NEW YORK isn't the only state wrestling with big budget deficits, but the people who live here can't take much comfort from that reality. Misery may like company, but so much of it is discomfiting. The wide sea of red ink suggests deeper fiscal hardships.
Already 31 states, including New York, confront budget deficits for their current fiscal years. The total shared shortfall is $11.6 billion.
The prospects are dim, and not just in the Northeast. California faces a $2.2 billion deficit. Pennsylvania confronts a $1 billion gap; Virginia, $500 million. Michigan is projecting a shortfall equal to 12 percent of its budget. But even these figures, and others like them, don't tell the whole of the gloomy truth.
Most states are caught, as New York is, between a rock and a hard place. All but Vermont have constitutional requirements that they balance their budgets each year. Yet 26 states chose to raise their taxes this year by a record $10.3 billion. They cannot do that again this year or next without risking a taxpayer revolt.
Nor can states look to Washington for help. The federal government faces even deeper budgetary problems, plus the prospect of an expensive Persian Gulf campaign.
All of which means that the states, to bring spending in line with revenues, must cut services. Some of that, particularly in New York, can be justified. During the boom years, New York tossed caution to the winds and increased spending far beyond inflation growth rates. Doubtless other states did a bit of that, too.
Now states that enlarged their spending programs in the good times must continue funding them as the recession takes an icy hold.
There is waste to be trimmed, but even doing that may not be easy. As the recent special legislative session in Albany showed, waste, too, has constituencies.
Gov. Cuomo advocates big layoffs of state employees. From Virginia, a smaller state, comes a corroborative echo. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has already laid off 800 state workers, proposed early retirement for 4,600 others and canceled pay raises for everybody.
One suspects that as the partying of the '80s and its economic boom end, the first spending cuts will threaten essential services the least. But states are being crushed, as is Washington, by growing pressures for services as recession decreases their revenues. The longer recession hangs on, the more austere will be the choices left.
Perhaps worst of all, with individuals, private institutions and governments at all levels all in heavy debt -- all leveraged to the eyeballs -- the margin of safety for everyone is much too thin for comfort. Debt resources are stretched to the limit.
And the debt built up and left unpaid in the good times restricts our society's options and ability to maneuver effectively as the economy slows down.
For the New Year, it's a forbidding picture.