Ease the squeeze: hard times have legislators looking everywhere for ways to beat back the fiscal crisis.

Author:Boulard, Gary
 
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Abolishing the death penalty.

Taxing prostitution.

Cutting prison sentences.

Taxing marijuana.

What all these ideas have in common is the gap--the yawning budget gap--facing most states this fiscal year and at least next fiscal year as well.

Legislators across the country have pitched myriad ideas to reduce massive budget shortfalls. And the wide range of proposals is no surprise, given the size of the shortfall and the fact that the most obvious solutions already have been tried.

Consider some of these developments.

* In New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson signed a bill in March repealing the death penalty at least partially because of the costs. New Mexico's Supreme Court might spend up to $700,000 in appeal expenses in a typical case.

* In Nevada, where lawmakers faced a $2.8 billion revenue shortfall for FY 2009, Senator Bob Coffin proposed a $5 tax on acts of prostitution, which is legal in 10 counties. The bill, which fell one vote short in the Senate Taxation Committee, could have raised up to $2 million a year, Coffin said.

* California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano suggested in February that regulating the $14 billion marijuana industry could generate up to $1 billion in revenue a year. He eventually withdrew the bill and announced plans to conduct public hearings.

Most ideas for grappling with budget problems are more mundane. Virginia Senator Ryan McDougle, for example, thought a little extra information might help. He wanted the General Assembly to receive the exact same cost estimates for individual state projects that are usually sent to the governor's office. "Some of us thought that we could probably make better decisions if we had all the facts before us."

McDougle's successful bill has the potential of greatly expanding the General Assembly's ability to monitor state spending. A case in point, he says, is information technology. "At one point we estimated that Virginia had almost $1 billion in various IT projects somewhere in the pipeline, but we never really knew where they were."

It is just one example of legislators trying to find innovative ways to get a handle on massive budget shortfalls and dropping revenues. From four-day work weeks in Utah to cutting sentences and closing prisons in Washington, states are looking for anything that works.

One of the reasons for the creativity, beyond the demand to address immediate budget needs, is the realization that, for many states, things are likely to get worse before they get...

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