Joint Fiscal Office lowers budget gap projection to $46 million

first_imgby Anne Galloway vtdigger.org The state’s budget shortfall has been nearly cut in half, according to new information from the Joint Fiscal Office, the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal research arm.Steve Klein, the chief fiscal officer for JFO, told the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday that the budget gap, which had been pegged at $74.5 million in November in a consensus forecast with the Shumlin administration, had been revised downward to $46 million.Stephen Klein, chief fiscal officer of the Vermont Legislative Fiscal Office presents budget information to the House Ways and Means Committee. VTD/Josh LarkinKlein said Medicaid costs were $16 million less than expected and assumptions for the budget adjustment (the mid-year true up of the state budget) were $13 million lower than anticipated (in effect, base spending was flat in the first six months of the fiscal year, and the budget adjustment increase was zero).The number of Vermonters who use Medicaid services has declined, and utilization rates have also gone down, Klein told lawmakers. JFO estimated a 6 percent growth rate for the program.Officially, the gap forecast is still $74.5 million until the Shumlin administration confirms the numbers and agrees to consensus figures, Klein said. He called the new shortfall figure of $46 million a ‘placeholder number.’Contributing factors to the gap include:â ¢ $13.6 million use of one-time fundsâ ¢ $19.6 million related to a 1 percent increase in the Medicaid match rateâ ¢ $25 million in additional pension obligations and health care costs for retired teachers and state workersâ ¢ $7 million for technology infrastructure replacementâ ¢ $8 million in transfers, $6 million to the Education Fund and $2 million from reservesâ ¢ $4 million in rest area funding pressureâ ¢ $10 million for autism treatment costsKlein predicted that the governor would delay implementation of the ‘autism mandate,’ a requirement that the state pay for specialized services for young children with the developmental disability. The mandate is projected to cost about $10 million annually. If the postponement occurs, the budget gap projection would drop to $36 million, according to Klein.Klein explained that the budget shortfall projections are now calculated by JFO based on predicted total changes in expenditures rather than a straight percentage based on past budgeting. This shift caused a disconnect last fall between JFO and the administration when the two parties didn’t issue a consensus gap analysis because they had calculated the shortfall differently. JFO based its analysis on a 3.5 percent base increase; the Department of Finance and Management looked at projected pressures reported by departments in state government.The new shortfall number came to light as part of a list of financial issues Klein suggested that House Ways and Means put on its ‘menu’ for the session.The chief fiscal officer told lawmakers that projected revenues for fiscal year 2013 will be $41.6 million higher than the current fiscal year.The new revenue forecast will be presented to the Emergency Board on Jan. 18 ‘ the week after the governor’s budget address. Klein said Shumlin will seek language from the Legislature that will give him the flexibility to salt away unanticipated revenues in reserve funds.At this time, the state has $17 million in the Emergency Relief and Assistance Fund, which will be used to cover unanticipated Irene costs; $22 million in the Agency of Human Services caseload reserve fund, which is often used to buy down the state’s Medicaid match; $1.9 million in contingency money for federal cuts to programs; $3.88 million in a one-time setaside that kicks in when revenue forecasts exceed $10 million. The revenue shortfall reserve fund, a new ‘all-purpose’ vehicle for reserve monies funded by the Legislature in the last session, may be reupped this year. The state also has roughly $55 million in the budget stabilization fund.State officials say it’s crucial to have plenty of money available in reserve because of the uncertain economic environment and because Congress, in debt reduction mode, will likely reduce funding for state programs.Other details discussed by the committee included:*A possible sales tax for ‘cloud computing’ revenues;*A review of the cigarette tax, which has generated $2 million over the forecast, despite warnings from grocers and others that a 38 cent hike in the tax would depress sales and send Vermonters to New Hampshire to buy smokes;*A change in the trigger for the Amazon tax for online sales; Rep. Jeff Wilson said he’ll introduce a bill that would mirror an agreement between the giant Internet retailer and California officials that goes into effect in 2013;*December revenues from corporate earnings and business quarterly payments were lower than expected.The draft release of the Picus report on Vermont’s education finance system will be on Wednesday. A public hearing on the report will be held on Jan. 9 via remote interactive television; a final report will be issued on Jan. 18. www.vtdigger.org(link is external) January 4, 2012last_img