The financial health of each state can be analyzed through the states’ own audited financial reports. By looking at states’ basic financial statistics on revenues, expenditures, cash, assets, liabilities, and debt, states may be ranked according to how easily they will be able to cover short-term and long-term bills, including pension obligations.
This ranking of the 50 states, reproduced from page 29 of the study, is based on their fiscal solvency in five separate categories:
Cash solvency. Does a state have enough cash on hand to cover its short-term bills?
Budget solvency. Can a state cover its fiscal year spending with current revenues, or does it have a budget shortfall?
Long-run solvency. Can a state meet its long-term spending commitments? Will there be enough money to cushion it from economic shocks or other long-term fiscal risks?
Service-level solvency. How much “fiscal slack” does a state have to increase spending if citizens demand more services?
Trust fund solvency. How large are each state’s unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities?
Top Five States
Florida, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming rank in the top five states. Top-performing states tend to have higher levels of cash, low unfunded pensions, and strong operating positions.
Low debt and a strong cash position help maintain fiscal discipline. Keeping debt levels low, saving cash to pay bills, and maintaining solvent budgets reflect a culture of fiscal discipline. The first-place position of Florida in particular demonstrates that this is possible even with a relatively larger population and and the fiscal pressures that arise from an aging population.
Oil and gas revenues play a role in short-term fiscal health. The top-performing states owe some of their success to unpredictable revenue sources. As oil prices have been declining, however, we see this detrimentally affecting their budgets. Alaska has moved out of the top five, and Wyoming has moved from third to fifth as a result. North Dakota’s revenues also declined and have the potential to impact their future rankings.
Pensions and health care still pose long-term challenges to top-performing states. While these top five states are considered fiscally healthy relative to other states because they have significant amounts of cash on hand and relatively low short-term debt obligations, each state, especially Wyoming, faces substantial long-term challenges related to its pension and healthcare benefits systems.
The top five states have changed since last year. Alaska and Nebraska dropped out of the top five, allowing Florida and Utah to join. North Dakota and South Dakota improved from fourth and fifth to second and third, respectively, pushing Wyoming down two spots to fifth place.
Bottom Five States
Maryland, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Illinois, and New Jersey rank in the bottom five states, largely a result of the low amounts of cash they have on hand and their large debt obligations. States that fail to address long-term drivers of debt and are not prepared for recessions will continue to rank poorly.
Each state has massive debt obligations. Each of the bottom five states exhibits serious signs of fiscal distress. Their large liabilities and low cash on hand raise serious concerns about their ability to pay bills.
Unfunded liabilities continue to be a problem. High deficits and debt obligations in the forms of unfunded pensions and healthcare benefits continue to drive each state into fiscal peril. Each holds tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities—constituting a significant risk to taxpayers in both the short and the long term.
The bottom five states have changed since last year. Kentucky’s position has declined, placing it in the bottom five this year. New York is no longer in the bottom five due to improvements in budget solvency. Illinois and New Jersey improved slightly but remain in the bottom five. Massachusetts also remains in the bottom five, in slightly worse positions than last year.