Balancing Acts

The Reality Behind State Balanced Budget Requirements

Richard Briffault
Release Date: June 1, 1996

During the past two decades, the federal budget deficit has been a major focus of public concern. Many officials, commentators, and ordinary citizens have urged that the U.S. Constitution be amended to mandate a balanced budget, frequently citing the experience of states with such requirements.

Richard Briffault analyzes the states’ experience with balanced budget requirements and extrapolates lessons for a federal amendment. His focus is not on the wisdom of cutting the federal budget deficit, but rather on the role and effectiveness of these requirements in achieving budgetary balance. Briffault finds that, while the fiscal limitations on state governments do have consequences, their impact on the structure, function, and performance of states is not what federal balanced budget amendment advocates anticipate or desire. Many state budgets are balanced on paper only, and others are balanced because of political and fiscal constraints having little to do with constitutional or statutory provisions mandating a balanced budget.