The Role of Fiscal and Political Institutions in Limiting the Size of State Government

By Krol, Robert | The Cato Journal, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Role of Fiscal and Political Institutions in Limiting the Size of State Government


Krol, Robert, The Cato Journal


In many states, tax and expenditure limits constrain government spending. All but one state have adopted balanced-budget rules. Some governors have the power to veto individual budget items (the so-called line-item veto). This article reviews the evidence linking fiscal and political institutions to state taxation, spending, and debt.

It appears that properly designed fiscal and political institutions are effective in containing the growth of state government. Constitutional tax and expenditure limits have been more successful than spending constraints established legislatively. Balanced-budget rules that prohibit deficit carryover to the following fiscal year are superior to rifles that allow deficit carryover.

Researchers have identified two other relationships. First, there is evidence that fiscal rules reduce state borrowing costs. Second, the citizen initiative process has played a role in controlling spending: states with a citizen initiative process spend less.

State Spending and Fiscal Controls

In the United States, state government spending has grown rapidly, nearly doubling since 1995. Population and prices have grown as well, but at a much slower rate. The result has been a significant expansion in real per capita state government expenditures. Although the finances of state governments have improved considerably in the last few years, overspending in the 1990s was a major contributor to the fiscal problems that plagued state governments in 2001-03.

Conventional views of government do not offer a justification for fiscal controls. For example, Downs (1957) argues that elected officials provide public services consistent with the preferences of the median voter. From this perspective, politicians act to maximize the net benefits of the median voter and there is no need to limit government. Similarly, Tiebout (1956) contends that businesses and individuals affect the size of government by voting with their feet, leaving jurisdictions with levels of spending they consider too high. In this view, competition between states brings about the right level of spending.

Alternatively, the special-interest view of government (Stigler 1971, Peltzman 1976, Becker 1983) and the Leviathan view (Niskanen 1975, Brennan and Buchanan 1979) predict that the influence of lobbying groups and the behavior of self-interested bureaucrats result in levels of government spending that exceed what the average voter desires. In contrast to conventional views of government, special-interest and Leviathan views place far more emphasis on the role public institutions and rules play in facilitating (and limiting) the growth of government.

Certainly state governments have a role to play in the provision of public goods and services, such as police, courts, and infrastructure. They also play a role in transfer programs. However, there is increasing concern over the growth in state spending. Economists and others worry that excessive spending results in higher taxes that, in turn, stifle economic activity (Barro and Sala-i-Martin 1995 and Engin and Skinner 1996). In the political arena, this concern has been manifested in the various attempts to establish fiscal and political institutions citizens can use to control the growth of state government.

Fiscal Institutions

Tax and Expenditure Limitations

Tax and expenditure limitations (TELs) are rules that attempt to constrain the growth of a state's revenues or expenditures. Most TELs limit the increase in expenditures to the growth of state personal income or the growth in state population plus inflation. Poulson (2005) reports that 30 states have some form of a TEL limitation. The majority (18) are constitutional, while the remaining (12) are statutory. Statutory TELs tend to be weaker and easier for the legislature to modify or avoid.

The early studies by Abrams and Dougan (1986), Cox and Lowery (1990), and Bails (1990) found TELs to be ineffective in controlling the growth of state government expenditures. …

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