STATE governments across the country are reeling from the effects of the current economic downturn. New York, facing a $26.2 billion deficit over the next three years, is particularly hard hit. Like most other states, it is looking to balance its budget mainly by cutting spending.
But if history is a guide, governors and legislators across the country will seek to avoid the difficult choices that are required. Instead, they will likely pass the costs of the services that we enjoy today on to our children and grandchildren, through creatively deceptive budgeting.
This is a time-honored practice. In 1991, the State of New York sold Attica prison to none other than itself. The buyer was a state agency that financed the $200 million purchase price by issuing bonds. The agency then leased the prison back to the state, with the lease payments being equal to the debt service on the bonds.
In substance, of course, the transaction was nothing more than a borrowing arrangement — the equivalent of borrowing $200 million from the buyers of the bonds. Nevertheless, the state booked the entire sale price as revenue for the year. The previous year, the state sold the Cross Westchester Expressway to the New York Thruway Authority — in other words, to itself.