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U.S. state, local spending expands for first time in 3 years

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - State and local government spending grew at a 0.3 percent annual rate in the third quarter, after 11 straight quarters of contraction, the U.S. Commerce Department said on Thursday.

The last time state and local spending expanded was in the third quarter of 2009, at a much more robust rate of 2.2 percent. Then, for nearly three years, spending contracted sharply, with the biggest drop in the first quarter of 2010 at 5.5 percent.

States are pinching pennies, keeping spending growth slow as the economy recovers from the 2007-09 recession and the federal government sends them fewer funds.

"The recent improvement in the national economy has not translated to strong growth in total state expenditures," said the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) in a report also released on Thursday.

Total state spending likely grew only 0.1 percent in fiscal 2012, the lowest level since the group began tracking state spending in 1987, NASBO said. Most states' fiscal years end in June, which means that many have already started fiscal 2013.

The 2007-09 recession caused states' revenues to plunge and, because all states except Vermont must end their fiscal years with balanced budgets, many slashed spending, calling special legislative sessions to make emergency mid-year cuts.

The federal government stepped in to help with the 2009 economic stimulus plan known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which included the largest transfer of federal funds to states in U.S. history.

NASBO said state expenditures grew 3.8 percent in fiscal 2010 and 2.8 percent in fiscal 2011, mostly due to the assistance. By fiscal 2010 federal money made up nearly 35 percent of state spending, compared with 26.3 percent in fiscal 2008.

Now that the burst of stimulus money is over, states must once again shoulder the costs of public programs, even though their revenues are only beginning to return to pre-recession levels. Federal funds likely only represented 31.2 percent of state spending in fiscal 2012 and will continue to shrink, NASBO said.

"State revenues have not increased as fast as ARRA funds have declined, leading to a unique situation in which total state expenditure growth has slowed during the same time that the national economy has been improving," it reported.

Meanwhile, spending demands continue to grow, particularly for the Medicaid healthcare program for the poor that states operate with partial reimbursement from the federal government.

Over the last three years, the portion of state spending going to Medicaid has risen to 23.9 percent from 22.2 percent. Many states worry that Medicaid will eat up their budgets, and leave fewer dollars for other areas.

Spending on education dipped to 19.8 percent in fiscal 2012, the first time on record that the portion has been less than 20 percent, NASBO said.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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