(City Journal) -- Maria Pappas, the treasurer of Cook County, Illinois, got tired of being asked why local taxes kept rising. Betting that the answer involved the debt that state and local governments were accumulating, she began a quest to figure out how much county residents owed. It wasn’t easy. In some jurisdictions, officials said that they didn’t know; in others, they stonewalled. Pappas’s first report, issued in 2010, estimated the total state and local debt at $56 billion for the county’s 5.6 million residents. Two years later, after further investigation, the figure had risen to a frightening $140 billion, shocking residents and officials alike. “Nobody knew the numbers because local governments don’t like to show how badly they are doing,” Pappas observed.
Since Pappas began her project to tally Cook County’s hidden debt, she has found lots of company. Across America, elected officials, taxpayer groups, and other researchers have launched a forensic accounting of state and municipal debt, and their fact-finding mission is rewriting the country’s balance sheet. Just a few years ago, most experts estimated that state and local governments owed about $2.5 trillion, mostly in the form of municipal bonds and other debt securities. But late last year, the States Project, a joint venture of Harvard’s Institute of Politics and the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, projected that if you also count promises made to retired government workers and money borrowed without taxpayer approval, the figure might be higher than $7 trillion.