A Lesson in Fiscal Federalism: The Father of Sound Money Management Reflects on How Tax Policies Shifted the State-Federal Balance

By Hamilton, Billy | State Legislatures, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

A Lesson in Fiscal Federalism: The Father of Sound Money Management Reflects on How Tax Policies Shifted the State-Federal Balance


Hamilton, Billy, State Legislatures


Sometimes even success has its pitfalls. Just ask John Shannon, who spent 24 years in a variety of roles at the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. He recalls with wry humor how one state that had asked for advice on crafting a tax law had used the recommendations.

"One state copied verbatim into state law our suggested income tax legislation--even the drafting instructions we had enclosed in parentheses!"

For many people working in state and local finances, Shannon was the voice of the ACIR, created by Congress in 1959 as a bipartisan body to study the relationship among local, state and national governments, and especially to look at fiscal issues. Congress disbanded it in 1996.

A little north of 80, Shannon retired from the advising profession a decade ago. But talking with him now about the changes over his career is a history lesson in how federal, state and local fiscal relations came to be what they are today.

"There is much to be learned from 50 years of working around government at all levels," he says. "When I was a graduate student in the late 1940s, we were coming out of two back-to-back super crises the Great Depression and World War II. The federal government had suddenly emerged as the colossus looming over the federal-state-local landscape."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 1932, he says, the state-local sector was the senior partner in the federal fiscal system, collecting 78 percent of all governmental taxes. Twenty years later, state and local governments were collecting only 21 percent of all governmental tax revenue.

In this period, there was high confidence in Washington and very low confidence in the states.

"Back in the late 1940s, many public finance and political science professors--especially those of a liberal political bent--were predicting that the states would soon either wither away or become mere administrative appendages of the federal government," says Shannon.

"Not only was Washington's stock booming, the states were going through a bad patch--they looked like the 'fallen arches' of the American federal system. The doctrine of states' rights still justified Jim Crow laws, many state legislative bodies were malapportioned, and--in striking contrast to the federal situation--the state and local revenue systems were viewed as weak, regressive and severely hobbled by the fears of interstate tax competition."

STATE RESILIENCY

Shannon confesses that he shared this gloomy view of the states' future.

"Were we wrong! Fortunately, the states and localities have proved far more resilient and the federal government far less formidable than we ever imagined. Now 60 years later, Jim Crow laws have disappeared, state legislatures have been reapportioned, and the state-local revenue system is generating about $1 trillion annually in its own source general revenue--a sum greater than the gross national product of most members of the United Nations."

Shannon says the resurgence of the states, ironically enough, can be traced to their crisis-driven actions during the Depression.

"Just as the Depression forced an enormous expansion in federal regulatory power on the domestic front, it also forced an unprecedented expansion in state tax adoptions-16 individual income taxes, 15 corporate income taxes, 24 general sales taxes, 29 distilled spirit taxes and 19 cigarette taxes."

Virtually all of these "emergency" levies then became permanent additions to state revenue structures. They now account for a good share of the states' revenue take--what Shannon calls "the sheet armor of fiscal federalism."

OVERRATING WASHINGTON

"Just as we badly underrated the resilient states back then, so also we badly overrated Washington's ability to take over much of the financing of the domestic public sector," Shannon says.

This miscalculation was due in part to a great shift in public opinion. …

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