Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Slight uptick in revenues doesn't fix Wisconsin's budget mess

The long-awaited Wisconsin revenue figures for Fiscal Year 2014-15 were released today, and I’d categorize it as a lukewarm positive. Total revenues for the fiscal year were $71.4 million above the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s projections from January (or just under 0.5%), and as the Wisconsin State Journal’s Mark Sommerhauser points out, it’s almost entirely due to a strong showing in corporate taxes.
Greater-than-expected corporate tax revenues fueled the increase. It totaled slightly more than $1 billion -- about $69.9 million, or 7.5 percent, more than projected.

The corporate tax long has been among the state's most volatile revenue sources, making it difficult to project, according to fiscal bureau director Bob Lang. That's partly because the tax is collected on corporate profits -- not income, as is the case with individuals.
But despite what WisGOP spinmeisters might say, it appears the upside revenue growth has little to do with Walker/WisGOP policies, but instead is a reflection of a strong U.S. economy. This was illustrated in yesterday’s release of the Congressional Budget Office’s Update to the Budget and Economic Outlook, where the CBO said the federal deficit will be at its lowest levels since before the Great Recession, largely due to higher-than-expected revenues in this fiscal year.
Federal revenues are expected to climb by 8 percent in [Federal Fiscal Year] 2015, to $3.3 trillion, or 18.2 percent of GDP. Revenues from all major sources will rise, including individual income taxes (by 10 percent), corporate income taxes (by 8 percent), and payroll taxes (by 4 percent). Revenues from other sources are estimated to increase, on net, by 5 percent. The largest increase in that category derives from fees and fines, mostly as a result of provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Changes From the March Projections Receipts from individual and corporate income taxes have been greater than anticipated, which largely explains the $60 billion reduction in the projected deficit for 2015; revisions to CBO’s estimates of outlays had almost no net effect.
Which is why it is all the more interesting that Wisconsin’s income tax growth was relatively tepid, at 3.7% while the U.S. income tax revenues were up 10.4%. And even with the higher corporate tax receipts saving Wisconsin’s 2014-15 budget, that growth of 3.9% is still less than half of the 8.4% growth the U.S. Treasury saw in corporate taxes. So once again, seemingly positive Wisconsin economic numbers should be punctuated with two words “THANKS, OBAMA!”

(an earlier mention of an alleged deposit to the Rainy Day Fund has been removed, as noted in the comments. We continue)

In addition, remember that we were looking at a $283 million in-year deficit for ’14-’15 back in January, so let’s see what kind of difference has to be made up now. We’ll also use projections from Table 4 of Gov Walker’s Budget in Brief to update a couple of figures.

2014-15 adjustments since January
Projected balance -$283.4 million
Additional 2014-15 revenues +$71.4 million
Unbudgeted Potatwatomi Payments +$49.0 million
Reduced Comp Reserves to Employees +$98.1 million
New projected balance, 2014-15 -$64.9 million

Theoretically, there may be enough unspent money and/or skipped debt payments to make up that last $64.9 million. We will wait for the October 15 Annual Fiscal Report to see if that’s the case, or see how far in the red we were when this new budget started.

Also noteworthy is that once you remove the surprise increases in corporate tax revenues, the LFB estimates from January were basically bang-on.

2014-15 Final revenues vs LFB projections
Income tax – DOWN $24.2 million
Sales tax – UP $12.1 million
Cigarette tax – UP $13.0 million
Tobacco Products – UP $2.6 million
(Way to go smokers! Thanks for stocking up!)
Liquor, wine, beer – UP $1.2 million
Other taxes – DOWN $3.3 million

The income tax falling short should be a major concern, as that reflects the lack of jobs and wage increases (perhaps at the expense of higher corporate profits?). Because income tax makes up more than half of the state’s overall tax revenues, this puts us a bit further behind the 8-ball for this fiscal year. Walker’s budget already counted on income taxes going up by 6.7% in 2015-16 before this income tax shortfall, and now it has to go up 7.1% just to stay on track…or nearly twice the increase we had for this fiscal year.

So my topline conclusion from today’s revenue release is that we’re slightly better off than we could have been, mostly due to the Obama Recovery continuing through June 2015. But we are still in a ditch when it comes to paying for future needs, and if the recent dive in the stock market translates into economic weakness (or even a drop in collections due to write-offs of stock losses), a budget that already relies on $1.1 billion in lapses will have even more cuts and adjustments that will need to be made. And that is the last thing Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP want to deal with ahead of the 2016 primary and general elections.


  1. Jake,

    It is pretty odd that while Wisconsin media largely ignored the recently released job data a week ago, that the coverage for the arcane (and usually ignored) information about tax collections has been featured in major coverage in the MJS and the WSJ, as well as papers throughout the state. Additionally, the story was featured on almost every local evening TV news station in the state. This is unprecedented coverage for a story that, as you correctly point out, rates a "Meh" when considered from almost any knowledgeable perspective. There was considerable effort put into "pushing" this story into the media, and considering the extent of the coverage it had to be part of a full court press by the Walker Administration, the WMC, the MacIver Institute, etc., contacting local media editors and highlighting the importance of the "great" economic news. I can only think that it is part of a campaign to offset Trump's continual drum beat of the poor economic performance of the state under Walker.

    1. They really do seem to be running scared, don't they? It's like they know more bad things are coming down the pike and they have to try to build up some kind of good will.

      Maybe it's that WEDC hearing coming up in 2 weeks, along with Reed Hall''s resignation as CEO

  2. Fiscal Bureau Director Bob Lang issued an updated memo yesterday afternoon stating that due to 2013 Act 145, which suspended transfers to the rainy day fund during the 2013 - 2015 biennium, the entire $71.4 million will be deposited in the general fund.

    1. Yep, saw that myself, but was too tied up to add it today. So they only need to fill about $65 million to make the books balance, but there's less to tap in the Rainy Day Find when the budget inevitably hits deficit.