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Keywords:

  • punctuated equilibrium;
  • public budgeting;
  • state politics

In this article, we examine long-term state budget trends to find evidence of punctuated equilibrium. We use the American states as a broad set of institutional variation with which to examine the nature of policy change through the lens of incrementalism and punctuated equilibrium theories of policymaking. The strength of this article is its sensitivity of variations in policy outcomes across time (18 years), across space (50 state institutions), and across issue space (10 budget categories). This research advances the characterization of policy outcomes by employing a quantitative measure that is both less sensitive to outliers and one that characterizes budget distributions on a simple numeric scale. Our general findings are: (i) state budget categories are interdependent; (ii) state budgets are generally punctuated; but (iii) to varying degrees: Thus, considerable stability (indicated by tall peaks) and punctuations (represented by fat tails) are a central feature of policy outcomes in the American states. This result confirms the logic of punctuated equilibrium theory, but raises future questions about the impact specific variations in institutional costs have on policymaking across the 50 states.