Understanding Overlapping Debt and Its Economic Implications

Understanding Overlapping Debt and Its Economic Implications

5 Min.

Overlapping debt refers to the financial obligations shared by different government entities, often resulting in increased public spending. Municipalities and jurisdictions issue debt to fund projects, and when their boundaries overlap, the debt becomes interconnected. This interconnectedness impacts the ability to secure future debt financing and affects taxpayers within each jurisdiction. The presence of overlapping debt can lead to higher total public sector spending due to the competitive nature of overlapping authorities. This phenomenon, known as the tragedy-of-the-commons problem, can result in the overuse and depletion of shared resources.


Overlapping debt is a financial phenomenon that occurs when the financial obligations of one political jurisdiction also impact neighboring jurisdictions. This concept is particularly prevalent in the United States, where numerous jurisdictions are established for various tax-related purposes, including the funding of projects such as public schools and roads. In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of overlapping debt, exploring what it entails, how it operates, and its economic implications.

Overlapping Debt: Municipalities and Jurisdictions


Municipalities play a crucial role in our communities by initiating capital projects that enhance the quality of life for residents. These projects, ranging from building schools, airports, and highways, to hospitals, require substantial financial resources. To fund such endeavors, cities and counties typically resort to issuing debt instruments, such as municipal bonds and notes. These financial instruments enable them to borrow the necessary funds to construct essential infrastructure that benefits their constituents.


In many cases, different governmental bodies may have overlapping jurisdictions. This overlap can occur between a state and a city or between a city and a county, for example. Each of these jurisdictions may independently issue debt to finance their respective projects, which are designed to serve the broader population within their political boundaries.

Shared Financial Obligations and Interconnectedness

Overlapping debt arises when the financial obligations of a municipal authority are shared with another government entity. To illustrate, consider a scenario where a county school district issues bonds to finance a project. In this case, the bonds' financial responsibility is shared with towns situated within the same school district. However, each town is only accountable for its proportionate share of the overlapping debt. When combined with the direct debt of a municipality, this proportional share contributes to the municipality's overall net debt. The overall net debt, in turn, significantly impacts the municipality's ability to secure future debt financing. Furthermore, taxpayers are obligated to pay their portion of the debt from each jurisdiction, reflecting the interconnected nature of the overlapping debt.

Calculating Overlapping Debt

The magnitude of overlapping debt often exceeds the direct debt of a municipal government and is determined by a ratio. This ratio compares the assessed valuation of taxable property within the municipal boundaries to the assessed valuation of each overlapping district. The presence of overlapping debt can influence the ability of one or both governments involved to meet their financial obligations and repay their debts.

Economic Implications of Overlapping Debt

The existence of overlapping debt has garnered significant attention in the field of economics. Numerous studies have shed light on its impact on local governments' fiscal health. Here, we explore the economic implications of overlapping debt.

Increased Public Spending

Empirical research has revealed a striking trend: the presence of multiple, overlapping local authorities, each capable of issuing overlapping debt, tends to lead to higher total public sector spending. The underlying rationale for this lies in the competitive nature of overlapping jurisdictions. These entities often treat the available tax base and the ability to raise funds through bond issuance as common-pool resources.

As a result, they inadvertently succumb to a tragedy-of-the-commons scenario. In essence, they compete against one another, striving to maximize their use of the same tax base. Consequently, overlapping authorities end up over-exploiting the tax base within a region. This situation increases overall debt and public spending, which may not necessarily align with the preferences of the region's voters.

Tragedy-of-the-Commons Problem

The concept of the tragedy-of-the-commons problem, which is often linked to overlapping debt, is derived from the field of environmental economics. In this context, it pertains to the overuse and depletion of a shared resource. When overlapping local fiscal authorities are involved, they tend to treat the tax base as a resource that is collectively exploited without sufficient consideration for its long-term sustainability.

This behavior can lead to a situation where multiple authorities, each responding to distinct sets of voters and interest group demands, collectively exhaust the tax base. As a consequence, they incur more debt and allocate additional resources to public programs and infrastructure. Ultimately, this may result in a level of public spending that exceeds the preferences of the region's overall population.


Overlapping debt is a financial interdependence between different government entities that can have significant economic implications. It is rooted in multiple jurisdictions issuing overlapping debt to finance various projects. While this approach can lead to increased public spending, it can also create a competitive environment that might not align with the preferences of the region's residents. Understanding the dynamics of overlapping debt is essential for local governments to make informed decisions about their financial strategies and ensure fiscal responsibility in the face of intergovernmental cooperation and competition.

Overlapping Debt