Cut spending, raise taxes, sell off public assets – these are the unsatisfactory solutions being debated across the nation; but the budget crises now being suffered by nearly all the states did not arise from too much spending or too little taxation. They arose from a credit freeze on Wall Street. In the wake of the 2009 financial market collapse, banks curtailed their lending more sharply than in any year since 1942, driving massive unemployment and causing local tax revenues to plummet.
The logical solution, then, is to restore credit to the local economy. But how? The Federal Reserve could provide the capital and liquidity necessary to create bank credit, in the same way that it provided $12.3 trillion in liquidity and short-term loans to the large money center banks. But Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke declared in January 2011 that the Fed had no intention of doing that — not because it would be too costly (the total deficit of all the states comes to less than 2% of the credit advanced for the bank bailout) but because it is not part of the Fed’s mandate. If Congress wants the Fed to advance credit to local governments, he said, it will have to change the law.
The states are on their own. Policymakers are therefore considering a variety of reforms designed to increase bank lending, particularly to small businesses, the hardest hit by tightening credit standards. One measure that is drawing increasing interest is the creation of a bank modeled on the Bank of North Dakota (BND), currently the only state-owned bank in the country. The BND has a 92-year history of safe, secure and highly profitable banking. North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country; and in 2009, when other states were floundering, it had the largest budget surplus it had ever had.
Eight states now have bills pending either to form state-owned banks or to do feasibility studies to determine their potential. This year, bills were introduced in the Oregon State legislature on January 11; in Washington State on January 13; in Massachusetts on January 20 (following a 2010 bill that lapsed); and in the Maryland legislature on February 4. They join Illinois, Virginia, Hawaii, and Louisiana, which introduced similar bills in 2010. The Center for State Innovation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, was commissioned to do detailed analyses for Washington and Oregon. Their conclusion was that state-owned banks in those states would have a substantial positive impact on employment, new lending, and state and local government revenue.
State-owned banks could be a win-win for everyone interested in a thriving local economy. Objections are usually based on misconceptions or a lack of information.