July | August 2017


 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Questions with Jennifer Burnett,
CSG director of fiscal and economic development policy

By Shawntaye Hopkins, CSG communications associate
Jennifer Burnett, The Council of State Governments’ director of fiscal and economic development policy, discusses federal funding in the states, evidence-based policymaking, the Great Recession and women in government.
What is the biggest fiscal and economic issue facing the states right now?
The real wild card right now is federal funding streams—how volatility at the federal level will trickle down and affect states. From a fiscal standpoint, the impact of decreased or unpredictable federal spending is clear: States received more than $600 billion in grants from the federal government in fiscal year 2015. More than half of that spending ($334 billion) went to Medicaid. In total, federal spending made up about a third of state budgets. As state leaders work to close budget gaps, uncertainty at the federal level just makes their jobs that much more difficult. On the economic side, huge sums flow directly from the federal government into the hands of state residents, which in turn is spent and drives economic activity. For example, about a third of total federal spending in the states went to retirement benefits like Social Security and federal employee pensions. That’s more than a trillion dollars in 2015 (about $3,600 per capita) in the hands of state residents to go grocery shopping, invest in purchasing a home or to pay for college—all of which has a multiplier effect on a state’s economy. Significant changes to these funding streams could have a profound impact on state economies, which would in turn impact state revenues.
Policymakers and citizens seem to recognize, now more than ever, the importance of having evidence and data to support budget and policy decisions. What factors have contributed to this trend, and are there any challenges that come with this trend?
Technology has certainly contributed to an increase in the use of evidence-based and data-driven policymaking. With a simple keystroke millions upon millions of data points are instantly available for analysis and can be used to make the most informed decisions possible. But as our data collection and analytical tools have become more sophisticated and their use widespread, a new problem has emerged: data overload. Too much data with not enough context and meaningful interpretation can be overwhelming and just as frustrating as not having enough data to make decisions. Additionally, it seems to have become more difficult to identify data and analysis that is trustworthy and that hasn’t been manipulated for a partisan purpose— either in perception or in reality. Sorting this out will be one of the most pressing issues for decision-makers for years to come, and organizations like CSG—as a trusted source of nonpartisan information—will become even more important to state leaders.
The Great Recession ended more than five years ago. How are states continuing to recover?
For most states, the recovery has been very slow but steady. That’s a trend that is likely to continue over the next year as well. Of course, not all states are alike. A few—particularly those that are heavily dependent on energy industries, like Alaska and Louisiana—have been on a roller coaster ride with tax revenues falling by more than 50 percent thanks to crashing oil prices. Overall though, nearly all states have tax revenue levels at or near pre-recession levels. Unfortunately, that slow recovery hasn’t quite kept pace with a growing demand for services and a majority of states started out the year with a revenue shortfall.
The Council of State Governments recently took on the responsibility of analyzing and publishing data about federal spending in the states each year. Why is it important that states have this federal spending data?
The U.S. Census Bureau published an annual report called the Consolidated Federal Funds Report, or CFFR, for 30 years and that report became the gold standard for aggregate federal government spending data in the states. But in 2010, that report was discontinued, leaving a big gap in the information available to state policymakers. The Pew Charitable Trusts took on the task of recreating this information for a few years and now CSG, using Pew’s methodology and assistance, has taken over that role. This is important information for CSG’s members and we were happy to accept the responsibility of collecting and publishing this data on our website and in our newsletter so that state leaders can get the big picture when it comes to federal spending —both dollars flowing to state governments, including grants like Medicaid, and money coming directly to residents in a state, like retirement. One out of every three dollars a state spends comes from the federal government, so that’s a pretty significant impact.
In your work with state leaders who serve on fiscal committees, women are often underrepresented at the table. Why is that?
Women in general are underrepresented in state legislatures. They make up a little more than half of the general population, but only 25 percent of state legislators are women. That same pattern holds when you look at fiscal committee leadership. About a quarter of fiscal chairs are women. So that’s good news and bad news. The good news is that when you take the number of women who are legislators, they are represented proportionally in these fiscal leadership roles. And there has been some significant progress—in the early ‘70s, women made up only about 5 percent of state legislative bodies. So if the current ratios and trends hold, as the number of female legislators becomes more representative of the general public, there will also be more women in fiscal leadership positions. The bad news? The gains women were making in representation has stalled out a bit since the early 2000s, so progress has been slow.
 
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