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Spotlight on the States: Key Online Resources (August 2012): Budget and Finance

Francine Graf and George Graf

Budget and Finance

State economies, inextricably tied to the national economy and dependent on federal dollars for a wide range of activities and services, have experienced an alarming downturn, and a few cities (Central Falls, Rhode Island; Birmingham, Alabama; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) have even filed for bankruptcy.  The precarious circumstances of city and state budgets are a daily topic of the news media.  Many websites discussed in the previous sections contain information on state fiscal matters, but this section highlights resources whose main focus is the economic and fiscal aspects of the states, including taxation, labor, business climate, and the real estate market.

An excellent snapshot of regional finances, updated eight times a year by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, is Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions by Federal Reserve District (commonly known as the Beige Book), which distills the reports compiled by the twelve Federal Reserve Districts.  The Beige Book summarizes key economic activities for the regions, including data on consumer spending; business, manufacturing, and banking activity; real estate; and employment and wages.  In addition to providing information for the Beige Book, each district prepares reports and analyses on its region and makes them available online.  The Federal Reserve Districts site provides links to each district and also features an interactive map allowing the user to click on a state or enter a ZIP code to determine the district to which a state belongs.

The sites of the individual Federal Reserve Districts are worth perusing for their unique resources.  For example, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's New England Public Policy Center makes available publications and data relevant to New England's economy in its NEPPC Data and Resources section, which also includes a link to quarterly issues of New England Economic Indicators.  The Federal Reserve Bank of New York's U.S. Credit Conditions is a current source of information on delinquency rates for mortgages, bank cards, and auto and student loans.  An interactive U.S. map on this site allows users to drill down and view the data by state and county level; data can be downloaded as well.  Another example is the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's monthly report on state economic conditions and trends, State Coincident Indexes.

Although not providing data by individual state, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) compiles various projections on state finances, some forecast as far out as 2060.  Available on the GAO's site in the section titled Long-Term State and Local Fiscal Data, these projections provide a much-needed macro view of the fiscal condition of the states and are instructive for gaining a broad perspective of the fiscal challenges states will face in the coming years.

The U.S. Census Bureau, as noted earlier, is a vast repository of all kinds of vital information about the United States, and this includes resources specific to the state economies.  State Government Finances contains annual survey results compiled by the Census for all states.  Users can view information for each state, which includes detailed breakdowns of revenue and expenditures; summary tables and other data can be downloaded in various formats.  Links to related surveys, e.g., quarterly summary of tax revenue by state, appear on the home page.  Historical data sets for each state are available on the site for 1992-2010; to obtain data prior to 1992, users are given instructions for contacting the agency.  Govistics, a site of the Center for Governmental Research, is an excellent, user-friendly resource for obtaining information on a state's total revenue and spending, broken down by type of services such as education and public safety.  Data are presented in color-coded pie charts, making the information clear and easy to understand.  State-level data is available free on Govistics, but a subscription is required to view data such as county-level and school district spending, and to make use of some tools.  Subscription options are available for institutions and individuals.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis is an essential source for current economic data.  The Regional Economic Accounts section of the bureau's site provides much financial data for states and metropolitan areas.  The main reports focus on GDP (gross domestic product) and personal income; data can be limited by state and industry, and various format options can be selected.  Users can also view and download nicely formatted PDF fact sheets (Bearfacts) for states and local areas.

The website of the National Association of State Budget Officers, the professional organization for state finance officers, contains a number of useful materials, most notably links to the budgets of each state, in the Resources section.  This site also contains relevant documents such as periodic fiscal surveys of the states, a state budget blog, and state expenditures reports.

For tax information, always a hot topic, several organizations provide relevant coverage and analysis.  The Federation of Tax Administrators website provides comparative tax data for each state, including a breakdown of sources of tax revenue for each state (e.g., property or sales), and tax rate tables for individuals and corporations.  The Links section features a clickable U.S. map with links to state tax forms, departments of revenue, etc.  The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) site, which focuses on policy issues related to federal and state taxes, also features a U.S. map on the home page.  Once a state is selected, another page opens with a "By the Numbers" report for the state, which includes data on state and local revenue and information on personal and corporate tax rates.  This page also provides links to related news articles, publications, and other sources of tax and budget information for the state.  The ITEP site contains other publications relevant to state issues in the Policy Briefs and Multi-State Reports section; recent multi-state reports addressed state gasoline taxes, state tax holidays, and the Amazon.com state sales tax controversy.  The Tax Foundation, known for its annual proclamation of Tax Freedom Day, features a substantial amount of comparative tax data on State Tax and Spending Policy.  Users can view a tax profile of a particular state by using a drop-down menu or by clicking on a U.S. map.  In addition to the state data, noteworthy information on this site includes the annual booklet, "Facts and Figures Handbook: How Does Your State Compare?," the Tax Freedom Day section, and other special reports on state taxation and tax changes.  The Tax Foundation espouses a particular mission and set of principles related to tax policy, which are clearly articulated in the About section.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities conducts research on various issues related to state finances and makes it available on its website's section titled State Budget and Tax.  Offering analyses on specific budget and tax concerns (e.g., state taxes and the poor) as well as "policy basics" reports such as "The ABCs of State Budgets" and "Where Do Our State Tax Dollars Go?," this site is useful for gaining insights into state fiscal matters.   Similarly, the Brookings Institution's State Budget Crisis offers timely analysis and commentary on recent fiscal problems confronting the states.

With the unemployment rate so high, job creation is a top priority of many state governments.  For employment information, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides the go-to site.  This bureau compiles extensive labor and employment data for the United States; data are broken down by state at Economy at a Glance.  Users can select a state from a map or a list of states.  For each state, current monthly data are provided on employment and unemployment; employment by type of industry; and mass layoffs.  Historical data are also available, and a variety of options are available for viewing data by time periods and formats.  Overview of BLS Statistics by Geography outlines the bureau's many reports and detailed data sets available by state and local area related to employment and wages.

The weak real estate market, declining home prices, and ongoing foreclosures are considered central to the intractable economic woes of the United States, and the stock market seems to rise and fall on the monthly reports of home sales and foreclosures.  The housing crisis has affected states differently.  Those with the biggest housing bubbles are experiencing larger foreclosure rates and greater declines in home prices.  These data are comprehensively tracked by several agencies.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is a primary source of information for housing data.  Its portal, HUD.GOV: Regional Economic and Market Analysis, provides links to quarterly reports of regional housing market conditions; "Market at a Glance" reports for counties and cities, which report data on economic conditions, households, and housing inventory and annual building activity; and Comprehensive Housing Analyses for selected cities.

Sites focusing specifically on housing price data include the Federal Housing Finance Agency: House Price Index, which allows users to retrieve data by states or cities.  Mousing over a state on a U.S. map quickly reveals the latest data on increase/decrease in housing appreciation.  Another useful feature is the ability to select and generate a comparative chart for up to three states or cities.  The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's FDIC State Profiles also provides three year's worth of key economic data in an attractive PDF format for each state; data include employment rates, home permits, commercial and residential loans, bankruptcy filings, and banking information.  And finally, one of the most respected and widely quoted sources on the U.S. residential real estate market, the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, tracks changes in home prices for the United States and twenty major metropolitan areas.

A state's business climate is a major determinant of a state's economic vitality and growth, and this issue is the focus of several organizations.  The Manufacturing and Logistics Report Card: 2011, compiled by the Center for Business and Economic Research, Ball State University, grades the states (on an A-F scale) on several key variables (e.g., human capital, innovation, cost of benefits, and tax climate); comprehensive PDF reports can be downloaded for individual states or the nation.  The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has compiled several reports rating the states on innovation and competitiveness.  The latest, the 2010 State New Economy Index, provides detailed ranking of the states on numerous factors including workforce characteristics, manufacturing, exports and trade, entrepreneurial activity, and telecommunications.  The Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council has compiled two recent analyses ranking states' economic climate for small businesses: Small Business Survival Index 2010: Ranking the Policy Environment for Entrepreneurship across the Nation and Business Tax Index 2011: Best to Worst Tax Systems for Entrepreneurship and Small Business.  Business leaders themselves grade the states’ business climate in an annual survey conducted by the Chief Executive Group.  The most current report, “Another Triumph for Texas:  Best/Worst States for Business 2012,” by JP Donlon, reflects the views of 650 business leaders who responded to the survey, ranking states on taxation, regulation, the workforce, and living environment.

And finally, are you wondering how a particular state fared as a recipient of federal stimulus funds?  Recovery.gov: Track the Money was developed by the U.S. government to provide just this information to its citizens.  Click on a state to view the total funds awarded, funds received by top cities, award recipients, and estimated jobs created.  Searching deeper will reveal more details about the awards and their recipients.  Users can also enter a ZIP code to locate awards for their local areas.  Drawing from the official data provided on Recovery.gov, Stimulus Watch: Browse by State and City provides information on stimulus funds awarded to states and cities.  In addition, this site allows users to rate or comment on awards.  Begun by Jerry Brito of George Mason University, Stimulus Watch is an interesting attempt "to hold public officials to account for the taxpayer money they spend."