(Updated 4:43 p.m.) The one thing the Office of Policy and Management, Office of Fiscal Analysis, and state Comptroller Kevin Lembo can agree on when it comes to the budget deficit is that the state of Connecticut is currently running one.
But just how large that deficit may be at the end of this fiscal year seems to be a topic for debate.
Lembo wrote Gov. Dannel P. Malloy today and pegged the deficit under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles at $95.7 million. Under the current modified cash basis of accounting the deficit is around $20.7 million.
Malloy’s Office of Policy and Management pegged the deficit at around $39.1 million under GAAP, and a $35.9 million surplus under the modified cash basis of accounting on Feb. 20. The Office of Fiscal Analysis followed up with its own report five days later reporting a $161 million deficit.
Lembo said his number differs from that of OPM because he believes the Earned Income Tax Credit is generating refunds about 20 percent above budget projections and estimates it will exceed expectations by $22 million.
Also spending through January over the past four years has represented 58 percent of that year’s total spending, so if the trend continues the additional $34.5 million the administration has promised to rescind will be a difficult number to reach.
“Spending pressures to support state services are growing,“ Lembo said in a press release. He noted that the “other expenses” category grew by more than 20 percent between December and January. “Based on these trends, caution prohibits the inclusion of the additional $34 million lapse into my estimate,” he added.
Malloy’s Budget Director Ben Barnes said Thursday that the only difference between his numbers and Lembo’s number is the $22 million in additional tax refunds. He said his office formally submitted their plan to reduce spending by about $35 million to the Appropriations Committee today.
“The differences are really pretty small,” Barnes said. “All it is, is a $22 million variance on revenue.”
He speculated that the retroactive income tax hike may have prompted more people to file their taxes earlier and if that’s the case “running ahead of history doesn’t mean anything.”
On the revenue side, Lembo said revenues are falling $94.7 million short of budget projections under GAAP accounting. Add in the additional $22 million in tax refunds under the EITC and the revenue shortfall could be as high as $116.7 million.
And while spending is $49.6 million below original budget projections, Lembo is uncertain the administration will be able to reach its goal of holding back $34.5 million. Barnes said their submission of the spending cuts to the Appropriations Committee should be proof they expect to realize those cuts, but he understands the comptroller uses historical data to put together his projections.
Lembo’s estimates do not trigger the need for Malloy to submit a deficit mitigation plan to the General Assembly because they are still well below fund appropriations.
But Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be planning for the worst case scenario.
“We now have both the Comptroller’s office and the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis disagreeing with the governor’s budget projections. Both are projecting deficits larger than the governor’s,” he said.
The window to deal with a deficit as big as the one OFA is projecting is closing and both the legislature and the governor should be putting together a plan and hoping that the deficit is less than projected, McKinney said.
“The deficit could be reversed if the economy improves,” Lembo wrote in his monthly letter to Malloy.
The Malloy administration maintains that it will end the fiscal year in the black, but time is running out to find the necessary savings. Until April 15th , the tax filing deadline, the state’s revenue projections will remain a guessing game.
The good news is that retail sales in January were running 6 percent above what they were last year, and wage and salary incomes were up 4.2 percent for the fourth quarter ending in December, Lembo said. Also the state added 9,000 payroll jobs, and unemployment dropped to 8.2 percent.
“Connecticut’s economy continues to show slow and erratic growth,” he wrote.