Budgets are tight, but states shy away from election-year taxes

Budget balancing, in some instances including perhaps a bit of fiscal juggling, will considerably occupy state lawmakers over the coming months. A glimpse at 1984 legislative agendas taking shape across the nation indicates that with few exceptions, money problems remain dominant.

Also vying for major lawmaker attention are pressures for improved schools and substantial increased funding for education at all levels.

Those close to the state legislative scene, however, anticipate that most new or expanded state programs will be achieved without raising taxes, at least this year.

It is generally agreed that much will depend on the degree to which legislators, most of whose seats are at stake in next fall's elections, yield to demands for increased state spending from various special-interest groups.

''With the national economy clearly turning around and the state economy beginning to turn around, too, some states may let temporary taxes expire or perhaps give rebates,'' suggests Jim Mallory of the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Mr. Mallory and other state-budget watchers anticipate a strong push for increased school funding.

A recently completed survey by the Council of State Governments shows that education ranks first or second on the priority lists of at least 29 states, topped only by the tax and fiscal matters, which were rated high in at least 30 states.

''Education is definitely a big issue sure to get a lot of attention,'' says Carol Weissert of the National Governors' Association, noting that several of governors have made more competitive schools a priority.

Proposals to improve teacher salaries, raise educational standards through new programs and incentive pay, and lengthen school days are on the agenda this year, she notes. California, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah are among the states where some measure of school reform, including increased funding, can be expected to come up.

In Texas, for example, Gov. Mark White is preparing to call lawmakers into special session, probably in early summer, to focus on improving public-school financing and raising the quality of education.

Lawmakers this year will focus on health-care cost controls, hazardous-waste disposal, and prison overcrowding, says Bill Pound of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The recent breakup of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, with perhaps higher local telephone rates, he suggests, could pose a challenge for state lawmakers, who may find themselves ''under increased constituent pressure to do something'' to protect them from higher phone bills.

While some states continue to have a tough time making financial ends meet, most now anticipate at least a modest surplus this fiscal year.

Few, if any, levy cuts may be in the offing, however. Most lawmakers seem likely to use whatever new money might be available to catch up with deferred projects and programs. Others may prefer to squirrel away at least some of the revenue growth in ''rainy day'' accounts to avoid the need for future tax hikes.

At least 18 states have established nest eggs of various amounts. They are Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Proposals for standby accounts are expected to be considered in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Provision for a reserve fund, into which some $900 million would be funneled, is included in the $26 billion fiscal 1984-85 state budget submitted Jan. 5 to the California Legislature by Gov. George Deukmejian.

The spending proposals includes a 30.3 percent increase in funding for higher education, a 7.5 percent boost in elementary and secondary schools, and an additional $609 million for prison construction and corrections programs.

California legislators also are expected to spend considerable time debating a comprehensive state water-distribution program; conomic development measures, including the establishment of a new state office of tourism; and creation of an independent reapportionment commission.

Twenty-five of the nation's 50 state legislatures have within the past few days begun their 1984 sittings. By mid-February all but four of the states scheduled to have regular lawmaking sessions this year will be at work. Legislatures in Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, and Texas are not scheduled to convene in regular session until next January. A Texas special session, however, is all but certain.

Vermont lawmakers are grappling with a projected $45 million revenue shortfall in the current fiscal year which ends June 30.

In New York, several issues are expected to spark vigorous debate: raising the drinking age from 19 to 21; establishment of regional narcotics law-enforcement agencies; and a plan to allow state-run sports betting.

Proposed income-tax refunds tied to reductions in the state's jobless rate will be debated in Ohio, where voters last November rejected initiative measures aimed at wiping out a 90 percent tax increase enacted earlier in 1983.

In Alaska, restoration of state bonuses to senior citizens who have lived in the state for at least 25 years, as well as state purchase of the federally owned Alaska Railroad, are major items on the legislative docket.

Legislation banning no-deposit glass or metal beverage containers will be considered in at least 11 states - Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Some 15 states have proposals to create lotteries or various types of legal public gambling. Measures to protect new-car buyers who buy ''lemons'' are under consideration in at least 12 states plus the District of Columbia.

Pushers for the so-called federal balanced-budget amendment are expected to focus their 1985 efforts on lawmakers in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Vermont. Of the 34 states needed to call a constitutional convention on the issue, 32 are in the fold already.

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