Budget Shortfall Highlights Legislative Distrust

Jan 29, 2016

Credit Sue Lincoln

The Senate Finance Committee met Thursday to get an update on the state budget crisis.

“It’s almost all minus signs,” Legislative Fiscal Analyst Greg Albrecht told lawmakers, with a sigh.

Senate Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur asked for details on how this happened, and Albrecht ran it down.

“We lost five years of oil price run-up in five months. We’ve had a weakening economy all through calendar year 2015. The employment growth rates have gotten slower and slower and slower, lower and lower and lower, and for three months now we’ve actually had absolute decline in total employment in this state,” Albrecht summarized.
“What other sectors see a decline?” LaFleur asked.

“The scariest one is corporate, because it’s still year-to-date through December a net negative total collection,” Albrecht replied.

In other words, businesses have collected more in state tax refunds than they have paid in. How much more?

“I’m going to say 500-plus million dollars,” Albrecht stated

Not sure he’d heard right, LaFleur asked, “Of checks that the state has written?”

“Correct.”

Some committee members didn’t want to believe it. Senator Jack Donahue, last year’s Finance Committee chair, appeared ready to play ostrich, since the Revenue Estimating Conference has yet to recognize the $750-million estimated shortfall for the current budget year.

“Right now, it doesn’t exist,” Donahue said.

Former House Appropriations chair – now Senator – Jim Fannin admitted he has a lack of confidence in the projected deficit.

“The numbers are not the same, and I don’t feel like it was accurate in what was presented at that time, versus what I’m seeing today – or what I heard in October. So, I’m wondering where the confidence level that I need to know that we’re short today,” Fannin said.

“Thank you, Sen. Fannin,” Chairman LaFleur responded. “I’ve accepted a lot of numbers over the last four or five years that never jelled out. If you remember we passed balanced budgets and just a matter of months later we were back over here for the same problem: the numbers were wrong.”

Then he added, “We’re probably just as much to blame for why we find ourselves here today than just about anybody, ‘cause we voted for those same measures that were presented to us.”