Long-term economic growth is likely to return, and that is reason for optimism about state finances. Rating agencies see no immediate risk to states making bond payments, either.
"This recovery has been longer and slower than prior recoveries, and states have had to grapple with slower revenue growth than they've typically seen," said Nicholas Samuels, vice president and senior credit officer at Moody's Investor Service. But Moody's, which maintains a stable outlook on the states, believes most states are doing a good job of balancing budgets and putting some revenue aside to build up reserves depleted during the downturn. He said some states are struggling with competing priorities, while others are engaged in broader policy debates.
"When I was budget director in Virginia in the late '90s and the money was coming in, politicians could solve most ideological issues," Pattison said. "People who wanted spending could get it, and people who wanted tax cuts could get them," he explained.
Others warn that the outliers among states highlight the risk of poor policy decisions at a time when policy decisions are both more important and getting more difficult to make.
"When first coming out of the recession, there can be broad agreement on policy choices, but now there's more debate," Porter said. "When the choices put you in a bad place going forward, that becomes a credit issue," Porter said. "New Jersey is a good example. If you choose to underfund your pension severely, it will have a negative effect." (New Jersey is one of only four states that receives a negative outlook from Fitch.)
Boyd said the states face a lot of challenges in the next several years and are not well equipped to deal with them, or at squirreling money away.
"We're not on a precipice where all of a sudden we will fall off a cliff more," Boyd said. "It's more pressure next year than this year, and more the year after that," Boyd said.
"States have difficulty negotiating budgets when the conditions are hardest. It's not a hard rule but a good general rule. Nobody wants to raise taxes, so this is an environment ripe for budget gimmicks pushing costs off to the future. I don't know what they will do in the future."
In the meantime, if you want to help your state, smoke while you drive a fuel-inefficient car—to a casino or marijuana dispensary.