“Honest Brokers” and Revenue Estimates

Unlike the federal government, states can’t easily budget and spend more money than they take in revenue so revenue estimates play a much more important role in state budgeting than they do  in federal budgeting.  I don’t know how anyone can accurately forecast revenues when the revenue yields are based on negotiations, lawsuits or other non-economic variables but that seems to be the basis  of much of the disagreement among budget writers in New Hampshire. When a comparatively large percentage (compared to many other states) of your revenues are derived from a “Medicaid enhancement tax”  and “tobacco settlement”  money budget writing can become even more politicized than usual.

I don’t pretend to know what these non-traditional sources of revenue will yield in the coming years but I get a sense that those who do are fitting their forecasts to their meet their budgetary goals.  I  don’t think revenue forecasting is that difficult as long it is based on real economic data and trends and it minimizes the use of assumptions about changes in the performance of the economy.   I make forecasts with assumptions all the time but  minimizing their use  in revenue forecasts will mean that even if the forecast is wrong, it won’t appear as though the error resulted from a desire to “coax” a specific result from the forecast.   In January I presented my outlook to the NH House Committee on Ways Means.  At that time I said I thought revenue growth from major, “own-source” revenues would average about 2% each year of the biennium and that businesses tax revenue growth would be a bit higher, but with even modest economic improvement could average 5-6% annual growth.  Now, several months later, based on recent revenue performance, and making  no assumptions about significant changes in economic conditions, I see growth at about 3% in FY 2014 from the eight largest sources of general revenue, and just under 5% in 2015.  Those numbers don’t count the “non-traditional” revenue sources but I think they are important in reflecting the fundamental underlying growth in the state’s economy and a better assessment of  general revenue trends.

NH General revenue forecast

Clearing out some old boxes from my attic  I came across a number of old college tests and papers.  One was from a graduate school class on public finance where I argued that all federal budgeting and budgeting  debates should proceed from a common economic and revenue forecast.  I also found one from an undergraduate class on the philosophy of Marxism in which I wrote phrases like “man should never be a means to end but only an end in himself ” so clearly I was prone to a lot of bad and muddled thinking back then.  In the 1990’s I wrote a column in a publication arguing for a non-partisan revenue estimating committee in NH.  That was a pretty good idea  and it did happen – although my prompt had nothing to do with it –  and it was enacted largely absent the “non-partisan” aspect (or at least “unbiased”).  I still think a true, non-partisan, representative revenue estimating panel would be a good thing for NH, not to bind any actions but simply to serve as a baseline scenario that any policymakers who wishes to deviate from would have to offer solid reasons for doing so.  Some group in the budget debate has to serve as the “honest broker”  but the honest broker role won’t happen if the group is loved too much by some or hated too passionately by others.   The current estimating panel has some of the best and most qualified people I know to do revenue estimating .  It just doesn’t have the  credibility among many policymakers that it could have  if  no one loved or hated it too much, but instead almost everyone complained a little (or a lot) about  it.  It is too bad because we are still going to need an “honest broker” when the NH House and Senate begin negotiations on the next budget.

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