General Revenue Sharing: Background and Analysis
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
This report provides background and analysis of the general revenue sharing program (GRS) as
authorized in the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972 (P.L. 92-512, the 1972 Act). The
GRS program was extended three times before finally expiring on September 30, 1986. Over the
almost 15-year life of the GRS program (1972 through 1986), more than $83 billion was
transferred from the federal government to state and local governments. From 1972 to 1980,
states received approximately one-third of the grants and local governments received two-thirds.
State governments were excluded from GRS beginning in the 1981 fiscal year (FY).
In 2003, policymakers suggested using the original GRS program as a model for a new, short-
term, GRS program. The FY2004 budget resolution contained a proposal (H.Con.Res. 95, Sec.
605) expressing a sense of the Senate that $30 billion should be set aside over the next 18 months
for state fiscal relief. Congress ultimately approved $20 billion in aid to states; $10 billion
through Medicaid and $10 billion distributed by population. By comparison, in 1972, the federal
government authorized $8.3 billion ($42.1 billion in 2008 dollars) for the first 18 months of the
original GRS program. More recently, the recession that began in 2008 has prompted similar
The rationale behind GRS in 1972 cannot be traced to a single political or economic objective,
such as economic stimulus. The turbulent economic and political environment that characterized
the 1960s and 1970s led proponents and opponents of GRS to modify their political and
economic arguments as that environment changed. Generally, GRS could be implemented to (1)
initiate intergovernmental fiscal reallocation; (2) address state and local government liquidity
crises; and (3) synchronize federal and state-local fiscal policy. A revised GRS program intended
to help close state budget deficits (estimated to be $31.0 billion for the remainder of FY2009 and
estimated to be $64.7 billion for FY2010) has been advocated based on the last two objectives.
The budget crisis facing state and local governments in 2009 has generated renewed concern at
the state and local level. A GRS program designed as a countercyclical initiative would encounter
two primary implementation issues: fiscal policy time lags and variability in the state response to
GRS grants. In addition, as with all fiscal policy, the overall size of the additional federal
spending is critical to the impact of the fiscal stimulus.
This report provides general background and analysis and does not track current legislation. It
will not be updated.
Introduc tion ..................................................................................................................................... 1
Background on General Revenue Sharing.......................................................................................1
A mount ...................................................................................................................................... 1
Economic Rationale for GRS Grants..............................................................................................6
State and Local Government Liquidity Problems.....................................................................7
Federal and State-Local Fiscal Policy Synchronization............................................................8
Analysis of GRS for Economic Stimulus in 2009...........................................................................9
Magnitude of Anticipated Pro-Cyclical State Action................................................................9
Fiscal Policy Time Lags....................................................................................................10
State Budget Options........................................................................................................10
Table 1. GRS Transfers Made Through the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972
and Subsequent Extensions..........................................................................................................2
Table 2. Amount Allocated to Each State under Three-factor GRS Formula with a
Hypothetical $40 billion or $20 billion Appropriation.................................................................5
Table 3. State Strategies to Eliminate FY2003 Budget Gaps.........................................................11
Table A-1. Change in Real GNP and Real Wages, 1980: Q2 to 1983:Q4.....................................16
Appendix. A Brief History and Analysis of Prior GRS Legislation..............................................13
Author Contact Information..........................................................................................................17
This report provides a brief history and analysis of general revenue sharing (GRS). GRS is
commonly defined as a program of federal transfers to state and local governments that does not
impose specific or categorical spending requirements on the recipient government. The United
States implemented a GRS program in 1972 that expired on September 30, 1986.
Congress looked to the bygone GRS program once before as an option designed to address the
fiscal year 2003 (FY2003) and FY2004 state budget shortfalls ($21.5 billion and $72.2 billion, 1
respectively). Some observers have suggested that a revenue sharing program that provided 2
states with grants to forestall spending cuts and tax increases in 2009 may deter pro-cyclical
actions by states and produce national fiscal stimulus. The budget gaps for is estimated to be 3
$31.0 billion for the remainder of FY2009 and for FY2010 it is estimated to be $64.7 billion.
An examination of the GRS program that existed from 1972 to 1986 could provide some
historical perspective if policy makers were to consider a revised GRS program in 2009. The first
section provides a brief overview of GRS as authorized by the State and Local Fiscal Assistance 4
Act of 1972 (P.L. 92-512, the 1972 Act) and the three extensions. The second section analyzes
the economic rationale for GRS. The third section analyzes GRS in the context of its possible use
for stimulus of the nation’s economy in 2009 including estimated distribution to the states based
on the original GRS formula. The Appendix provides a more detailed legislative history of the
GRS program created by the 1972 Act and its three extensions.
General revenue sharing (GRS) is typically defined as unconditional federal grants to state and
local governments. These grants are intended to provide state and local governments with
spending flexibility. The total grant amount is fixed annually, sometimes called “closed-ended,”
and allocated to the recipient governments by formula. GRS has not been explicitly identified as a
primary tool to provide counter-cyclical assistance. The GRS program created by the 1972 Act
exemplifies how a GRS program can work.
Over the almost 15-year life of the GRS program (1972 through 1986), over $83 billion was
transferred from the federal government to state and local governments. To achieve a comparable
1 Aggregate state deficit data are from the National Conference of State Legislatures, State Budget Update: April 2003,
2 The business cycle has peaks and troughs. Fiscal policy and monetary policy are used together to attenuate the size of
those peaks and troughs to stabilize the economy. These actions are counter-cyclical. In contrast, pro-cyclical fiscal and
monetary actions magnify the peaks and troughs, thus destabilizing the economy.
3 State cumulative deficit data, not including Puerto Rico, are from the National Conference of State Legislatures, State
Budget Update:November 2008, p. 6.
4 For a more detailed description of the 1972 Act, see U.S. Congress, Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation,
General Explanation of the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act and the Federal-State Tax Collection Act of 1972, nd
committee print, 92 Cong., February 12, 1973, (Washington: GPO, 1973).
magnitude of assistance today, approximately $313 billion (in 2008 dollars) would need to be
distributed over the next 15 years. Table 1 provides detailed information on the 17 entitlement
periods for the GRS grants (as provided for in the 1972 Act and subsequent extensions, both in
nominal dollars and adjusted to 2008 dollars). The estimates provided in Table 1 for 2008 can be
thought of as the relative value of a commitment made in the past in current dollars. For example,
a $1 commitment in 1972 would be equivalent to a $5.08 commitment in 2008.
Table 1. GRS Transfers Made Through the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of
1972 and Subsequent Extensions
(in $ millions) a
Entitlement Period Dates
($ nominal) ($ current)
Original 1972 Act (P.L. 92-512)
Period 1 January 1, 1972 to June 30, 1972a $2,650.0 $13,467.14
Period 2 July 1, 1972 to December 31, 1972a $2,650.0 $13,467.14
Period 3 Jan. 1, 1973 to June 30, 1973 $2,988.0 $15,184.83
Period 4 July 1, 1973 to June 30, 1974 $6,050.0 $30,745.72
Period 5 July 1, 1974 to June 30, 1975 $6,200.0 $31,508.01
Period 6 July 1, 1975 to June 30, 1976 $6,350.0 $32,270.31
Period 7 July 1, 1976 to December 31, 1976 $3,325.0 $16,897.44
Total January 1, 1972 to December 31, 1976 $30,213.0 $153,540.59
1976 Extension (P.L. 94-488)
Period 8 January 1, 1977 to September 30, 1977 $4,988.0 $18,621.72
Period 9 October 1, 1977 to September 30, 1978 $6,850.0 $25,573.13
Period 10 October 1, 1978 to September 30, 1979 $6,850.0 $25,573.13
Period 11 October 1, 1979 to September 30, 1980 $6,850.0 $25,573.13
Total January 1, 1977 to September 30, 1980 $25,538.0 $95,341.12
1980 Extension for Local Governments Only (P.L. 96-604)
Period 12 October 1, 1980 to September 30, 1981 $4,566.7 $11,772.83
Period 13 October 1, 1981 to September 30, 1982 $4,566.7 $11,772.83
Period 14 October 1, 1982 to September 30, 1983 $4,566.7 $11,772.83
Total October 1, 1980 to September 30, 1983 $13,700.1 $35,318.49
1983 Extension for Local Governments Only (P.L. 98-185)
Period 15 October 1, 1983 to September 30, 1984 $4,566.7 $9,739.77
Period 16 October 1, 1984 to September 30, 1985 $4,566.7 $9,739.77
Period 17 October 1, 1985 to September 30, 1986 $4,566.7 $9,739.77
Total October 1, 1983 to September 30, 1986 $13,700.1 $29,219.31
Grand Total January 1, 1972 to September 30, 1986 $83,151.2 $313,419.51
Source: Public laws cited in table and CRS calculations.
a. The act was signed into law in October of 1972, thus, retrospective payments were made for periods one
and two, in December 1972 and January 1973, respectively.
b. The adjustment for 2008 dollars was calculated based on the GDP for the year in which the legislation
authorizing the entitlements was passed.
The payment periods in the 1972 Act were designed to roughly follow the budget calendars of
state and local governments. The grants in subsequent extensions tracked the federal budget 5
calendar. Note that after FY1980, only local governments, not states were entitled to GRS grants.
GRS allocations were determined by a formula that used a combination of the following 6
variables: tax effort, population, and per capita income. Generally, the greater the tax effort and
population, the larger the grant. In contrast, the higher the per capita personal income, the smaller
the grant. More specifically, section 106 of the GRS legislation stipulates that under the three-part
formula, each state shall receive:
an amount which bears the same ratio to the amount appropriated under that section for that
period as the amount allocable to that State under subsection (b) bears to the sum of the
amounts allocable to all States under subsection (b)
The three-factor formula can be summarized symbolically:
⎥⎢ ×× stististius RIFGT EFpop
State “i” Share of GRS =⎥⎢×51A
()⎥⎥⎢⎢ ××∑ stististi RIFGT EFpop
Aus = total appropriation,
stpop= population of state “i”,
stperinc= total personal income of state “i”,
5 Unlike the federal government, most state and local government fiscal years begin July 1 and end on June 30. The
fiscal year begins in July for 46 states, October for two states (AL and MI), April for one (NY), and September for one
(TX). Thirty states use an annual budget cycle, while the other 20 use a biennial cycle.
6 An alternative, yet similar, five-variable formula (the “House” formula) was also used for determining the initial state
share. The five variable formula included the three mentioned variables plus the state’s urbanized area and income tax
collections. The state chose the formula that produced the largest grant. Tax effort is a measure of taxes as a fraction of
ability to pay. Two states with the same ability to pay and the same amount of taxes collected would receive equal tax
effort scores. If a state raised more from the same ability to pay, it would receive a higher tax effort score.
⎠⎝=stRIF, or state “i” relative income factor, and
⎞⎛ stii perinc
⎞⎜⎛=stisttaxesGTEF, or state “i” general tax effort factor.
⎟⎟⎠⎜⎝ stii perinc
The two ratios in the formula, the relative income factor (RIF) and the general tax effort factor
(GTEF), were intended to adjust the state allocations based on the state’s “ability-to-pay” and tax
The RIF for a state is the pre capita income for the U.S. divided by the per capita income of the
state. If the state’s RIF is greater than one, then it is considered relatively low income.
Analogously, a RIF less than one indicates a state has relatively high income. In the three-part
GRS formula, the higher a state’s RIF, the greater the share of revenue.
The GTEF was considered important for GRS because it created a disincentive for states to
reduce taxes and rely more on the federal government for revenue over time. The GTEF is total
state tax collections as a share of state personal income. In the GRS formula, the larger the GTEF
component, the greater the share of revenue.
Under the original GRS, the first step in the allocation procedure was to calculate each state’s
share based on the three variable formula. After each state’s share was determined, one-third of
the total amount was allocated to the state government and two-thirds to local general purpose 7
governments within the state. The two-thirds portion was then distributed to each geographically
defined county (parish) area within the state using the same three variable formula used to
determine the state share. Each government within the county area then received an amount equal
to the ratio of taxes it collected to total taxes collected by all general purpose governments in the 8
The allocation formula was criticized for generating inequitable treatment of local governments.
Generally, the arguments arose from “similar governments within a state receiv[ing] different 9
revenue sharing payments, primarily because of their geographic location.” According to a GAO
report, “These inequities are created primarily by tiering allocation procedures whereby revenue 10
sharing funds are first allocated to county geographic areas.”
7 The automatic state GRS allocation was discontinued after FY1980.
8 All tax calculations were adjusted to exclude taxes collected exclusively for schools.
9 More detail on this critique of the old allocation scheme can be found in the following: U.S. General Accounting
Office, Changes in Revenue Sharing Formula Would Eliminate Payment Inequities; Improve Targeting Among Local
Governments, GAO Report GGD-80-69 (Washington: June 10, 1980).
10 GAO, Changes in Revenue Sharing Formula Would Eliminate Payment Inequities; Improve Targeting Among Local
Governments, p. ii.
Table 2 below employs the three-part formula to allocate a hypothetical appropriation of $40
billion and $20 billion using data for 2007, the latest year where data for the full years is
available. Only states are eligible in the example provided in Table 2.
Table 2. Amount Allocated to Each State under Three-factor GRS Formula with a
Hypothetical $40 billion or $20 billion Appropriation
Amount Per Amount Per Share of
Appropriated Capita Appropriated Capita Total
United States $40,000,000,000 $133 $20,000,000,000 $66 100.0%
Alabama 655,239,258 142 327,619,629 71 1.6%
Alaska 167,469,244 245 83,734,622 123 0.4%
Arizona 888,375,378 140 444,187,689 70 2.2%
Arkansas 632,851,036 223 316,425,518 112 1.6%
California 5,147,834,274 141 2,573,917,137 70 12.9%
Colorado 424,406,741 87 212,203,370 44 1.1%
Connecticut 329,639,452 94 164,819,726 47 0.8%
Delaware 140,471,840 162 70,235,920 81 0.4%
District of Columbia 98,519,716 167 49,259,858 84 0.2%
Florida 1,888,250,620 103 944,125,310 52 4.7%
Georgia 1,294,620,513 136 647,310,257 68 3.2%
Hawaii 258,975,928 202 129,487,964 101 0.6%
Idaho 272,933,240 182 136,466,620 91 0.7%
Illinois 1,367,390,533 106 683,695,267 53 3.4%
Indiana 995,022,224 157 497,511,112 78 2.5%
Iowa 414,481,535 139 207,240,767 69 1.0%
Kansas 401,734,896 145 200,867,448 72 1.0%
Kentucky 809,776,903 191 404,888,451 95 2.0%
Louisiana 658,388,128 153 329,194,064 77 1.6%
Maine 240,866,449 183 120,433,225 91 0.6%
Maryland 538,110,243 96 269,055,122 48 1.3%
Massachusetts 663,722,180 103 331,861,090 51 1.7%
Michigan 1,568,566,845 156 784,283,422 78 3.9%
Minnesota 821,694,702 158 410,847,351 79 2.1%
Mississippi 609,501,167 209 304,750,583 104 1.5%
Missouri 718,970,564 122 359,485,282 61 1.8%
Montana 163,804,358 171 81,902,179 86 0.4%
Nebraska 241,118,211 136 120,559,106 68 0.6%
Nevada 311,095,669 121 155,547,834 61 0.8%
New Hampshire 98,097,359 75 49,048,679 37 0.2%
Amount Per Amount Per Share of
Appropriated Capita Appropriated Capita Total
New Jersey 931,293,104 107 465,646,552 54 2.3%
New Mexico 431,101,215 219 215,550,608 109 1.1%
New York 2,249,948,733 117 1,124,974,367 58 5.6%
North Carolina 1,547,851,601 171 773,925,801 85 3.9%
North Dakota 106,985,489 167 53,492,745 84 0.3%
Ohio 1,616,077,155 141 808,038,578 70 4.0%
Oklahoma 566,761,717 157 283,380,8578 1.4%
Oregon 489,538,950 131 244,769,475 65 1.2%
Pennsylvania 1,593,887,759 128 796,943,879 64 4.0%
Rhode Island 136,052,254 129 68,026,127 64 0.3%
South Carolina 699,164,119 159 349,582,060 79 1.7%
South Dakota 76,605,487 96 38,302,744 48 0.2%
Tennessee 790,127,423 128 395,063,711 64 2.0%
Texas 2,283,543,090 96 1,141,771,545 48 5.7%
Utah 504,574,062 191 252,287,031 95 1.3%
Vermont 141,549,879 228 70,774,940 114 0.4%
Virginia 851,990,611 110 425,995,306 55 2.1%
Washington 813,963,456 126 406,981,728 63 2.0%
West Virginia 420,725,462 232 210,362,731 116 1.1%
Wisconsin 855,334,223 153 427,667,1176 2.1%
Wyoming 70,995,002 136 35,497,501 68 0.2%
Source: Table compiled by CRS using 2007 data.
From the time the active debate surrounding GRS began in the 1960s, through eventual passage
of the 1972 Act and subsequent extensions, general economic conditions and the political
environment changed dramatically. Thus, the proponents and opponents of GRS modified their
political and economic arguments depending on the current political and economic conditions.
Because of this turbulence, the rationale behind GRS cannot be traced to a single political or
economic objective. This section of the report summarizes three frequently mentioned economic
rationales behind GRS: to initiate an intergovermental fiscal reallocation, to address state and
local government liquidity crises, and to synchronize federal and state-local fiscal policy.
Fiscal reallocation has two components. Generally, under a GRS program, state and local tax
regimes are partly replaced by the federal tax regime. Also, the federal spending objectives are
replaced, in part, by state and local spending priorities.
Proponents of reallocation cite the more “progressive,” and thus desirable, structure of federal 11
taxes. However, an assessment of the merits of a more progressive tax structure require
subjective claims of what is “fair” taxation. Even if there is agreement that a more progressive
structure is needed for fairness, it is unclear that GRS on the relatively small scale of the
previously implemented program could achieve that objective.
GRS would also shift government spending decisions for the grant amount from the federal
government to state and local governments. The rationale for such a shift can be traced to the
assertion that state and local governments are better able to understand and satisfy the preferences
of their residents. A reallocation through GRS could also address the “assignment” issue. The
assignment issue arises when the revenue productivity of a government does not match the
spending requirements for the public services assigned to that level of government. Although
these observations may be true for some publicly provided goods and services, it is not clear that
nationally, the net gain in spending efficiency alone would justify a GRS program. And, the small
relative size of a GRS program relative to overall tax collections would limit any gains in
government spending efficiency.
The arguments for and against fiscal reallocation are subjective because they rely on measuring
fairness. Some would argue that a more progressive tax system is patently unfair, while others
would argue that a tax system that redistributes income is more equitable and desirable. Fiscal
reallocation would change the structure of government fiscal relationships, but analysis of the
degree to which it does and the desirability of such a shift are beyond the scope of this report.
State, and more specifically, local governments, often face fiscal liquidity problems that arise
from revenues that fluctuate more dramatically with the business cycle than do expenditures. As
the economy slows, revenue falls more sharply than expenditures, creating a budget deficit.
Governments without sufficient reserves are then compelled to reduce expenditures or raise taxes
to balance their budgets. State and local governments cannot use debt to close deficits because of
state constitutional or statutory restrictions requiring a balanced budget. In contrast, the federal
government can issue more debt when expenditures exceed revenue. A countercyclical GRS
program could help alleviate these relatively short-term liquidity problems for states.
Opponents of federal assistance to state and local governments during economic slowdowns
suggest that poor state-local fiscal management creates deficit problems. State and local
governments could “save” surplus revenue during economic expansions to then use when the
economy contracts and revenue falls. If the rise and fall of revenue is symmetric, then the revenue
11 Most research has found that state and local tax regimes are generally more regressive because they rely much more
heavily on sales and property taxes than on income taxes. The sales tax is viewed as a very regressive tax whereas the
property tax has been cast as mildly regressive. However, some research has found that with a different set of
assumptions, the property tax could be mildly progressive.
saved should be sufficient to cover revenue shortfalls when the economy slows. However,
research has shown that state government budgets are generally asymmetric over the business 12
cycle. State and local governments tend to save less during expansions for a variety of reasons.
Political pressure from voters to reduce taxes when large budget surpluses accrue is a commonly
This objective is related to the liquidity objective discussed above. However, the rationale for a
long-term GRS program designed for economic stabilization is somewhat different than a one-
time grant to remedy a temporary fiscal imbalance. The federal government will typically employ
monetary and fiscal policy to help stabilize consumption patterns and the price level as the
economy cycles between periods of growth and recession. Generally, stimulative fiscal policy is
implemented through tax reductions or increased government spending. In theory, tax reductions
and/or increased government spending stimulates the demand for goods and services. The
increased demand for goods and services then leads to economic expansion and recovery. This
fiscal policy counters the economic downturn and is thus termed countercyclical fiscal policy.
However, state and local governments may mitigate countercyclical federal fiscal policy if they
are forced to raise taxes and reduce expenditures during recessions. Such a “pro-cyclical” state
and local government response could undermine any federal fiscal stimulus. During economic
downturns, this rationale played a more prominent role for proponents of general revenue sharing.
While debating the 1976 extension, Senator Muskie offered the following rationale for GRS:
we at the Federal level are trying to speed up economic recovery by cutting taxes, [while]
state and local governments are being forced to raise their own taxes, thus delaying the 13
impact of the Federal effort.
The economic situation in the early to mid 1970s, about the time of initial passage of GRS, may
seem similar to today’s economic situation. However, the 1973-1975 recession was much deeper
and longer and coincided with a sharp oil supply shock that the current downturn has not 14
experienced. Nevertheless, the debate surrounding countercyclical aid to the states today is 15
reminiscent of the 1975-1976 debate.
12 Bent E. Sorensen and Oved Yosha, “Is State Fiscal Policy Asymmetric Over the Business Cycle?,” Federal Reserve
Bank of Kansas City Economic Review, Third Quarter, 2001, pp. 43-64.
13 Edmund Muskie, “Revenue Sharing and Countercyclical Assistance,” in General Revenue Sharing and
Decentralization, Walter F. Schefer, editor (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, May, 1976), p. 72.
14 For more on the relative size of U.S. recessions, see CRS Report RL31237, The 2001 Economic Recession: How
Long, How Deep, and How Different From the Past?, by Marc Labonte and Gail E. Makinen.
15 Congress did enact two relatively small countercyclical assistance programs. P.L. 94-369 included an authorized
maximum amount of $1.375 billion for countercyclical assistance over five quarters, beginning July 1, 1976. The funds
would be released to state and local governments provided certain national economic thresholds were crossed. P.L. 95-
30 contained an extension of the countercyclical aid program, authorizing a maximum of $1 billion for FY1977 and
$2.25 billion for FY1978. No federal funds were spent under either authorization.
This section analyzes how GRS might affect the economy if implemented in 2009. The first
subsection describes the potential size of GRS compared to current state deficits. The second
section analyzes implementation issues that may arise if a new GRS program were authorized,
including a discussion of how states might use new federal grants.
The principal question is: “Will the supposed pro-cyclical state actions in the absence of federal
assistance dampen the effect of federal fiscal policy?” From a national economic perspective,
closing the remaining state FY2009 budget gaps with revenue sharing would likely have little if
any effect on the national economy. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that
the remaining FY2009 gap for 38 states of $31.0 billion (as of November 2008) is approximately 16
0.22% of the U.S. GDP of $14.4 trillion, hardly enough to effectuate a stimulative response. The
same NGA study, however, notes projected shortfalls of $64.7 billion for FY2010. The budget
gaps for FY2009 are after closing a $40.3 billion budget shortfall before enacting the FY2009
A one-time GRS type grant to states that closed the estimated FY2009 fiscal imbalance of $31
billion and forestalled anticipated state spending cuts and tax increases for FY2010 of $64.7
billion could provide significant fiscal stimulus. This assumes other federal spending would not
be reduced and the states spent the federal grants immediately.
The degree of stimulus would be tempered by the net spending response of the recipient
government. Research has generally shown that for every $1 lump sum transfer, only a portion is 17
translated into new spending. For example, assume a state has planned spending of $100 to be
paid with own source tax revenue of $100. Under this leakage theory, a $10 transfer from the
federal government would not lead to $110 of spending. Instead, the state may lower own-source
tax revenue $5 and use half the federal grant to cover the tax reduction. The result would be an
increase in government spending of $5, not the full $10 transferred.
The above discussion assumed that federal spending would flow seamlessly from the federal
government through states to the designated spending program. Two factors may result in a drag
on this flow. First, state government administration may increase the lag time and second, each
state would use the grant for budget priorities of varying stimulative effect. Following is a brief
analysis of these two important implementation factors.
16 State cumulative deficit data, not including Puerto Rico, are from the National Conference of State Legislatures,
State Budget Update:November 2008, p. 6. The GDP data are from U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of
Economic Analysis, Table 1.1, Gross Domestic Product: Third Quarter 2008.
17 Edward M. Gramlich and Harvey Galper, “State and Local Fiscal Behavior and Federal Grant Policy,” Brookings
Papers on Economic Activity, vol. 1, 1973, p. 15. Gramlich and Galper concluded that between $0.25 and $0.43 of each
$1 of unconditional federal transfer became new spending. The remaining $0.57 to $0.75 leaked from the spending
Time lags in implementation are the primary impediment to effective fiscal stimulus.18 Generally,
the objective of fiscal policy during a recession is to boost aggregate demand and generate short
term economic stimulus. However, if the stimulus comes too late, the increased spending may
occur when the economy has already begun to revive and is approaching full employment. In that
case, the stimulus becomes pro-cyclical and possibly inflationary. Policy makers should therefore
use fiscal stimulus with caution because of the potential for mistimed action.
GRS grants may be subject to two time lags, thus increasing the potential for mistimed fiscal
policy. The first occurs at the federal level where policy makers must identify the need for
stimulus then agree upon the size of the stimulus. Once the need and size are determined,
Congress must then agree upon a grant allocation scheme that satisfies the competing goals of
equity among jurisdictions and optimal stimulus. For example, suppose the grant allocation 19
formula includes a component that provides greater assistance to states with greater need. If so,
states that may have been more fiscally responsible would receive less, possibly violating the
fairness criterion. However, from a broader macroeconomic perspective, aid that prevents more
layoffs and state government budget cuts would seem to deliver greater short-term stimulus.
Determining the structure of the allocation scheme could generate considerable debate, possibly
delaying initial implementation efforts.
The second time lag occurs at the state level. Federal grants that arrive before June 30, 2009,
might avert some of the pro-cyclical state actions (e.g., budget cuts and tax increases) for many
states. If the grants arrive too late for FY2009, state budget officials could simply add this
revenue to the operating budget for FY2010 and perhaps avoid implementing tax increases and
spending cuts that would otherwise begin on July 1, 2009.
What could states do with unconditional revenue sharing grants? Generally, states have four
options for federal grants (listed in order of stimulative response):
• increase government spending,
• reduce taxes (or rescind past tax increases),
• reduce debt (or not issue more debt), and/or
• contribute to a rainy day fund (or not draw down a rainy day fund).
Increased spending would be the most stimulative in the short run, because the grant is
immediately injected into the economy. This option for the states would include retaining state
18 For more on the effectiveness of fiscal policy, see CRS Report RL30839, Tax Cuts, the Business Cycle, and
Economic Growth: A Macroeconomic Analysis, by Marc Labonte and Gail E. Makinen.
19 Note that the 1972 Act GRS allocation scheme included per capita income and “tax effort.” Jurisdictions with greater
tax effort received a larger share. Jurisdictions with lower relative per capita income, one potential measure of need,
also received a larger share.
employees who would have been furloughed, maintaining current operations that would have
been reduced, and not scaling back social programs such as education and healthcare.
Theoretically, this fiscal stimulus works best when government spending is quickly multiplied 20
through the economy. This means that each dollar of the federal transfer payment stimulates the
economy the most if the entire dollar is spent by the recipient and then spent again. The degree of
stimulative effect of avoided state actions, such as not furloughing workers, depends on this
“multiplier effect.” Thus, to achieve the greatest stimulus, the most contractionary state actions
should be the first avoided.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) asked budget officials from all states to
categorize their spending strategies to reduce or eliminate budget gaps remaining for FY2009.
Changes in taxes are difficult to implement in the middle of a budget year and are not included.
Table 3below lists the strategies identified by NCSL and the number of states that proposed
implementing those strategies for 2009. For FY2010, several state and local governments are 21
likely going to increase taxes to help close budget gaps.
The spending option for states that would produce the most relative stimulus for each dollar of
spending would be to avoid net job losses (e.g., layoffs, furloughs, and, to a degree, early
retirement and hiring freezes). To see why this is true, consider what would happen if net job
losses occurred. First, layoffs reduce aggregate demand because when workers are laid off, their
income would fall steeply until they find new jobs, causing their consumption to fall. (Even
though all of the federal spending is not entirely multiplied through the economy because of
employment taxes and income taxes, the stimulative action is relatively effective because the
federal government is essentially “paying” the state employees.) Second, since government
services are included in GDP, measured economic activity would be directly reduced as long as
resources (workers) lay idle. In an environment of rising unemployment, it is unlikely that all of
these resources would quickly be put back to use through market adjustment. If GRS prevented
net job losses, these negative effects on the economy could be avoided.
Table 3. State Strategies to Eliminate FY2003 Budget Gaps
Strategy Number of States Proposing or Implementing the Strategy
Hiring Freeze 23
Across-the-Board Percentage Cuts 20
Travel Bans 16
Other Funds 14
Use Rainy Day Funds 11
Employee Layoffs 10
Delay Capital Projects 10
Salary Freeze 5
20 See CRS Report RL30839, Tax Cuts, the Business Cycle, and Economic Growth: A Macroeconomic Analysis, cited
21 For example, see Laura Mahoney, “California Governor Vetoes $18 billion In Cuts, Tax Increases OK’d by
Democrats,” Daily Tax Report, January 8, 2009, p. H-1.
Strategy Number of States Proposing or Implementing the Strategy
Early Retirement 2
Source: National Conference of State Legislatures, “State Budget Update,” Tables 8, 9, 10, and 11, November
The saving behavior of potentially separated employees would likely enhance the stimulative
effect of avoiding job losses. (However, avoiding induced early retirement may provide less
stimulus than avoiding furloughs and lay-offs.) If the employees are early in their careers and/or
are in low skill positions—likely candidates for furloughs or lay-offs—it is likely that their
incomes are lower than the median for state employees. Research has shown that low income 22
workers save a smaller portion of their income than high income workers. Thus, preventing the
employment separation of low income workers should provide more relative stimulus than the
alternative of not offering early retirement.
Across-the-board cuts would affect a variety of spending programs that do not easily conform to
one succinct appraisal. The stimulative effect of avoiding across-the-board cuts would vary from
state to state based on the state’s spending pattern. Aid to local governments also falls into an
uncertain category because of differing intergovernmental transfers across states. The stimulative
effect of avoiding cuts in local aid would be positive, though the magnitude is uncertain.
Generally, tax cuts are less stimulative than direct spending increases, because individuals are
likely to save some of their tax cut. Analogously, a rescinded or avoided tax increase would also
be less stimulative than spending increases because taxpayers would likely save some portion of
the reduced tax payment.
Debt reduction and contributing to a rainy day fund would offer little stimulus because such
action would be equivalent to an increase in public saving. In the short run, increased public
saving does not stimulate the economy. If the federal grants were used to avoid tapping into
tobacco revenue, the saving effect would be similar to contributing to a rainy day fund.
The combined effect of the various potential responses of state and local governments to federal
grants is difficult to quantify a priori. Nevertheless, one could confidently assert that $1 of
federal grants would not lead to a corresponding $1 increase in fiscal stimulus. While some state
and local governments may spend all the federal grants and not change pre-grant taxing and
spending priorities, some portions of the GRS grants would likely be used for non-stimulative
purposes such as substituting for previously planned spending or tax increases.
22 Julie-Anne Cronin, “U.S. Treasury Distributional Analysis Methodology,” U.S. Department of Treasury, Office of
Tax Analysis Paper 85, Sept. 1999, Table 6, p. 16.
The GRS grants authorized by the State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972 (the 1972 Act)
were essentially unconditional. A trust fund was established and annual appropriations were
dedicated to the trust fund. Even though the grants were identified at the time as general revenue
sharing, the legislation did include a list of “priority expenditures” for which the shared revenue
sent to local governments could be used. (The grants to states were unconditional.) GRS grants
could be used by local governments for the following acceptable operating expenditures: (1)
public safety; (2) environmental protection; (3) public transportation; (4) health; (5) recreation;
(6) libraries; (7) social services for the poor or aged; and (8) financial administration. “Ordinary 23
and necessary capital expenditures” were also allowed. The grants could not be used for
Note that the priority expenditure list was discontinued by the 1976 extension. In addition to the
priority expenditure list, the 1972 Act also disallowed the use of GRS for matching federal grants.
That restriction was also dropped in the 1976 extension.
Congress believed GRS was necessary for a variety of reasons. The most prominent reason at the
time was the perceived need for reallocation of government responsibilities arising from the
changing citizen demands for government services (fiscal reallocation as cited earlier). The
congressional sentiment behind the 1972 Act that created general revenue sharing is summarized
well in the following passage from the Senate report accompanying the 1972 Act:
Today, it is the States, and even more especially the local governments, which bear the brunt
of our more difficult domestic problems. The need for public services has increased
manyfold and their costs are soaring. At the same time, State and local governments are 24
having considerable difficulty in raising the revenue necessary to meet these costs.
The Nixon Administration seemed to have a similar perspective. When President Nixon signed
the legislation, the President remarked that the GRS program would “place responsibility for local
functions under local control and provide local governments with the authority and resources they 25
need to serve their communities effectively.”
23 Section 103 of the “State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1972.” State governments usually maintain an operating
budget and a capital budget. Generally, debt cannot be issued for the operating budget.
24 U.S. Congress, Senate Conference Report, report to accompany H.R. 14370, S.Rept. 92-1050, 92nd Cong.
(Washington: GPO, 1972).
25 This quote is cited in the following: Graham W. Watt, “The Goals and Objectives of General Revenue Sharing,” The
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 419, May 1975. Mr. Watt was Director of the
Office of Revenue Sharing, U.S. Department of the Treasury.
However, the shift in the demand for and provision of government services was not the only
justification for GRS. Observers at the time cited these additional reasons for implementing a 26
revenue sharing program:
• to stabilize or reduce state and local taxes, particularly the property tax;
• to decentralize government;
• to equalize fiscal conditions between rich and poor states and localities; and
• to alter the nation’s overall tax system by placing greater reliance on income taxation
(predominantly federal) as opposed to property and sales taxation.
Counteracting cyclical economic problems, such as state and local budget deficits induced by a
slowing economy, was not explicitly mentioned as justification for GRS in the 1972 Act.
However, when the debate began in 1974 on extending GRS beyond 1976, the countercyclical
potential of revenue sharing apparently became important to policymakers. The counter cyclical
arguments were likely initiated by the relatively severe recession that lasted from November 1973 27
through March 1975.
The State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act of 1976 extended the GRS program through FY1980
with minor modifications. In the Senate report accompanying the legislation, Congress identified
the following two reasons for the extension: (1) “Rapidly rising services costs coupled with
sluggish declining tax bases has meant that State and local governments have had to raise tax
rates and/or cut services,” and (2) “A chronic problem State and local governments face is that the 28
demand for public services is more elastic than the availability of revenues to finance them.”
The Senate report suggested that the extension of the GRS program “not only serves to help solve
the fiscal problems of individual state and local governments, but also serves to stabilize the
The 1976 extension also eliminated the priority expenditure categories for local governments and
the prohibition on states from using the grants for federal matching grants. Policymakers
recognized the fungibility of local revenues which initiated the elimination of the spending
restrictions. Although the fiscal stimulus features were mentioned during the debate surrounding
extension, the ultimate purpose of revenue sharing was characterized as a long-term restructuring
of the intergovernmental transfers.
The desire to use revenue sharing as a countercyclical fiscal policy tool was not directly
addressed in the 1976 extension. However, the reference to revenue sharing’s ability to “stabilize”
26 Richard P. Nathan, Allen D. Manvel, and Susannah E. Calkins, Monitoring Revenue Sharing (Washington, D.C.: The
Brookings Institution, 1975), p. 6.
27 For more, see Edmund Muskie, “Revenue Sharing and Countercyclical Assistance,” in General Revenue Sharing and
Decentralization, Walter F. Schefer, editor (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, May, 1976), p. 67-74.
28 U.S. Congress, Senate Finance Committee, report to accompany H.R. 13367, S.Rept. 94-1207, 94th Cong., Sept. 3,
1976. (Washington: GPO, 1976), p. 4.
the economy may have arisen due in part to the countercyclical merits of GRS as suggested 29
during the debate leading up to the extension.
The total size of the extension, $25.5 billion, was approximately 2.5% of total state and local
own-source tax revenue collected over the FY1977 to FY1980 period. Nationally, the transfer
averaged 0.29% of national gross domestic product (GDP) annually over the four-year period.
The State and Local Fiscal Assistance Act Amendments of 1980 (P.L. 96-604) extended the 30
general revenue sharing program through September 30, 1983, but only for local governments.
According to the House report accompanying act, the state share was eliminated
as a means of helping to balance the Federal budget. The Committee believes that State
governments are better able to adjust to the discontinuance of revenue sharing allocations 31
than local governments.
Until the 1980 Act, approximately one-third of the GRS grants had been allocated to the states.
The 1980 Act reduced the GRS grants by one-third—from $6.850 billion to $4.567 billion—and
only local governments received the grants (see Table 1).
In addition to continuing GRS for local governments, the 1980 Act also authorized the creation of
a “countercyclical assistance program” to be triggered by national economic downturns. The
purpose of the program was to provide assistance to state and local governments during
recessions. To achieve this, the program authorized $1 billion for each of the fiscal years, 1981,
1982, and 1983, subject to the trigger mechanism described in the House report accompanying
funding would be triggered when the national economy has experienced two consecutive
quarterly declines in both real gross national product and real wages and salaries
[emphasis added] (that is, corrected for inflation). Once a recession has been confirmed by
these declines, funds would be provided for each recession quarter in relation to the severity
of the recession. The program would be funded at a rate of $10 million for each one-tenth
percentage point decline in real wages and salaries measured from the pre-recession base—
the average of the real wages and salaries for the two quarters preceding the decline. The
amount of money allocated in any one quarter would be limited to $300 million.
After setting aside 1% of the funds for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin
Islands, the remaining funds would then be split evenly between state governments and “county
29 Around the time the extension was passed, Congress did enact two relatively small countercyclical assistance
programs. P.L. 94-369 included an authorized maximum amount of $1.375 billion for countercyclical assistance over
five quarters, beginning July 1, 1976. The funds would be released to state and local governments provided certain
national economic thresholds were crossed. P.L. 95-30 contained an extension of the countercyclical aid program,
authorizing a maximum of $1 billion for FY1977 and $2.25 billion for FY1978. No federal funds were spent under
30 The 1980 legislation did provide for GRS grants for states if the state reduced other categorical federal grants-in-aid
by an amount equal to the GRS grant. Essentially, states had the option of changing categorical aid into general
31 U.S. Congress, House Government Operations Committee, Report to accompany H.R. 7112, H.Rept. 96-1277, 96th
Cong., Sept. 4, 1980. (Washington: GPO, 1980), p. 6.
areas.” The relative size of payments to states and county areas would have been based on the
severity of the economic downturn in that area. The state portion would be adjusted by the state’s
tax effort. The greater the effort, the greater the grant.
Apparently, the trigger threshold was never crossed. No grants were provided under the
countercyclical fiscal assistance program. Table A-1 below reports the quarterly change in the
real wage and real GNP for the second quarter of 1980 through the third quarter of 1983. The
time periods reported in Table A-1 are the three federal fiscal years for which funding was
authorized plus the two quarters before the first fiscal year of authorization. Note that for the 14-
quarter time frame reported below, there were never two consecutive quarters where both the real
GNP and real wage declined from the previous quarter.
Table A-1. Change in Real GNP and Real Wages, 1980: Q2 to 1983:Q4
(Bold horizontal lines mark federal fiscal years.)
Period Real GNP Real Wage
1980: Q2 -2.11% -1.30%
1980: Q3 -0.23% 1.00%
1980: Q4 1.53% 0.30%
1981: Q1 2.01% -1.20%
1981: Q2 -0.75% -0.20%
1981: Q3 1.24% -1.10%
1981: Q4 -1.05% 0.20%
1982: Q1 -1.73% -0.10%
1982: Q2 0.55% -0.90%
1982: Q3 -0.67% 0.10%
1982: Q4 -0.03% 1.70%
1983: Q1 1.14% -0.50%
1983: Q2 2.40% 1.20%
1983: Q3 1.78% 0.50%
Source: CRS calculations based on quarterly data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic
Analysis and the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The 1980 Act is significant because the act discontinued revenue sharing for the states and
formally introduced the concept of providing countercyclical fiscal assistance through federal
grants to state and local governments as part of GRS legislation. Ultimately, the countercyclical
assistance program was never funded and thus no countercyclical fiscal assistance was provided.
Local governments generated $593.8 billion of own source revenue over the three fiscal years
covered by the 1980 Act. GRS provided $13.7 billion in grants to local governments—
approximately 2.3% of total own-source revenue. The grants to local governments probably had
little effect on the national economy given they represented 0.14% of U.S. GDP over the three-
year time frame. The $1 billion for each of 1981, 1982, and 1983 for countercyclical aid,
authorized but never spent, would have produced a negligible effect on the economy, even if fully
The final installment of the GRS program was signed into law on November 30, 1983, as the
Local Government Fiscal Amendments of 1983 (P.L. 98-185). As with the 1980 Act, only local
governments received grants. The 1983 extension was intended to stabilize the fiscal condition of
local governments. The conference report accompanying the legislation stated that the
tendency of State and Local governments to rely on relatively inelastic revenue sources, such
as local property taxes, has limited their flexibility in responding to fiscal problems. To assist
local governments in meeting the needs of their communities in a time of fiscal stringency, 32
the Committee amendment extends the general revenue sharing program for three years.
The final extension provided the same amount for local governments as did the 1980 Act ($13.7
billion) in three equal annual installments of $4.567 billion. This amount was equal to the amount
received by local governments from 1977 through 1980. The countercyclical aid program was not
extended. The GRS program ended September 30, 1986.
Specialist in Public Finance
32 U.S. Congress, Senate Finance Committee, report to accompany S. 1426, S.Rept. 98-189, 98th Cong., July 20, 1983.
(Washington: GPO, 1983), p. 2.