Boredom alert

There’s not much more boring than Federal-State financial relations. However, the issue is important, and not well understood, so I’m going to post about it anyway, picking up one of the most common misconceptions.

Dennis Shanahan writes in today’s Oz

Three years ago the states signed up to a new financial agreement which gave them access to the funds from the GST. The full income stream from the GST won’t be available for all the states until 2007, but the money has begun to go into state coffers and will continue to do so on an increasing basis.

This is what the states wanted, a growth tax, and they got it. Now, as the money starts to roll in, the states are fighting a rearguard action to maintain all the old commonwealth funding buffers and avoid whatever responsibility they can.

Wrong, wrong wrong! The states have yet to see one extra cent from the GST. They’re still operating under a guarantee that they would no worse under the new tax system than under the agreement it replaced. Even when the GST revenue exceeds the guarantee the states will be no better off, partly because the guarantee was inadequate to meet the needs of growth and partly because any action here can be offset by cuts in specific purpose grants and other transfers.

All of this is important because, in the Australian system it is the Commonwealth that collects all the taxes and the States that provide all the services that matter. This ‘vertical fiscal imbalance’ means that Commonwealth governments have an inbuilt bias towards cutting taxes. The States have an inbuilt bias towards spending money, but since the Commonwealth has the fiscal whip hand, it’s Commonwealth biases that matter. This is one structural reason why both taxes and public spending are too low in Australia, compared to what the public would prefer, what economic analysis would imply is desirable and what other developed countries actually do.