Dubious Deficit Discussions

Just how big is Pennsylvania’s structural deficit? And what does that term even mean?

Although some news outlets reported Gov. Wolf and legislative leaders came to an agreement on the size of the deficit, The PLS Reporter published a story to the contrary. The Wolf Administration continues to put the budget deficit at more than $2 billion while House and Senate Republicans say the budget shortfall is closer to $1 billion.

So who’s right? According to revenue estimates provided by the Independent Fiscal Office (IFO), Republicans have the edge in the deficit debate.

Projected Structural Budget Deficit (Totals in Millions)
2014-2015 2015-2016
IFO Revenue Projection $30,540 $30,722
Less Tax Refunds ($1,287) ($1,275)
Beginning Balance $81 $376
Prior Year Lapses $90 $0
Total Revenue Available $29,424 $29,823
IFO Projected Spending $29,048 $30,777
End Year Balance $376 ($954)
Sources: Independent Fiscal Office 2015 June Revenue Estimate; 2015-2016 Governor’s Executive Budget

Over the past few months, revenues have surged above the original estimates, making Pennsylvania’s short-term budget picture look less bleak.

But even this budget “deficit” assumes a $1.7 billion increase in spending. In fact, projected spending increases will cause deficits for at least the next five years. This is the “structural deficit” referred to above. However, for this year, lawmakers can balance the budget simply by slowing the growth in spending.

By keeping spending growth at or below the cap established by the Taxpayer Protection Act, or a $498 million spending increase in the next fiscal year, the state would be on target to end the fiscal year with a $277 million surplus.

2015-2016 Budget Outlook Under TPA (In Millions)
IFO Revenue Projection $30,722
Less Tax Refunds ($1,275)
Beginning Balance $376
Total Revenue Available $29,823
Spending Under TPA $29,546
End Balance $277

To be sure, addressing the state’s long-term structural budget problems requires tackling pension reform and controlling welfare costs. But balancing this year’s budget doesn’t require tax hikes.