And under normal circumstances it would be very good news.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, laying out the parameters for state spending on the eve of the legislative session, said Monday that the rebounding Texas economy gives lawmakers $8.8 billion unallocated in state coffers for this budget period and an improving picture for the next two years.
The extra money has been eagerly anticipated by state lawmakers who two years ago slashed spending in the face of a budget shortfall.
In the 2014-2015 budget period, the state’s general revenue from taxes, fees and other income is estimated to reach $96.2 billion, with $3.6 billion earmarked for future transfers to the rainy day fund, Combs said.
The total $101.4 billion available for general-purpose spending through 2015 – taking into account the predicted $8.8 billion balance and future revenues – is 12.4 percent greater than the corresponding amount of funds available for the current budget period, according to the comptroller’s office.
To clarify what this means, Comptroller Combs is forecasting that the state will generate $96.2 billion in revenue for the next biennium. Of that, $3.6 billion is earmarked for the Rainy Day Fund, which leaves $92.6 billion. However, Combs is also saying that her forecast from two years ago was too low by $8.8 billion. You may recall that two years ago she predicted there would be $76.5 billion in revenue for 2012-2013, with $4.3 billion needed to close a shortfall from the 2009 budget; the Rainy Day Fund was used to cover most of that shortfall. In actuality, there turned out to be $85.3 billion. Oops!
You may wonder why Combs was so far off in her estimate. The DMN tries to be sympathetic.
Nobody is blaming Combs, but all recognize a two-year revenue forecast is not, by any means, an exact science.
“You’re always wrong,” said Billy Hamilton, revenue estimator when Bob Bullock was comptroller. “It’s just a matter of by how much.”
The Texas Constitution requires a balanced budget, so lawmakers can plan to spend only as much as they’re projected to bring in. A large portion of revenue comes from state taxes, which until recently had been on a relatively stable 40-year pattern, said fellow number cruncher and retired fiscal analyst Stuart Greenfield.
But in the last four years, the state’s economy has been especially volatile. Greenfield said tax collections have declined four times since the new millennium, most recently in 2010, but has been higher than average the last couple of years.
Hamilton, now the interim chief financial officer for Capital Metro, Austin’s public transportation provider, estimates Combs was off by $6 billion to $8 billion in the tax revenue estimate for the current biennium. Greenfield says it’s worse, predicting tax revenue will be closer to $11.5 billion more than what Combs suggested.
Officials from the comptroller’s office declined to weigh in on Greenfield or Hamilton’s forecast, but spokesman R.J. DeSilva said that with growth in the oil and gas industry and car buying, the revenue for fiscal 2012 is up $3.7 billion from her forecast, and lawmakers will have the most up-to-date projections when they convene.
Greenfield said tax collections have held at 10 percent since the beginning of fiscal 2011, peaking in October 2011 at close to 16 percent. Hamilton says the result is “we’ll be swimming in money.”
“It’s going to be a big number because the sales taxes are going like gangbusters and performing at a rate that nobody in their right mind would predict,” Hamilton said.
This is all well and good, but the bottom line of Combs’ misfire is that the Lege cut billions of dollars from the budget that ultimately didn’t need to be cut. We may be able to do something good with this extra money now, but we can’t go back two years and un-fire all those people who lost their jobs as a result of the Republicans’ budgetary chainsaw massacre. We can’t go back and un-shortchange all the school districts and students that took those cuts right where it hurts. It’s all so much bloodstained water beneath the bridge.
Given that we can’t un-screw the past, the best thing we can do is work to make things better going forward. This is what many people, such as State Rep. Mike Villarreal, State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, and the Texas AFT, both of whom are calling for the restoration of the $5.4 billion that was cut from public education last session, are doing. The problem, and the danger, is that some people are saying that what this means is that we have too much money.
Can Texas afford to eliminate its state business tax?
As the federal tax bite grows, there is a nascent movement at the Texas Legislature to phase out the tax, commonly called the margins tax, without replacing it.
Business leaders and some conservative lawmakers say the tax, which taxes gross receipts as opposed to profits, is complicated and not applied evenly. Other critics of the tax say dropping it would make the state’s business climate even more attractive.
At first blush, eliminating the tax without a replacement might seem improbable. The tax raised $4.5 billion in 2012 and accounted for 10.3 percent of the state’s total taxes, according to the comptroller’s office.
Budget writers are already warning that any “surplus” from the rebounding economy must be used to restore $11 billion in cuts to public education and other programs from the 2011 legislative session and to pay for the accounting gimmicks lawmakers used to sidestep more cuts and tax increases. And the courts are hearing another constitutional challenge to the school finance system — similar to the one that prompted the 2006 creation of the margins tax — that could make more demands on the state pocketbook.
State leaders are also talking about weaning themselves from $5 billion of dedicated taxes and fees diverted from their intended purposes over the years to help balance the state budget.
Finally, more business leaders are expressing concerns about the need to invest in education, workers’ training, water, transportation and other long-term needs essential for a good business climate.
Despite those hurdles, Will Newton, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, or NFIB, argued that public services can’t expand without a growing economy.
“We’re starting the debate in the wrong way,” Newton said. “We need to ‘invest’ in the private sector to grow (state) revenue.”
Let’s be clear here and state that the NFIB, which was and continues to be a rabid opponent of the Affordable Care Act – they were, in fact the named plaintiff in the lawsuit that sought to declare the ACA unconstitutional – is acting solely in its own interest. They’re seeking a tax cut, as we all do, and hoping that we’ll forget that the margins tax, however flawed and kludgey it may be – was designed to help pay for a one-third cut in property taxes. How do they expect us to fund that massive expenditure now? By assuming, in the words of Molly Ivins, that it’s nothin’ but good times ahead. I mean, sure, we’ve had two ginormous revenue shortfalls in the last decade, but seriously, who expects that to ever happen again? No amount of empty blather about “investing” should distract from this point.
One more point: As the Trib notes, even with this healthy revenue forecast, we’re still behind where we ought to be.
“$108 billion is what it takes to actually undo the last session and get us back to where we used to be,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, senior budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Austin-based think tank.
Early in the session, lawmakers are expected to commit several billion dollars to paying off bills that were purposely left unpaid at the conclusion of the 2011 session, including nearly $5 billion for Medicaid. That leaves the actual size of the surplus unclear.
“A lot of that gets sucked up right away just paying for the last session,” Castro said.
One hopes that the nearly-as-fat-as-it’s-allowed-to-be Rainy Day Fund would be tapped for that, since that’s what it’s there for, but the odds that the votes are there for that are basically nil. But this is the way we need to drive the discussion. We’re on more favorable turf now, let’s take advantage of it. Trail Blazers, the CPPP, and TM Daily Post have more, and you can see the official estimate here.