Revenue forecast: A confirmation of failure

Iowans need a handle on what the budget surplus means, and what it doesn’t.

With new revenue information in hand, it is apparent that:

•   Large cuts to higher education were unnecessary
•   Continuing to short-change K-12 schools was needless
•   Concerns about large tax cuts were warranted.

During the 2018 session we saw legislators craft mid-year cuts and an FY2019 austerity budget behind closed doors. The effect will be the same as it has been for several years now: Iowa lawmakers won’t have much to work with when the 2019 legislative session convenes in January due to large tax cuts, leaving tight purse strings for education.

The October 2018 Revenue Estimating Conference (REC) projections show a $127 million surplus — up $95.6 million from what was expected for fiscal year 2018, which ended in June.[1] Many in the state are searching for factors they think contributed to the surplus. In reality, the discrepancy in expected and actual revenue is related to errors in forecasting. The REC used a slower rate of growth in calculating these projections after overestimating revenues for the past two fiscal years.

A significant factor contributing to the surplus is a state revenue boost caused by new federal tax cuts, especially for higher-income families. Iowa has a special state break for federal taxes paid. But because fewer federal taxes are being withheld, additional income is subjected to state tax.

Proponents of the state tax cuts seek to attribute the budget surplus to the cuts themselves. First, it is impossible to credit the budget surplus to the 2018 state tax cuts, most of which will not take full effect until 2019 and beyond.

Second, even the REC estimates do not predict continued growth at the FY18 levels. Iowa will have already given away the FY18 surplus before the beginning of the next legislative session, because tax cuts mean less revenue. The FY20 budget will be tight. This will steer the legislative discourse to hold down K-12 spending, to push higher-ed costs toward tuition and student debt, and to threaten needed services and institutions — as the administration is doing right now to the University of Iowa Labor Center.

Sustainable budgeting requires realistic forecasts and working to help all Iowans understand the impacts of budget and tax choices. It also means generating adequate revenue to pay for essential services such as education, health care and environmental quality, and helping to create opportunity for all.

[1] Iowa Department of Management, “Iowa budget closes with higher-than-expected revenue, $127 million surplus.” September 2018.

Natalie Veldhouse is a research associate for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. nveldhouse@iowapolicyproject.org

Author: iowapolicypoints

The Iowa Policy Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides research and analysis to engage Iowans in state policy decisions. We focus on tax and busget issues, the Iowa economy, and energy and environmental policy. By providing a foundation of fact-based, objective research and engaging the public in an informed discussion of policy alternatives, IPP advances effective, accountable and fair government.

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