percent. That cut continues to cost the state nearly $2 billion every year, according to an analysis from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a nonprofit and left-leaning research organization.


Today's yawning deficits can be traced back to that portentous ballot initiative.

How can you be sure tax cuts are the root of Massachusetts' annual budget crises?

When looking for the origin of a budget imbalance, there are really only two possibilities: Either tax revenue has shrunk or spending has grown.

And in this case, you can't blame spending increases — because there haven't been any. General expenditures have consistently amounted to about 12 cents of every dollar earned in the state, according to data regularly collected by the Census Bureau. That's where they were in the late '80s, the late '90s, the late 2000s, and the most recent year covered by census data, 2013.

All the action is on the tax side of the ledger. Before the 2000 ballot initiative, the state was taking in around 7 cents of every dollar earned. In the years since, state tax receipts have fallen to 6.3 cents on the dollar.

What's the solution?

To be clear, the fact that tax cuts seem to lie at the heart of Massachusetts' fiscal problems doesn't mean tax increases are the only solution.

Cutting programs is a perfectly viable approach, another way to realign spending with available revenue and end the reign of budget deficits. In fact, this is often part of the goal of tax cuts, to deprive the state of money and force lawmakers to pare back spending.


Already, though, lawmakers have had 15 years to make these cuts, without much success. Which may be one reason Patrick went the other direction, proposing tax increase to help bring balance to the budget.

Either way, the message from S&P was clear: Plundering the rainy day fund to make up for missing dollars is not a viable long-term strategy.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.