An analysis of yearly tax revenue growth by UtahPolicy, based on figures of the General Fund and the Education Fund provided by legislative budgeters, shows that tax collections are well on the upswing following the Great Recession of 2008 through 2010.
As GOP and Democratic leaders were told recently, there are still many needs to be met, especially in public education.
Utah remains 51st in the nation in per-student funding, more than $900 per student below the next “poor” state, Mississippi.
And just this week GOP Gov. Gary Herbert heard that Utah ranks in the middle of the pack in high school graduation rates, a situation Herbert said was unacceptable.
Still, Utah tax revenues have rebounded, the analysis shows.
For example, a year ago, in his recommended budget, Herbert estimated that tax collections would come in 1.5 percent higher than the year before.
But in fact, when the final February revenue estimate update came in during the 2012 Legislature, tax revenue estimates were up 6.1 percent.
Historically, the group of economists that put together the estimates (made up of professions from the Legislative Office of Fiscal Analyst, the Governor’s Office of Budget and Planning, and a few outside, non-government experts) try to estimate on the conservative side.
It’s better to have some money left over, they figure, than to have to cut programs or scrape pots of one-time funds to make up the difference – for by law Utah must have a balanced budget at the end of each fiscal year, June 30.
In 2011 the tax collection estimates from the December estimates upon which the governor builds his budget recommendation to the February estimates the Legislature uses in the finally-adopted budget, rose by 1.0 percent.
2010, 2009 and 2008 actually saw revenue drops during those recession years.
2010 down 1.2 percent; 2009 down 5.1 percent and 2008 down 4.15 percent.
Over a two-year period, Utah lawmakers cut more than $1 billion from state budgets and poured in hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to make up the difference and reach balanced budgets.
2007 saw a 1.48 percent increase in revenue estimates from December to February.
And 2006 saw a 1.36 percent increase in the revenue estimates.
Last week Herbert and the projecting economists said tax collections for fiscal 2013-14 – the fiscal year whose budget the 2013 Legislature will set by the end of the general session in March – will be $300 million higher than lawmakers budgeted for at the end of the 2012 session.
That’s certainly good news.
However, just a week before the legislative bosses meeting in the Executive Appropriations Committee heard that there were $284 million in upcoming costs – including new public education student growth, building maintenance, jail inmate contracting, and expected costs in wildfire fighting, health department records hacking and Board of Education foul-ups in student growth predictions.
Still, if the recent trends found in the UtahPolicy tax revenue analysis hold up, when February rolls around that $300 million in tax revenue growth will be even higher.
As part of each general session’s budgeting, lawmakers also look at the current year’s budget and often spend any extra money accumulating there.
That’s called “one time” money because it is a surplus in the current year’s accounts.
Lawmakers don’t like to put “one time” money into ongoing programs – and in fact during the Great Recession they had to do that with Rainy Day Funds and have spent the last three years “buying out” one time funds with ongoing revenue.
That process is over with – now only ongoing tax revenue growth goes into expanding ongoing programs, like public school student growth.
Current estimates say there will be up to $100 million in one-time surpluses in the current budget year – 2012-2013.
But, again because Utah’s economy is steaming forward, that number will likely grow come the February 2013 revenue estimate updates.
Last year the economists estimated one-time surplus of 0.1 percent. But by February 2012 that rose to 1.5 percent in the General Fund and Education Fund, by far the state’s two largest operating funds.
What does all this mean politically?
Well, it will be much harder for some GOP state senators to convince Herbert and their GOP House colleagues to raise the state sales tax on unprepared food.
There’s a Senate plan afoot to raise the food tax from the current 1.75 percent level to 4.75 percent – the general state sales tax rate.
That’s a 171 percent increase. And even though the Senate plan would allow low-income Utahns to earn back the higher food tax via an income tax credit, many low-income folks don’t file state income tax returns now (because they owe no tax) and so wouldn’t know how or bother with filing a state return to get back some of the food sales tax they paid.
In any case, watch what the 2013 Legislature does with all this extra cash.
And see how fast the fiscally-conservative, GOP-controlled Legislature will let the state budget grow, even with problems in adequately funding public schools.