This Week in Numbers: State and Local Edition

This week will bring a cornucopia of new data, an econo-nerd’s dream. Unfortunately for some of us nerds, there won’t be any releases on state and local government finances. (The Census Bureau generally has to wait for all states to report and, as you can imagine, some states are laggards.)

However, there will still be a lot in this week’s numbers for those who follow state and local government finances, pay into state and local coffers, or consume predominantly state and local public services like education, roads, and health care. Here are a few trends worth watching:

First, Tuesday’s March S&P/Case Shiller house price indexes will be important for states whose fortunes are tied to real estate, especially in the West and Southwest. Macroeconomic forecasters are predicting home prices will decline slightly compared to one year ago but continue to increase month-to-month, suggesting that perhaps the market has hit bottom.

That would be good news for the housing sector. However, research from Federal Reserve Board economists Byron Lutz, Raven Molloy, and Hui Shan suggests that any boon to state and local revenues would be minor. They calculate the housing bust per se generated only a $22 billion drop in taxes over three years, equivalent to roughly 3 percent of annual state and local revenues excluding federal funds.

Meanwhile, the latest Census data suggest that state taxes are growing, but at a pace that is slower than usual. More worrisome, the pace appears to be moderating. In recent weeks, California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have all reported taxes coming in below projections. Also, local property taxes are likely to remain in the doldrums for some time. They tend to respond to house price changes with a delay and thus just started showing the effects of the housing bust in late 2010. Property taxes recently turned positive again, but these gains are anemic by historical standards and likely caused by rate hikes in some jurisdictions rather than improving property values.

Next up this week are Bureau of Economic Analysis revisions to first quarter GDP. Macroeconomists will be attuned to how the revisions compare to advance estimates and what this portends for the recovery. They might also take note of whether these governments are detracting from growth – as they have done by an average of 0.2 percentage points in each quarter since 2008 – or contributing to it as usual. State and local watchers will be more focused on state and local spending, which unlike previous downturns, has declined in real per capita terms and not yet recovered.

That leads us to the biggest number to watch this week – Friday’s jobs report. State and local employment is already down by 665,000 jobs or about 3.5 percent from its pre-recession peak. Recent trends suggest that cuts may be abating, but this total masks differences across subsectors – state education has been adding jobs while losses continue in all other subsectors, especially at the local level.

Ongoing state and local job losses also distinguish this recession from previous downturns in the modern era. This may be in keeping with the depths of this Great Recession. However, it’s hard to imagine state and local residents aren’t feeling the pinch of higher property tax burdens or lower services. To take one example, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed closing California’s $16 billion budget gap by converting state employees to a four day work week and closing state parks. From a macro perspective, the fiscal tightening may be over. But that doesn’t mean state and local governments aren’t still a real drag.