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Usually a job engine, localities slow US economy

In a healthy economic recovery, states and localities start hiring, expand services and help fuel the nation's growth.

Then there's the 2011 recovery.

The U.S. economy is moving ahead, however fitfully. Yet state and local governments are still stuck in recession. Short of cash, they cut 30,000 jobs in May, the seventh straight month they've shed workers. Rather than add to U.S. economic growth, they're subtracting from it.

And ordinary Americans are feeling it — from reduced services to fewer teachers, police officers and firefighters.

The Great Recession officially ended two years ago this month. By the same point during previous recoveries, state and local governments were engines of growth: In the two years after the 1990-91 recession ended, for example, they'd added 430,000 jobs. At the same point after the 2001 recession ended, they had added 249,000.

This time is different. More than 467,000 state and local government jobs have vanished since the recession officially ended in June 2009, including 188,000 in schools.

Few see the pain subsiding soon. Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities, expects state and local governments to slash 20,000 to 30,000 jobs a month through the middle of 2012.

Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors notes that when states cut spending to balance their budgets, as required annually, a ripple effect multiplies the damage: Companies that do business with states and localities suffer. These companies, in turn, scale back their own hiring.

"There's a whole slew of private companies that have to cut back when they don't get the (government) contracts they had been getting," Naroff said. "You can't balance a budget and say everything's going to be beautiful."

Moody's Analytics estimates that each job in state and local government supports an additional 1.3 jobs elsewhere in the economy.

The cutbacks stretch across the country:

— Monticello, Ga., has cut its police force in half — to five. It had planned to eliminate the force entirely until it found the money to keep some officers, says Police Chief Bobby Norris.

— Zanesville, Ohio, just cut nearly 50 jobs from its schools, mostly through layoffs. "People have to realize: There's just so much money," says school Superintendent Terry Martin, who had to close a $7.2 million budget gap through 2016. "We have to watch every dime that we spend."

— In Alameda, Calif., police and firefighters last week couldn't save a drowning man in the San Francisco Bay because the fire department had cut funding for water rescue training, wet suits and other equipment.

The Great Recession of 2007-2009, the longest and deepest downturn since the 1930s, dried up state and local tax revenue. It also escalated demands for social programs like Medicaid and unemployment benefits and "ate through their rainy-day funds," notes Michael Gapen, senior U.S. economist at Barclays Capital.

For a while, federal stimulus spending cushioned the blow to state and local finances. But that money is running out. And it probably won't be replenished. The federal government is preparing to cut its own spending to shrink huge budget deficits.

States like Wisconsin, New Jersey and Ohio have first-term governors who "are trying to make their names by cutting spending," Naroff says. "It wasn't the 'in thing' before to become a governor and immediately slash and burn. Now, you've got economic and political realities that are different from any time before."

Analysts hold out hope that state governments might be on the verge of a rebound. State tax revenue is forecast to rise 2.1 percent in the fiscal year that starts July 1, according to a report last week from the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers.

But 29 states say they'll still spend less in the 2012 fiscal year than in 2008. And local governments are still waiting for a recovery in tax revenue. They rely heavily on property tax revenue, which continues to sink with the collapse in home prices in many areas.

"The state revenues are coming back, but the local revenues probably haven't seen the worst of it," says Christopher Hoene, director of research at the National League of Cities. "We still have another year to go for sure."

Steven Leslie, financial services analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research firm, predicts that tight government spending at the local, state and federal levels will persist during a prolonged period of slow growth.

"If I were going to tell college graduates what careers to follow," he says, "I wouldn't recommend public service."