First of all, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau's report on the updated tax cut bill notes a few differences from the original. The biggest is that a proposed deposit of some of the excess revenues into the budget stabilization (or "rainy day") fund has now gone away. This was to alleviate concerns by some GOP Senators over the large structural deficit in the next budget, and the LFB notes that the current bill drops the structural deficit by around $175 million, to $658 million.
But this is largely a cosmetic change, as the rainy day fund is also lower than it would have been, and is less of an option to use in case of an economic downturn or other fiscal constraint. It also sets into law the $406 million in added tech college-related property tax relief, the expanded tax credits for businesses, and the lower income tax bracket. If circumstances change and a fiscal concern comes up, it requires more legislation to undo these changes, since there is no sunset to them.
And things may be getting tighter in the near future than we originally thought. I'll take you back to the original LFB revenue estimates from mid-January, and note what economic forecasts were saying at the time.
Real (inflation adjusted) GDP is now projected to grow 2.7% in 2014 and 3.2% in 2015. These estimates are similar to Global Insight's May, 2013, forecast, in which real GDP had been expected to increase by 2.8% and 3.2% in 2014 and 2015, respectively. But the early economic reports have been chilled in January and February. We saw retail sales slip badly, going down 0.4% in January. New auto sales were also down in January, while the LFB was predicting an increase in 2014, and housing starts were down 16% that month vs. January 2013.
More recently, we saw 4th Quarter 2013 GDP be revised down to 2.4% on Friday, meaning that we're also starting off from a lower level, and need to rise higher to make up the difference. Even what seemed to be good personal spending news from earlier today turned out not to be so good.
Spending rose 0.4 percent in January after a 0.1 percent gain in December the Commerce Department said Monday. The December figure was revised down from a 0.4 percent increase....And the January chill was reflected in the Wisconsin Department of Revenue's report for January, which showed income tax revenues were down 4.4% for January 2014 vs. January 2013. On its face, this may not be so worrying, as income taxes could drop 5.4% vs. 2013 through June and still live up the LFB's projections. But the problem is that this drop was before income tax refunds from the state started to be handed out, and those should be higher than they were last year. The reason is that the Koo-Koo tax cuts weren't withheld last year, even though they were technically law for the entire year, which means revenues drop further. Theoretically some of that will be spent and raise sales taxes, but given the huge increases in heating costs that Wisconsinites have had to take on, the tax refunds might not get spent out as much as originally thought.
The overall spending increase in January reflected a 0.8 percent jump in spending on services, the effect of higher heating bills. It was the biggest increase in spending on services since October 2001.
Spending on durable goods such as autos fell 0.3 percent. And spending on nondurable goods, covering things like clothing and food, dropped 0.7 percent.
"Spending looks great but is not," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. Without an 11.3 percent surge in spending on utility bills, Shepherdson said consumer spending would have been close to flat.
I'm not saying the sky is falling or that we're heading into recession- I don't think it's THAT bad. But it's also not as good as we thought in mid-January, and with that in mind, I'd recommend holding off on a number of these Walker tax cuts until we're convinced that things are back on track economically and that the extra costs resulting from this extraordinary winter can be covered. Sadly, I don't see that happening with this group of WisGOPs, and as a result it'll just be a matter of time before the state's General and Transportation Fund deficits hamstring Wisconsin's finances, and our economic potential.
Then again, hamstringing the state's fiscal flexibility might be what a lot of the WisGOPs and their funders want. Which is yet another reason to vote "NO" on this tax cut bill.